Chronicles of Prydain
by Lloyd Alexander
“Taran wanted to make a sword; but Coll, charged with the practical side of his education, decided on horseshoes” (Alexander, 9).
This is another one (like The Blue Sword) that I’ve read before. This one’ll be a little different, as I focus on what stood out to me. Or maybe that’s what I do anyway.
First, I do love this book series (the Prydain Chronicles). When I saw the covers while going through boxes for my eventual goal of moving, I was so viscerally reminded of the stories it blew my mind.
There was also a lot of descriptors that really stood out to me. And the reason they did was because of their correlation to my Dreams, in tone and/or visual imagery.
One early description in the story that resonated very strongly was:
“The stranger had the shaggy, gray-streaked hair of a wolf. His eyes were deep-set, flecked with green. Sun and wind had leathered his broad face, burnt it dark and grained it with fine lines” (24).
For some reason when I first read this, I assumed Gwydion (for that’s who it is, which I knew immediately in my re-read) was in his 30s. I hadn’t thought that the reference to “gray-streaked” had anything to do with his age. I thought he was just a grown man in comparison to Taran. To wit, I pictured him as a grown man with grayish hair.
Now I know people can get gray or white hair early, but I think Gwydion is supposed to be old enough to have started getting gray hair, like in his late 40s and 50s. So, I was off by a decade or so.
But what’s great about my misinterpretation is that it gave me one of my most singularly visual characters in my Dreams and my writing. There the character with “gray-streaked” hair is probably in his 20s when it becomes noticeable. The reason? Magic.
And considering Gwydion’s trick with his net of grass:
“With a quick gesture, Gwydion thrust a hand into his jacket and pulled out the net of grass. Suddenly the withered wisps grew larger, longer, shimmering and crackling, nearly blinding Taran with streaks of liquid flame” (54).
And his later statement as a result of what he endured while everyone thought he was dead:
“‘In Oeth-Anoeth, time is not as you know it here… The worst [tortures] were not of the body but of the spirit, and of these the most painful was despair. Yet, even in my deepest anguish, I clung to hope. For there is this about Oeth-Aneoth: if a man withstand it, even death will give up its secrets to him. I withstood it,’ Gwydion said quietly, ‘and at the end much was revealed to me which had been clouded. Of this, too, I shall not speak. It is enough for you to know that I understand the workings of life and death, of laughter and tears, endings and beginnings. I saw the truth of the world, and knew that no chains could hold me'” (215-5).
It’s curious for me to wonder if Gwydion’s magic as linked with life and nature had any consequence on my Dreams. I’m not entirely sure it did, at least not in a literal way, since the magic in my Dreams is called the Great Magic (cliché and bland, I know, but I was twelve so…).
Anyway, in my Dreams, this Great Magic was connected to certain symbols that were supposed to evoke a whole range of power. It wasn’t exactly nature based or transformation based or light based. It was more like raw life energy. That’s the best way I can explain it.
This gray haired character also had some influence from a certain scorcerer, though not in personality, history, or appearance. Instead, the influence came from a certain episode and a certain gauntlet. (Although, I don’t remember said character ever using the gauntlet but I do feel there was some connection).
But back to The Book of Three.
Fitting with my strong reaction at seeing the covers, I also had a very vivid sense of place. I really saw the scenery and characters while I read it. Like extremely vividly which isn’t always common for me.
Now, as regards plot…
First, I felt Taran’s personality shift seemed a little quick. At first he was reckless with a strong desire to show off his potential to be a hero. But then, after Achren’s Spiral Castle crumbles and he believes that Gwydion has died, he suddenly becomes de-facto leader.
Although, I suppose having someone you respect and admire die because of your incorrect assumptions (i.e. assuming the other prisoner in the dungeons was Gwydion when it wasn’t) would have an impact on someone.
Second, his obdurate opinion on what a great hero would be like (great heroes shouldn’t be bald, for example) and his personal drive of “I want to be a great hero” felt a little overly male cliched. So his entire goal at the beginning made me roll my eyes a little.
But I appreciate that Gwydion (and the aftermath of his journey) do seem to teach Taran that heroes are not people in dazzling armor or of any special bearing. They’re not taller or mightier; it’s more a manner of behavior and wisdom. Some of this becomes more apparent as the series evolves, especially in the last two books.
Third, for some reason, I couldn’t understand why Taran took it on himself to warn the sons of Don about the Horned King’s approach now that Gwydion was dead. I mean, I kind of understood that someone had to warn them and, after Gwydion, Taran probably had the closest idea as to what kind of threat the Horned King was. Still.
It felt like he had know Gwydion for a few days and suddenly, it’s all “I have to carry on his wishes.” It shows a good sense of duty, I suppose. And at the very least, he had to do something or his home at Caer Dallben would be in danger, too. So, yeah, it makes sense. I just wasn’t sure why Gwydion’s goal outweighed his own of finding Hen Wen, the oracular pig.
Fourth, the conclusion was a little anti-climatic. Like the Horned King just melts apart. It felt rushed. To wit:
“A voice rang out behind the Horned King. Through eyes blurred with pain, Taran glimpsed a tall figure against the trees, and heard a shouted word he could not distinguish.
The Horned King stood motionless. his arm upraised. Lightning played about his sword. The giant flamed like a burning tree. The stag horns turned to crimson streaks, the skull mask ran like molten iron. A roar of pain and rage rose from the Antlered King’s throat” (205).
It’s only typing up this in full that I finally realized that Gwydion was the one who shouted the word that defeated the Horned King. And then that’s it. That’s the end of the Horned King.
And finally, Gwydion’s sudden knowledge (see “In Oeth-Anoeth” quote above) bothered me because it felt like a quick, easy explanation as to why he’s smarter and wiser and why he isn’t actually dead.
On a more positive note, I loved the characters. Or rather I still love them. Especially Elionwy and Fflewuddur.
I was quite impressed too at how admirably I knew the plot for not having read it since I was young. I could predict most of what happened. Like when Elionwy promised to help free Taran’s friend I knew she was going to free Fflewddur. Yep.
Overall, I love it. It’s not perfect, but it was such a powerful, visceral experience, not only in the story itself but the tonal impact it must have had on me in the early-ish development of my Dreams.
Also I’m not reading them all right now, and maybe not even in immediate order. I will see how I feel. May skip The Black Cauldron.
source edited for better definitions
- none (or there probably were some but I wasn’t making note of them)
Elionwy: “‘Besides, I’m not sure I’m going to help you any more at all, after the way you’ve behaved; and calling me those horrid names, that’s like putting caterpillars in somebody’s hair’” (97).
Alexander, Lloyd. The Book of Three. New York, NY: Bantam Doubleday Dell Books, 1964. Print.