The Black Cauldron continues the chronicles of Prydain, starting off quickly with a raid on Annuvin by Prince Gwydion and his vassals to steal Arawn’s cauldron that he uses to make Cauldron-Born, his unkillable undead servants. Surprisingly, the cauldron is missing and no one, including Arawn, knows where it is. During the retreat Taran’s party, consisting of the bard-leader Adaon, the arrogant prince Ellidyr, and the Fair-Folk guide Doli (who can now become invisible), are attacked by Arawn’s Hunstmen and take shelter in a Fair-Folk waystation where they learn the whereabouts of the cauldron. During their journey to the cauldron Adaon is killed, who bequeaths Taran his brooch. Taran discovers that the brooch gives him knowledge of nature and by this guidance they arrive at the hut of Orrwen, Orddu, and Orgoch in the marsh.

The three witches are apparently disinterested in the world, mere observers, who have reclaimed their cauldron after Arawn reneged on his (unstated) bargain.  Taran, who by this time has been joined by Eilonwy and Gurgi and deserted by Ellidyr, purchases the cauldron with the priceless brooch and departs the sad possessor of a cauldron he intends to destroy. He is intercepted by Ellidyr who extorts a promise that he would receive the honor of finding the cauldron and who then despoils Taran of the cauldron.  He and, eventually, Taran are intercepted by Gwydion’s main vassal, Morgan who has taken possession of the cauldron to become a second Arawn.  Ellidyr, who realizes the cost of his deception repays his debt by making the ultimate sacrifice to destroy the cauldron before Morgant can make use of it.

Like its predecessor, The Black Cauldron is a lively and intruiging tale but is much more focused. Having already introduced Prydain, Alexander can now limit himself to smaller portions of Prydain and the book feels more like a story and less like a tour. It fills out some details, exploring the cauldron in greater depth, although it leaves many questions about the cauldron, Arawn’s relationship to it (and the price he paid), and the nature of its owners unanswered. Perhaps more questions are raised than answered, which gives the book a greater depth.

The real purpose of the book is to advance its themes, again done in a masterful manner. The main theme, the nature of a hero, emodied in the dual plots of Taran’s sacrifice to do the right thing and in the tragic story of Ellidyr, who, like Taran, seeks to be a hero, but seeks it through honor instead of character. Ellidyr, the son of a once-wealthy noble family, seeks a name for himself and is perpetually frustrated with Taran, a mere Assistant Pig-Keeper, who is viewed as his equal by the adults, and who repeatedly is more successful than Ellidyr. It is Taran that finds the stone in Ellidyr’s horse’s hoof and it is Taran who recovers the cauldron, though Ellidyr deserted the party in a vain attempt to obtain the cauldron (and the glory of finding it) himself. Although Ellidyr at last sees his error, he is mortally wounded and can only purchase his honor by sacrificing his life for the destruction of the cauldron. Taran, by contrast, is given a brooch that bestows an understanding and prescience that would guarantee his seat in the hall of heroes. However, to be a hero he would forego the destruction of the cauldron, virtually ensuring that someone would take Arawn’s place. The sacrifice of the brooch and his heroic aspirations, for a cauldron he intends to destroy, is palpable and exacerbated by the discover that the cauldron requires a the death of a living person to destroy it. To ensure that the cauldron is destroyed Taran permits Ellidyr to extort the last thing his sacrifice bought: the honor of purchasing the cauldron and Taran is left with neither brooch, cauldron, nor honor.

The chill of sadness is more pronounced in this book, where everyone loses something. Taran sacrifices his opportunity to be a hero for the thankless task of ridding Prydain of a great evil. Ellidyr too late realizes his folly and pays dearly for it. Adaon, a true hero, dies while saving Taran’s life. The only winners are the three witches, who add one more treasure of Prydain to their collection. Surely evil is not destroyed without a cost, which is sadly taken from those who destroy it.
Review: 9
More focused than The Book of Three but not quite as jovial. In my opinion, this book is the best of the series by a slim margin due to its focus and poignant themes.

Character Notes

Learns that the life of a true hero involves painful sacrifice
Learns that honor come from character, not deeds
Orrwen, Orddu, Orgoch
Witches who will sell you your desire in exchange for giving up the opportunity to fulfill another desire

Magical Items

  • Adaon’s brooch (created by Menwy, first of the bards, it embodies love, knowledge, and truth). Makes the wearer more aware of nature, gives dreams that reveal the nature of other people, gives vague prescience (we must leave now, something bad is about to happen). Must be given willingly or its power is broken.
  • The Black Crochan: originally it could do make other (unmentioned but probably good) things besides making Cauldron-Born, but “Arawn has spoiled it for anything else, as you might imagine”. The Cauldron-Born are created by steeping the bodies in the cauldron. Can only be destroyed by someone willing entering it, knowing that they give their lives in exchange for its destruction.

Literary Notes

  • Fewer places and people are introduced which allows the themes to be presented with great depth and impact.
  • Unanswered questions make the deepest characters. In The Book of Three, Arawn is the most intruiging character, as little is known about him except that he is evil, power-hungry, has a cauldron, and has stolen many treasures of Prydain. Similarly Spiral Castle is intruiging because of the unknown history surrounding it. In The Black Cauldron, the witches are an extremely compelling set of characters. Not only are they mysterious but they present a perfect, painful choice, apparently a similar choice given to Arawn and Morgant, not just Taran. They are clearly important in the world as they have great power and knowledge, but one wonders what they do with their collection of priceless magical items.  And what other choices have been made in the past?
  • The language and wording used in the book are chosen so that their connotations invoke the values of the Welsh legends. The reader gets a total immersion effect not unlike that of superb movies or computer games.
  • The book is fairly suspensful, due, no doubt, to the constant tension of the characters’ goals being stymied at every turn.
  • Part of the richness of the book is the sacrifices that Taran must make—a distinct sacrifice of the self for the good of others. These sacrifices are clearly portrayed and Taran’s feelings explained.
  • The descriptions are brief but clearly convey the emotion intended (impression words bolded):
[The Cauldron] was squat and black, and half as tall as a man. It’s ugly mouth gaped wide enough to hold a human body. The rim of the cauldron was crooked and battered, its sides dented and scarred; on its lips and on the curve of its belly lay dark brown flecks and stains which Taran knew were not rust. A long, thick handle was braced by a heavy bar; two heavy rings, like the links of a great chain, were set in either side. Though of iron, the cauldron seemed alive, grim and brooding with ancient evil. The empty mouth caught the chill breeze and hushed muttering rose from the cauldron’s depths, like the lost voices of the tormented dead.
The description at the beginning evokes not so much emotion as a brief description that encompasses the chief characteristics (sort of like Japanese and Chinese paintings of plants and animals—a little detail allows the mind to fill in the rest):
Autumn had come too swiftly. In the northernmost realms of Prydain many trees were already leafless and among the branches clung the ragged shapes of empty nests. To the south, across the river Great Avren, the hills shielded Caer Dallben from the winds, but even here the little farm was drawing in on itself.
Some, however, are completely unbelievable as they tell but do not show:
“I, too” murmured Eilonwy. “It is full of death and suffering. I understand why Gwydion wants to destroy it. ... The Crochan must be destroyed as soon as possible.