The first of the five books in the Chronicles of Prydain, The Book of Three introduces the headstrong Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper. Evil is afoot, as Arawn, malevalent Lord of Annuvin, is bent on conquering Prydain through his champion the Horned King. When his charge, the prophetic pig Hen-Wen, realizes the Horned King is after her and runs away Taran, rashly follows (despite orders to the contrary). He meets his hero, Prince Gwydion, son of the ruler of Prydain and both of them quickly end up in a dungeon in Spiral Castle. Here Taran meets the loquacious Eilonwy, who was sent to Spiral Castle to learn to be an enchantress. Eilonwy rescues him and Fflewddur Fflam, an errant king turned bard, but not before she and Taran discover the grave room of the builder of Spiral Castle, purloin his weapon, and initiate the destruction of the castle. The group bumbles around for the rest of the book, accidentally discovering Medwyn—the Welsh Noah, meeting King Eiddileg of the Fair Folk—the dwarven and elven kingdom that provides Nature’s music, and recovering and losing Hen-Wen, who tells Gwydion how to destroy the Horned King.

As The Book of Three is a children’s book, adult readers will find the book to be amusing and intruiging but somewhat one dimensional. The characters are quite unique and generally rather funny but have only one aspect to their personality. Similarly, the plot serves to introduce as many legendary Welsh figures as possible in a shotgun-style but is quite entertaining. The book is ultimately a vehicle for Alexander to deliver his themes in a Welsh setting. As the biography mentions, he had written adult novels for a decade but found writing for children “the most creative and liberating experience of my life. In books for young people, I was able to express my own deepest feelings far more than I could do in writing for adults.” It is easy to see why—adults expect more subtlety than children.

The themes are well developed and are not irrelevent, even for adult readers.  The main theme of the book discusses the nature of a hero, where we see Taran develop from a impetuous lad who yearns to have adventures so that he can be like the heroes of the land, not couped up in a small farm tending a pig (even if she is a prophetic and important pig). He quickly discovers that heroes are not in the appearance— they often dress less than splendidly, spend much of their time doing less than glorious activities, and have less than bold choices. Instead, heroes are made by their character—courage when necessary but not rash action, making tough decisions with the inadequate wisdom and knowledge alloted to them. By the end of the book Taran echoes the sentiment of many a real public figure, wishing for the peacefulness of the farm.

Along the way a second, not unimportant, sub-theme is introduced. Like his actions, Taran’s views of people and things are rather one-dimensional—and he is introduced to the greyness of reality. All creatures are capable of good or evil and we should respect and nurture them all (until they have revealed their choice). The gwythaint chick that Taran befriends shows that although the race have been forced to become servants of Arawn, they are not inherently evil. Similarly, Gurgi, a boorish unkempt self-conscious ape-like human-like creature, whom Taran is initially annoyed with proves to be an indispensible member of the party and not the initial frustration he seemed.

Although Prydain is a fantasy land, it draws from the Welsh legends and is not the typical Tolkien or Dungeon and Dragons fantasy land. It is instead focused much more on living life well than on individual accomplishments.  Although magical items are prevalent among the powerful (i.e. the characters) they are to be treasured and wisely used, not accumulated. Most striking is the chill that pervades the society. Along with the good will inevitably be the bad—evil is not vanquished, merely checked for the moment. It is reminiscent of the Eastern “life is pain” attitude, in contrast to the usual sunny utopian fantasy.
Review: 9
Memorable characters, intruiging societal outlook on life, well-executed themes

Character analysis

Rash, very black and white viewpoint, both of which mellow out.
Very practical and principled. Talks a lot.  Slightly feministic—I can do anything you can.
King who became a (undistinguished) bard. Embellishes (lies) frequently. Eventually returns to being a king.
Self-conscious humanoid creature. Wants to be respected.
Seeks power over others.
The true hero. Has learned the proper use of action and inaction. Can be relied on to solve the problem.
King Eiddelig
Ruler of the Fair Folk. Complains that no one appreciate him.
Wise enchanter. Can be relied on to know the answer.
One-time warrior, is now in charge of the farm (Caer Dallben)
Loves and is loved by animals. Inhabits a valley forbidden to Men until they become less self-seeking

Magical Items

  • (Eilonwy)  Bauble: provides golden light
  • (Fflewddur)  Harp: breaks its strings when he lies
  • (Eilonwy/Gwydion)  The Sword Dyrnwyn: Sword from the grave of Spiral Castle. Unknown power but will kill the unworthy person who unsheathes it via flame. Eilonwy prevents Taran from using it on principle (he’s not obviously worthy) and who eventually tries anyway.
  • (Arawn)  Cauldron: Revives dead bodies, turning them into Cauldron-born, unkillable, unthinking, unemotional slaves.
  • (Dallben)  Book of Three: Unknown value but goodness knows what information isn’t in it.

Literary Notes

  • Children’s literature is much more direct than adult novels. The characters have only one major characteristic, the plot is less developed (little detail, no subplots), the themes hit you over the head.
  • A palpable sensation of evil and fear is created around Annuvin and Arawn since the characters generally express an unspecific fear occasionally tempered with truly horrible details.
  • The Cauldron adds character to zombie making. It hints at a magical process, gives them a name (Cauldron-Born), and stresses how they are worse than dead (animated but without joy).
  • Personifying the sounds of Nature into the Fair Folk is interesting.  Having them go unappreciated is, of course, the perfect sentiment—how many of us truly appreciate Nature?
  • The description of Spiral Castle makes one hunger for more by giving brief glimpses of a history—an unexplained, complex, labyrinth; an undiscovered burial site at the heart of the castle; the association with evil (Achren/Arawn).
  • Like LeGuin, associates a true name with power over that person (although it is only used with the Horned King)
  • The themes (even though they are blunt) make the story more than just a good story.