I remember ordering this book from Scholastic or Troll, one of the elementary book clubs. Oddly, it sat on my book shelf for a couple of years before I read it. The same thing happened with THE DARK IS RISING. Why remains a mystery to this day.
After I got my first computer (a Tandy 1000 EX) and the game BLACK CAULDRON, I realized that the villain on the cover of this fantasy book was the same Horned King as in BLACK CAULDRON. Then I read it. At some point in this story, I had gotten my hands on a graphic novelization of the Disney movie. Though the movie combined the first two Prydain novels, it was very different from the book I had just read, but that’s a tale for another time.
(Seeing how old this book series is, I don’t feel the need to mark this review as spoilers, but plot elements will be talked about. While I will not worry about spoilers, neither will I summarize the entire work.)
Prydain is a coming-of-age tale (technical term Bildungsroman) where the character’s growth, both physical and emotional, plays a central role. I believe our age needs one. This postmodern age goes from fad to fad with people not maturing emotionally. I am often shocked to see people in their 40s acting like they are still in their teens.
THE BOOK OF THREE opens with Taran of Caer Dallben working with Coll the gardener to make horseshoes. Taran dreams of being more than what he is, a foundling of unknown parentage. He imagine that his parents were royal or nobles. From the very beginning, we know what Taran wants—to be important. He longs for a reputation and to be famous.
He talks Coll into teaching him sword play. Immediately thereafter, we are introduced to Dallben, the enchanter who owns the land and Hen Wen, the pig Taran takes care of. Dallben is surprised when Taran takes responsibility Coll’s wasting time to teach him sword play. This is Dallben’s first clue that Taran is already growing up. Taran still has a long way to go as he touches the Book of Three without permission. This tome holds all knowledge of the past, present, and future.
As Taran has complained that he has no title, Coll gives the lad one–Assistant Pig Keeper. Taran’s view of this title as the series progresses mirrors his emotional growth. At first, he hates it. By the end of the series, he is content to be called nothing more (however, he will be called more).
The book introduces us to all of the main companions of the series. In his travels to protect Hen Wen from the men of Arawn Death Lord (the villain of the series who spends very little time on screen in any book of the series. His desire to take over the realm serves as the catalyst behind the scenes.), Along the way, Taran meets Prince Gwydion of the House of Don, Princess Eilonwy, Fflewddur Fflam, and Gurgi. The villain only appears in this book of the series as Prince Gwydion kills him.
Taran learns several important lessons in the book, but the one that comes up most often is that one cannot judge another person’s character based on looks. The first time this comes up explicitly when Taran first meets Gwydion. The boy has trouble at first seeing past the simple attire and worn face. Gwydion tells him, for Taran is still at a stage where he needs the lesson stated, “It is not the trappings that make the prince, nor, indeed, the sword that makes the warrior.”
Taran also expresses shock that Coll the gardener was once a warrior. “Coll?” he exclaims, “A hero? But… he’s so… bald.” Gwydion replies that he doesn’t think the length of one’s hair indicates anything about one’s mettle.
The lesson comes up again and again in the book. Gurgi looks like a monster but is kind and gentle hearted within. Fflewddur Fflam looks like nothing more than a half-crazed bard but is really a king and the most loyal ally one can gain. Eilonwy sounds like a flighty teen-aged girl but she is a budding enchantress. This lesson will come in handy in later books.
On the other hand, the Horned King is as foul beneath as he looks on the surface. A merciless warrior who embraced evil and uses human sacrifice to call upon more from the powers beyond. Arawn’s mindless minions, the cauldron born, are foul to look upon and evil. However, lest one think that the book has all villains being as evil within as without, the evil Queen Achren is fair to look upon but a monster beneath.
It can be very easy to look upon someone and assume the cover tells you all you need to know about the book. This is a shallow way to look at things.
There’s another important theme in here. A theme that stretches across the book. There is a destiny laid on every one of us. The people of Prydain know their station in life is the same as that of their parents’ and grandparents’. Moving up the social ladder is almost unheard of. Gwydion believes that his destiny is to lead the people of Prydain, and he seeks to fulfill that. He also believes that smaller destinies are laid on him in pursuit of that goal.
So, too, does an assistant pig keeper have a destiny. And it is his search for his identity and thus his destiny that shapes the series and the lessons he learns.