I remember when I was little watching Disney’s The Black Cauldron. During it, I fell in love with Gurgi (as a character–don’t judge me) and was terrified of the Horned King’s army. Imagine my dismay when I finally read The Book of Three, quickly followed by The Black Cauldron and found that 1. Gurgi isn’t a cute little dog creature, and 2. The Horned King isn’t as creepy in the book as in the movie (although movie Horned King didn’t burn people alive in baskets as part of a pre-war macho exercise), and that movie Horned King was more a representation of Arawn.
With Disney picking up the rights to film the entire Chronicles of Prydain, I decided to buy the entire box set and start rereading them (and, honestly, I’m not sure why I never did finish the series. I think The Castle of Llyr was checked out at my school’s library, and at the time I was too shy to put anything on hold…and then I moved on to the next Harry Potter book). I must say, I am still in love with these books and am ashamed that I never did finish the series as a child/teen.
Before writing this review, I took a gander at the reviews on Goodreads. So many people there were complaining that The Book of Three is a rip-off of The Lord of the Rings. Um…excuse me? Just because there are some similar elements, and because both Tolkien and Lloyd Alexander were influenced by different legends, The Book of Three is a rip-off? Does LOTR have an oracle pig? Does The Book of Three have a One Power ring-ish thing that can spell doom to the entire world? Does LOTR have un-dead born out of the depths of a cauldron, marching with rictus smiles towards their prey, unkillable zombies before zombies were a thing? Does The Book of Three have Samwise Gamgee? Does LOTR have Eilonwy? I could make an entire series of blog posts about the similarities and differences between The Book of Three and The Lord of the Rings, arguing how they both stand on their own merits, for similar audiences (though targeting different age ranges), and that two fantasy stories, both arising from their authors’ love of the lore from lands they studied, can both exist without butting heads against each other. But I’m not going to. I’m just going to say this: you can love both The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Prydain without being a traitor to either one.
Ahem. Back to the review.
There is so much to love about The Book of Three. Each character is unique, with their own unique voices, traits, and flaws, and it is easy to fall in love with each one. Even Coll, who is on maybe three pages of the entire book, and Dallben, who is on even less, shine when they are on the page. As a woman, I especially appreciate Eilonwy, a spirited princess who doesn’t take any back talk (and maybe takes offense a little too often). In an age where authors were writing girls who were prim and proper, or with very small, surface character flaws, Lloyd Alexander wrote about a girl who was proactive, taking a dead king’s sword because it was the best in a barrow, trying to stop Cauldron Born without hesitation using a spell she learned while eavesdropping on her sorcerous aunt, who crawled through tunnels and helped Taran without looking for any sort of reward beyond having someone to talk to. The fact that she’s a princess is only revealed at the end, not because Eilonwy was hiding who she was, but because she didn’t consider it important.
The adventures, too, are dark, fun, full of misadventures and daring escapes. Each character–Taran, Eilonwy, Fllewddur Fflam, Gurgi, and Doli–is important to the heroes’ success. Without any one of them, they would have failed. And each one is full of courage and heart.
Finally, this is one of the earliest stories I can think of where the main character doesn’t have some grand destiny thrust upon him, but rather chooses to go warn the neighboring kingdom against the Horned King’s horde. There is a point at which Taran could stop, rest, and pass the mantle of responsibility on to someone else, but Taran chooses to continue. And who is Taran? Just and Assistant Pig-Keeper. He’s no Ring-Bearer, no Prince, no King. Just a boy who lost a friend, and who chose to go warn a kingdom in his friend’s stead.
“Is there a destiny laid on me that an Assistant Pig-Keeper should help me in my quest?” says Gwydion, a knight and a prince who would be the protagonist in any other story, “Or is it perhaps the other way around?”
Without Taran, Gwydion would have failed. And all because Taran chose to do the right thing time after time, even when it seemed like everything he did went wrong. And I think that, more than anything else, makes this story worth rereading.