The Mabinogion is a collection of several prose stories which were found in medieval Welsh manuscripts (written sometime around the 12th-13th centuries), but were actually based on an older oral tradition (although we’re still discussing exactly how old). It was first fully translated into English by Lady Charlotte Guest, scholar of Welsh language and literature, in the 19th century. Besides just being a very good read, this book would prove very influential in literary studies about the Arthurian mythos – and (more relevantly for this post) would also inspire the fantasy series The Chronicles of Prydain, written by American author Lloyd Alexander during the sixties (the first book was written in 1964, the fifth and last one in 1968).
The series details the struggles of protagonist Taran and his friends and occasional allies against Arawn Death-Lord (who is basically like Sauron in terms of narrative role: he’s often mentioned, but rarely seen directly) in the land of Prydain (funny factoid: that’s actually the Welsh word for “Britain”, and it’s no coincidence the author chose to use it, since the fictional Prydain is basically a fantasy version of Wales).
Once, Prydain was a prosperous land, but then the devious Arawn nearly conquered it. He was only stopped by the arrival of the Sons of Don (who are mostly regular humans – strong and very long-lived, but still mortal –, only they come from the Summer Country, a magical, far-away land), who united the people of Prydain in an alliance against the Death-Lord. Even after his defeat, Arawn still rules over Annuvin, the Land of Death, where he uses a powerful artifact, the Black Cauldron, to bring fighters back to life as the Cauldron-Born, immortal soldiers absolutely loyal to him. His forces are led by the Horned King, a mighty warrior empowered even further by Arawn’s magic. And so, Arawn’s forces and the armies of Prydain and the Sons of Don have been locked in this stalemate – somewhere between a cold war and all-out fighting – for a long time.
The Book of Three, opens, and Taran, ward of Dallben
(Prydain’s wisest and most powerful sorcerer, keeper of the titular Book of
Three), has to save Hen Wen, a white sow with prophetic powers, from
the Horned King, who fears she holds the knowledge of how to destroy
him. Taran, a reckless boy who is all too eager for adventure and
glory and deeply resents being nothing more than an Assistant
Pig-Keeper, plunges headlong into adventure, only to learn there’s a
lot more than he thought to being a hero.
Indeed, therein lies the beauty in Alexander’s work: for all that it seems like a standard high fantasy story at first glance, The Chronicles of Prydain is actually more like a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story. It still has several traditional heroic deeds in it – unmatched fighting prowess, unflinching courage in the face of certain death, wisdom, cunning and sorcery, and so on and so forth –, but the main focus is on Taran’s growth as a person, from a reckless boy to a brave and wise young man. Or, to put it another way: the point of the books is not to show Taran, a “mere” Assistant Pig-Keeper, becoming a hero by means of his powers or skills, but to show Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, becoming a truly noble person and then being a hero because of that (basically, the journey is the whole point, not the destination).
Although the focus is on Taran’s journey – he’s the only viewpoint character, for instance –, the novels don’t forget that there’s a whole world out there besides him. They take many of the same themes seen in his narrative and apply them to the setting and the story as a whole: good begets good, it takes hard work to truly achieve anything of real value, only fools and madmen care about glory, power should be used with responsibility, heroes can come from all walks of life… And loss is a part of life. Yes, despite being classified as children’s novels (or perhaps because of that, considering how so many children’s novels are actually more mature than many so-called adult ones), the series doesn’t flinch from showing the losses associated with the passage of childhood to adulthood, especially when the people involved are fighting a war. In a way, those losses are more poignant than in The Lord of the Rings, since they’re not only on a grand, world-changing scale, but also on a more personal level.
Finally, one other thing I’d like to talk about is the romance. You know how movies and TV series so often show the love interests constantly arguing and driving each other crazy and try to portray it as a way for them to sublimate their passions? Well, in this series, that actually works, but only because a) it’s believable for two children to act like children, and b) they’re not attracted to each other because of their arguments, they’re attracted to each other in spite of those, and once both grow up a little more, their personality traits which caused those arguments in the first place soften up or even go away entirely. There is a moment in the end when the woman has to make a personal sacrifice to remain with the guy, but it’s presented as her individual choice, without any implication that it’s only natural and to be expected since she’s a woman. Besides, it’s arguable how much of a sacrifice it really is, since the thing she gives up isn’t something she’s really interested in anymore. (Boy, it’s kind of annoying trying to talk about something while also avoiding spoilers!)
Overall… I love this series! Lloyd Alexander’s writing is wonderful, the characters and plot are engaging, and the themes explored are genuinely thought-provoking. Seriously, I don’t know if it’s still in print or not, but if you can, go buy it immediately!
Oh, yes, before I forget, there was an animated adaptation by Disney, titled The Black Cauldron. It’s sort of a black sheep among Disney’s animated movies – apparently, it flopped on its original release –, but I enjoy it quite a bit. As an adaptation (loosely based on the first two books), it’s not very good – poor Fflewdur Fflam in particular is an entirely different character! –, but when judged on its own, it’s actually a fun, solid movie (although the pacing is a bit slower than it should be) with an awesomely creepy villain. If you like animated movies, you should check it out.