The Book of Three

October 19, 2011

It’s been a while since I posted anything, but I’m sure all my current readers are aware how much busier I tend to be during the school year than the summer.  Since my parents came to town, I’ve been either showing them around South Carolina or laboring at the University thereof.

I want to get right back into things by talking about a full-length novel:  The Book of Three, the first volume of The Chronicles of Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander, an American who fell in love with the landscape and folklore of Wales while he was stationed there during the Second World War.  Although the short fiction I’ve talked about previously was all available for free via the World-Wide Web, this book is not.  However, I am pretty sure that everyone who actually follows this blog has already read Alexander’s magnum opus.

Of course, these are children’s books, but they are innovative and highly influential fantasy nonetheless.  The scope is, in many respects, as epic as in novels written for somewhat older readers.

My opinion of The Book of Three specifically shifts with time.  It is generally agreed that the second and fifth books of the five-book series—The Black Cauldron and The High King—are significantly better than the others.  However, having recently read the whole cycle with my daughter, I decided that (this time through, at least), the opening volume was the third best.

One major reason that my opinion of The Book of Three varies so much, from one reading to the next, is that the book is quite different from the others.  There’s much more magic about, and this makes the whole atmosphere of Prydain feel different.  Both Gwydion and Eilonwy cast magical spells in the first book, something the prince of Don never does again and the princess of Llyr never again of her own volition.  When Gwydion later resists the tortures of an evil enchantress, he gains the power to smash aside the walls of his prison and then to speak with animals.  Another mighty castle, once the seat of Prydain’s kings, is thrown down into flinders by a massive explosion when the holy sword that lay immured beneath it is stolen.  In fact, much of the book reads like a (rather action-packed) travelogue, as the main characters visit the evil queen’s doomed castle, the valley where Medwyn lives and which only animals may ordinarily enter, the underground realm of the Fair Folk, and finally the golden castle of the Sons of Don.  In a way, the reader is introduced to all the wonders of the land, side by side with the protagonists.  But when they revisit that same land in their later adventures, it often seems much less magical, and the magic they do encounter is less awesome, sometimes even tawdry.

Of course, it’s no surprise that there are differences in tone from one book to the next.  It’s common in children’s fiction series, especially ones with a lot of warfare and adventure, for the tone to get darker, as the readers (and often the characters) grow older and more mature.  However, that certainly does not happen in The Chronicles of Prydain.  In keeping with The Book of Three‘s rather different tone, the first volume includes the single more disturbing incident of the entire series.  Although the age of the young hero, Taran of Caer Dalben, is never given (nor is anything ever said that might yield a clue about the main character’s appearance; Alexander evidently made his hero a complete cipher, so that young readers could imagine him however they wished), he seems to be in his early to middle teens, when he witnesses the Horned King, war leader to Arawn, Death Lord, engaged in a rite of human sacrifice.  I still remember that scene, with captured villagers being burned alive in baskets, from when I was five years old.

Perhaps what I like most about The Book of Three is how the events in it set the stage for others that occur later in the series.  I believe that, in general, serial works of fiction come out a lot better when the creator knows what’s going to happen from the very beginning.  (Take, by way of examples, George Lucas and J. K. Rowling.  Timing and internal evidence show that each of them had three real stories planned out by the time they got seriously to work, and those first three installments, all remarkably innovative, were incredibly well received.  However, each of them then faced the challenge of producing more, having set, without seemingly good reason, the total length of the series without understanding what would fill the rest of it.  And the rest of it was, in both cases, bad.  There were occasional moments of brilliance, but at least as much was simply execrable.)  It’s quite clear to a reader who knows how The High King will end, that Alexander is already setting the stage for it in the series’s chapter.  Rather than study blacksmithing, Taran want to learn swordplay, and the aging farmer Coll, getting a strange look in his eye, agrees to spar with the boy.  Based on what we later learn of Coll’s nature, and how little regard he has for his own earlier career as a warrior, this easily forgotten episode seems oddly out of character—unless the reader knows that Coll is one of only three people who are aware that Taran, if all goes well, will one day earn the crown of Prydain for himself.

In the end, Taran proves his valor by drawing Dyrnwyn, the black-stained flaming sword, and destroying Arawn’s undead minions, the Cauldron Born.  But already in The Book of Three, after Eilonwy find the sword, she translates the remains of an inscription on it as:  “Dyrnwyn/ Draw Drynwyn only thou of royal blood… death.”  The last word, “death,” comes after a long section of damaged text, and is easy for the reader to forget.  But that Alexander put it there meant that he already knew that the fate of the wielder would be to slay the Death Lord and his dead army.  Moreover, as Eilonwy rightly points out, what she translated from the mystical runes as “royal blood” doesn’t simply mean being descended from kings.  Gwydion later says “noble worth” would be a better translation, and most readers seem to take that as definitive.  But it was only on my most recent reading that I finally grasped what the inscription really meant.  Eilonwy was right, for royalty was a key element, but there was no simple two-word translation of the ancient language into English (or whatever they actually speak in Prydain).  “Draw Drynwyn only thou who shall be the rightful and worthy king,” it reads.  And the only two people who do draw the black sword, through the entire length of the series, are Taran and Gwydion—each of whom is, in his own time, a heroic high king of Prydain.

It’s remarkable how much effective foreshadowing there is in The Book of Three.  Definitely, there’s a lot to like in these books, even for an adult reader.  As time permits, I will try to post my comments on the later volumes as well.


5 Responses to “The Book of Three”

  1. That’s an interesting thought about the translation of the Dyrnwyn inscription, but I have a couple of questions:

    Didn’t Eilonwy also draw the sword? I think in the first book, since it added to Taran’s envy that she and Gwydion could use the sword but he could not. On further investigation, it looks like I am mistaken, but it is seems strange for Taran to be ashamed that the only he sees who can draw it is Gwydion.

    How about King Rhitta? He was certainly king the whole time he had the blade, though the translation might need a bit of tailoring to accommodate the nature of his downfall.

    Ultimately, Dallben’s take on the sword seems to be the final word, though I suppose that isn’t anything particular to do with the literal translation.

    • Buzz Says:

      Taran doesn’t evince any real shame about Gwydion being able to wield Dyrnwyn while he himself cannot. Very early on, I think he suggests that the sword inappropriate for Eilonwy, but he never covets it for its magic. He expects to get a magic sword of his own in the second book, but that’s just because of his naivety and heroic pretensions.

      And King Rhitta is discontinuity as far as I’m concerned. (That’s true of most of the short stories about Prydain, actually. Most of them seemed to have been written to address minor questions that were never answered in the main series, and generally they don’t do a good job. Some, like “Coll and his White Pig,” which was published as a picture book at the same time as The Black Cauldron, were clearly written for even younger children. Others, like the tales of Rhitta and Angharad, are basically inconsistent with what he had previously written. Only “The Smith, The Weaver, and The Harper” really adds much to the mythos.)

  2. First of all, this post very much needs a GIANT SPOILER ALERT FOR THE NEXT FOUR BOOKS…and a journal cut.

    Second, the Rhitta story may be apocryphal, but I think it sits reasonably well with the earlier material. When Rhitta was a young kind, he could draw the sword. When he became more violent and base, it became difficult, until he could no longer draw it at all without violent consequences. …Okay, it probably actually doesn’t work much with the other material. I don’t see that as an origin story for Drnwyn consonant with the original, or making sense of the fact that the sword is holding up spiral castle. I did try.

    Third: immured is a good word.

    I agree, regarding the scope and ambition of this series, which surpasses that of many adult fantasy series, and whose execution is better, though, frankly, the final four books could have used more of the magical feel of the first book. They’re disappointing, in that regard.

    And, yes, while the material in The Book of Three is (I remember) somewhat uneven, the image of burning human sacrifices is very effective at creating atmosphere, characterizing the enemy, and raising the stakes. I also think you’re getting at something in your analysis of the best translation of that section of Drnwyn’s script, though I’m not sure you’ve phrased it best here.

    Didn’t you have some further comment about the Cauldron Born in this book, that they seem to have greater autonomy, here, or something like that?

    • Buzz Says:

      Yes, Alexander also seemed to have revised his view of the Cauldron Born after the first book. In the The Book of Three, the two undead warriors that show up are rather different from the later books’ versions. They have the appearance of death, certainly, but they are not the same stupid zombies that destroy Caer Dathyl. They can ride horses; they take the lead in battle; and they are effective trackers.

      I suspect that Alexander decided the make the Cauldron Born more conventionally zombie-like because he didn’t want them to have anything that might seem to resemble personalities. That avoids a moral problem. If they were slaves to Arawn’s will, yet still possessing thinking minds, their eventual death at Taran’s hand wouldn’t be very fair. Yet there was still a need for Arawn to have dangerous and wily minions, so the author created a second kind of elite mook, the Huntsmen of Annuvin. I think this was a good move. He was careful to make the Huntsmen willing servants of the Death Lord—sadistic hunter-killers toward which the reader is not inclined to feel any pity.

      [Since I wrote this post, my father called me to talk, and he brought up The Book of Three. (I don’t know if Unfrozen Cave Bear Lawyer has met my father, but I believe my other commenters have.) He’d been reading the book to my little sister, but she thought it was too scary and asked him to stop. He was surprised, but I reminded him that the first book was actually the scariest. It turned out that they hadn’t even made it to the human sacrifice scene; in fact, he had completely forgotten about it.]

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