The Book of Three by Lloyd Alexander. Read by James Langton.
The Chronicles of Prydain were one of my favorites growing up. I read and reread our paperback copies with their bright, folk-art inspired covers. I found the zombie-like Cauldron Born terrifying as a child, so I asked my son if he thought the books might be too scary. When I told him about deathless zombies and people being burned alive (in passing), he started panting and said the book sounded great. I should stop listening to it just for myself and only listen with him.
As the book opens, our young hero, Taran, is bored of his life at peaceful Caer Dallben. Taran and Coll manage the farm, while the ancient Dallben handles the important but tiring work of meditating. When Taran says that he wants to be something, Coll gives him the title of Assistant Pig-Keeper, in charge of their oracular pig, Hen-Wen. Then the usually peaceful Hen-Wen runs away, and Taran dashes off into the forest to catch her. She was running from the approaching army of the Horned King, who goes about with a horned skull mask and a red cape. (The Horned King is featured on most of the more recent book covers, and I think makes it look like just a boy book, though it isn’t really just for boys and the Horned King, while important, has only brief appearances in the book.) He is the war leader for the evil Arawn, Lord of Annuvin, Land of the Dead, making a bid for world domination. Taran, naturally, manages to miss Hen-Wen and catch the army. After being sliced with a sword, he wakes up as he’s being cared for by a man with rough, sturdy clothes and a very nice sword. He’s Gwydion, Prince of Don, in this first book startlingly similar to Aragorn. Gwydion was also in search of Hen-Wen, and because of the danger of sending Taran back through the forest alone, ends up taking Taran with him, closely followed by the furry creature Gurgi. Only, of course, until they are captured by the evil sorceress Queen Achren and Taran is thrown into her dungeon. He and the other prisoner are rescued by the impetuous and talkative Eilonwy of the red-gold hair. Not knowing what has happened to Gwydion, Taran, Eilonwy, Gurgi, and the bard Ffleuder Fflam set off together, now partly to find Hen Wen but mostly to warn the Sons of Don of the approaching armies, which they’ve seen gathering along their way, and which are not coincidentally also blocking their way to the castle of the Sons of Don. It manages to be funny, serious and high action, all packed into a book that’s very short by modern standards – only four CDs.
The characters are all very brightly drawn. I loved them as a child, but found them cartoonish and flat as an older teen. Now, as an adult – yes, they are drawing on archetypes, one could even say stereotypes. But they are also, especially Taran, given the opportunity to grow. I love Ffleuder Fflam, the bard, of course, who has some wisdom to share with Taran but more often provides a sense of humor as his magical harp (HARP!!) breaks a string or two when he embroiders the truth, as he so often does. Gurgi – is just odd. He’s not sure himself whether he’s a monster or a cuddly and lovable sidekick. Together, Ffleuder and Gurgi make sure that the book is nearly always funny despite the near-constant life-threatening danger. Eilonwy and Taran’s relationship feels like it suffers a bit from the book having been written in the 1960s. Eilonwy quite definitely wants to be part of the action, and she is brave, assertive, and in charge of herself. But she’s also a chatterbox and reacts with old-style girl attitude of the “you have offended me and I won’t speak to you until you figure out what you did wrong” type, which I find very frustrating, as does Taran, who at least thinks he wants her to be the kind of girl who sits quietly at home and takes orders from boys. He, of course, is such an idiot at first, that he makes mistakes that, while believable, made even my seven-year-old cringe. Slowly, over the course of five books, he learns, but even by the end of this first book, he’s learned that actions are more important than looks in a hero, and to appreciate peace.
All of the books are filled with references to Welsh mythology. Alexander isn’t quite retelling the legends, but many characters are taken from the legends and reformed. I think I was in high school when I read The Mabinogi, and it’s fun to go back with more knowledge of the source. James Langton did an excellent job as reader, with voices for all the characters, most with Welsh accents. His Gurgi sounded more like Chewbacca than the small creature I’d imagined, but I don’t think the text really makes it clear one way or the other. My son and I very much enjoyed listening to this, and are now working on the next book in the series, The Black Cauldron.