The Black Cauldron


Lloyd Alexander


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

November 12, 2022

he Black Cauldron is the second book in the children's fantasy series of the Chronicles of Prydain. Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper and his loyal comrades once again embark on a dangerous quest. This time their mission is to find the Crochan - the vile, magical black cauldron that creates deathless, obedient warriors. The dark lord Arawn is casting the bodies of dead soldiers into the mouth of the cauldron; inside the magic cauldron, the dead men are reanimated and shamble forth to mindlessly do his evil bidding. The high druid Dallben has called all great kings of Prydain to Caer Dallben to devise a strategy to seize the Cochran from Arawn and destroy it before he can create an invincible army. Young Prince Ellidyr of Pen-Llarcau is one of the elites who arrives at Caer Dallben to attend the council - the haughty youth sneers at Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, and immediately enmity blooms between the two young men. Naturally, the two are fated to work together in the quest to retrieve and destroy the Crochan.

At the council, Dallben and the gathered kings debate what to do. The threat from Arawn is so grave that the most desperate measures are considered. It is decided that a team shall attempt to breach the defenses of Arawn's fortress at Annuvin and steal the Crochan out from the very heart of Arawn's kingdom. It is a perilous quest. Prince Ellidyr assures the council that he will succeed and be covered in glory, a suggestion which upsets Taran greatly, for he hopes to achieve greatness himself. Naturally, things don't go as planned.

There is a lot in The Black Cauldron about pride and the thirst for glory. Taran is more of a hot-head than I remembered. Like Ellidry, he longs to be recognized for heroic deeds. However, events reveal to Taran the cost of pride, and he matures and gains wisdom through the course of the book. I read the Chronicles of Prydain about 50 years ago, so there is much that I had forgotten. But the dramatic climax at the end of The Black Cauldron is the scene that I remembered most from all five books of the Chronicles. The Black Cauldron might be the darkest book in the series, with Taran and his companions facing dire tasks against powerful, remorseful enemies. The enchantresses in the Marshes of Morva are not nearly as sinister as I recalled. In my memory, The Black Cauldron was an epic quest but now it is a quick (but still enjoyable!) read of just 220 pages. I find Gurgi and Fflewddur to be more likeable characters the second time than I remembered from my first reading. I wish Alexander had written more lines for Princess Eilonwy, I find her voice amusing, especially her commentary on Taran's many missteps.

Is The Black Cauldron too intense for young readers? I don't think so, though some of the good characters die. I probably first read it around sixth grade, and though the evil Arawn employees some fearsome warriors, the blood and gore is kept to a minimum. In this book, the primary minions of Arawn are the fierce huntsmen - they work in teams, and if one of their members is slain, the surviving huntsmen absorb his life energy and become that much more powerful. There are ambushes and there is treachery, but there is also sacrifice for the greater good. It is a great story, the highlights of which I still remembered 50 years later. (The next book in the Chronicles of Prydain is The Castle of Llyr, and I have only the vaguest memory of what happens in that book. Which means it will seem like a brand new story when I read it next!)