One of the best things about The Chronicles of Prydain are the characters. Each is written with such care and obvious affection on the part of Lloyd Alexander, and each is very different from each other so that their interactions are dynamic and interesting no matter what the circumstance. There’s Gwydion, a warrior Prince of Don who is always compared to a shaggy gray wolf. There’s Achren, the beautiful but wicked and perhaps ancient enchantress and former queen of Prydain itself. There’s Dallben, an enchanter who is supposedly wise but spends most of his time either napping or cranky because someone woke him from a nap (although there is one extremely awesome chapter in The High King where he blew these preconceptions of mine out of the water). There’s Coll, a great warrior who just wants to get back to tending the turnips in his garden. There’s Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, three mysterious women who can appear as hags or beautiful women and perhaps represent the Fates, who are both horrifying and hilarious in their kindly attempts to turn the heroes into toads (or worse….Orgoch’s habit of licking her chops tips us off that she’s the grim reaper one).
Then there are characters like the good-natured but cotton-headed Prince Rhun, the philosopher-potter Annlaw Clay-Shaper, the resourceful family man Llonio, the pessimistic and hyperchondriac
watchman Gwystyl, the giant music-loving cat Llyan, the obnoxious former giant
Glew, the very convincing villain Dorath, the sarcastic messenger-crow Kaw, Medwyn the animal-lover and possible Welsh interpretation of Noah, and the boisterous King Smoit. I
haven’t even mentioned them all, but you get the idea of what a colorful cast
of characters peoples the fair land of Prydain.
But most importantly there are our heroes, the Companions:
Taran is the protagonist of all the books, and with the exception of The High King the narrative follows his actions and the readers see things from his perspective. An Assistant Pig-Keeper, Taran is in charge of the white oracular pig, Hen Wen. But at the beginning of his saga, Taran is discontented with his life on the farm at Caer Dallben. He wants to be a warrior like his hero Gwydion. And so, although his going into the forbidden forest is by accident (Hen Wen runs away and he follows her), he is initially delighted to be caught up in an adventure and to meet his hero. At the outset, Taran is kind of a whiny brat and not very likeable. As the books continue, however, the reader is pleasantly rewarded for their patience with this flawed protagonist, as his character grows and matures into a much more admirable person. An orphan ignorant of his own parentage and position in the world, Taran struggles a great deal with his identity, often feeling jealous of others or overly defensive of his own pride. But his simple upbringing also gives Taran the ability to see worth in others no matter their station in life, and throughout the books shows qualities of loyalty and leadership that only get sharpened and honed with time.
A foil for his serious, intense personality is the Princess Eilonwy of the Red-Gold Hair. Last of a long line of enchantresses from the island of Llyr, Eilonwy was kidnapped by the evil enchantress Achren and held in her secret-tunnel-honeycombed Spiral Castle. Despite this dark upbringing Eilonwy is extremely cheerful, imaginative, and most of all verbose. She particularly likes comparisons with similes, which against the backdrop of battlefields and wastelands is like a breath of fresh air after one has been crawling around in secret tunnels for hours.
Following Taran throughout all of his adventures is faithful Gurgi. Initially an adversary who wants to eat Taran, Gurgi is not quite animal, not quite human, and never quite described in concrete terms. I’ve personally never been satisfied with any of the illustrations offered as to his appearance, which often make him too monkey-ish to match my imagined appearance of him. Much like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Gurgi has a different way of speaking, and is very concerned with having enough munchings and crunchings and keeping from having his poor tender head hurt with smashings and crashings. Unlike Gollum, though, Gurgi is brave and selfless and true, which he will definitely mention…in the third person, of course.
Another Companion is Fflewddur Fflam, a king related to the Sons of Don who mostly leaves his realm to its own devices as he wanders around as an aspiring bard. He has three trademarks:
1. His spiky blond hair,
2. His habit of saying “A Fflam is [insert positive characteristic], but [insert reason why such a characteristic is going too far in a specific circumstance],” and most of all
3. His harp. It’s not just any harp, mind you, but one that the Chief Bard Taliesin himself gifted Fflewddur, and which has the magical—if somewhat unfortunate—ability to break its strings whenever Fflewddur attempts to, ah, shall we say…stretch the truth.
It struck me as humorous, this time I read the books, that Fflewddur also has a recurring aversion to magic and enchantments. Any magic item, whether it be Cauldron or fingerbone or even golden bauble, he warns against, saying it’s best to steer clear of enchantments. All the while, of course, he’s walking around with a magic harp strapped to his back! A Fflam is complicated, but that's just plain ironic!
Good ol’ Doli is a dwarf and one of the Fair Folk. All of the “fairy” characters in Prydain are pessimistic and cranky, and Doli is one of the best of the Fair Folk. Originally upset that he can’t turn invisible (he keeps holding his breath and turning red with anger and lack of oxygen when he sees that others can still see him), he gets even more aggravated when he finally achieves the ability…and he finds out that being invisible makes his ears buzz as if a bunch of hornets built a nest in his brain cavity. What’s even worse, now that he can go invisible he’s the first person the other Companions turn to whenever someone needs to do any reconnaissance. Not that that ever stopped them before he could turn invisible. Have a hard or dangerous or impossible job that no one else wants to do? Call good ol’ Doli, he’s the one for the job! Hmph!
It’s a tie between Fflewddur and Gurgi as to which is my favorite character, by the way. Just in case you were wondering. Gurgi is very loveable and the sort of person—or creature?—I would like to have as a best friend. He also has an insatiable desire for and appreciation of wisdom which is not only endearing but also admirable. On the other hand, Fflewddur has hidden depths of coolness which are only hinted at by other characters such as Gwydion, and then there’s one Crowning Moment of Awesome and Heartbreaking in The High King that actually brought tears to my eyes it was so touching!