The Chronicles of Prydain is comprised of five books: The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King. There is also a collection of short stories, The Foundling, which delves into some of the backstories of various characters. From the Author’s Notes Lloyd Alexander included prefacing each novel (which by the way are delightful in their own right), I’m not sure whether he really intended to write a series from the beginning, or whether he got as attached to the characters as his readers did and was drawn into writing more of their adventures. While The Book of Three and The Black Cauldron could easily be read as one-offs separate from any of the other books, the remaining books build upon each other, culminating in a truly grand finale in The High King. Personally, having first read the books spread out over a period of time, and just recently re-reading them in a huge lump as if they were one novel, I can attest that reading them all together and treating them as one story really is a more satisfying experience.
These books are children’s novels, and they actually read as such. The plots are simple, the lessons well-defined, and the tone almost like a fable. This last aspect is appropriate since Alexander was influenced by the Welsh collection of legends, The Mabinogion. In comparison to more contemporary children’s novels which tend towards more graphic violence and a sense of humor that verges more on sarcasm, Prydain focuses less on the blood and guts in its battles than the emotional aftermath of how someone’s death leaves a void in the lives of those who survive him, and its sense of humor is soft, clean, and good-natured.
This doesn’t mean that Prydain glosses over the more serious realities, however. Its main theme is the fight against evil to protect the innocent. The first two books in particular are almost moral stories, where Taran starts out with one conception of how the world works and by the end of the story events have taught him to understand these concepts in very different perspectives.
In The Book of Three, for example, Taran sets out after his runaway pig, the oracular Hen Wen, and soon gets tangled up in events that are much more dangerous than his dreams of heroism and adventure had prepared him for. He begins that story with a very specific idea of what constitutes heroism, but by the end of the book has a new sense of what being a hero actually means.
Similarly with The Black Cauldron, Taran is confronted not only with his own opinions, but also with others’ preconceptions of what gives an individual value or honor. Because of its status as a Newberry Honor book and the basis for a very loose animated adaptation by Disney (which by the way is not nearly as delightful as the book), this second installment is probably the most well-known to the general audience. I would also say that it, along with the climactic The High King, is probably the best of the series, striking the delicate balance between deep themes and high adventure. Also, the titular object and MacGuffin, the Black Cauldron—which turns the dead into zombie servants of Arawn, the Cauldron-Born—is an awesome (if terrifying) plot device.
The Castle of Llyr by contrast is almost episodic, and the climax hinges not on Taran’s character growth, but an inner struggle from the female protagonist, Eilonwy. Although she is the catalyst and climax of events, our heroine is not an active part of the narrative for the majority of this book, giving Taran plenty of time to allow absence to make his heart grow fonder.
The first time I read these books, I preferred The Castles of Llyr because of its adventure and romance, and thought the next book Taran Wanderer boring by comparison. In it, just like it says on the tin, Taran becomes a wanderer, on a meandering quest to find out the truth to his parentage and identity. Upon rereading, however, I appreciate Taran Wanderer much more, and feel it’s actually a deeper book than The Castle of Llyr because of how it deals with the universal struggle for identity. Another great thing about this installment is how it fleshes out Prydain’s landscape, making this world feel more vast and diverse and populated than the previous books.
All this world-building pays off in the conclusion, The High King, where all the characters and plot devices and places and themes all tie together in one final battle against the Death-Lord. This is the darkest book, even including The Black Cauldron, and it is also the most bitter-sweet in its ending. Yet it also holds the most epic and powerful moments in the entire series, with many heroic, cheer-worthy actions from Taran and his Companions.