Lloyd Chudley Alexander was stationed in Wales during the Second World War. He was inspired by the country’s scenery and castles, as well as the Welsh mythology of the Mabinogion. He took names and ideas from Welsh mythology, mixing them with a more contemporary American perspective. He was already established as an author with books like Time Cat, but he’s perhaps best-known for the land of Prydain, and the adventures of Taran, Gurgi, Eilonwy, and the exaggerating bard Fflewddur Fflam.
I’ve recently read these stories to my 11-year-old daughter. She needed some persuading to tackle them together, and reluctant until a female character showed up. But by the end of the series she was hooked. Here are the five chronicles, ranked.
#5 The Castle of Llyr
The third book in the Prydain Chronicles is the most inconsequential – it introduces a handful of minor characters, but otherwise there’s little development of the overall story arc. The plot is largely centred around Eilonwy, but she’s barely in the story. It has less of an epic sweep than the other books in the series – most of the action takes place over a few days on the Isle of Mona. As a result, much of the book is given to a series of low-stakes escapades.
#4 The Book of Three
The weaknesses of the opening book of the series are basically that…it’s the opening book of the series. The books in the series are relatively short, and much of The Book of Three introducing places, characters, and concepts like Huntsmen and Cauldron-Born. As a result, there’s not as much room for plot as usual, even though Taran’s at his most flawed and, therefore, more interesting here, rash and impetuous. The book is named for the mystical tome owned by Taran’s guardian Dallben, which deals with the past, the present, and the future.
#3 The Black Cauldron
The second book of the series ups the stakes considerably – several of Taran’s allies don’t survive the quest, and it’s generally darker in tone. The three enchantresses – Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch – are among the most fascinating of Alexander’s creations, existing outside of time or morals. The book provided the title for a spectacularly unsuccessful Disney adaptation of the first two novels – Alexander later stated “I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book.”
#2 Taran Wanderer
Taran Wanderer is the most unconventional book in the Prydain Chronicles. There’s no evil plot to overcome – instead Taran journeys around Prydain, finding his identity. The book wasn’t originally conceived as part of the series – it was created when Alexander’s editor suggested that there was something missing. Taran’s time in the Free Commots, where he apprentices as a swordsmith, a weaver, and potter, are particularly memorable. I didn’t realise until I was writing this article that Taran’s experiences somewhat mirrored Alexander’s own – according to Wikipedia “desperate for a job, he worked as a potter’s apprentice for his sister….he lost his job after three months, requiring his wife to take up employment in a textile mill to make ends meet.”
#1 The High King
The final book in the series is an impressive feat – not least for the way in which it manages to include almost every significant character into the storyline without feeling contrived. Along with The Black Cauldron, it’s the darkest entry in the series, and the body count is much higher, with Alexander killing off more beloved characters than you’d expect. The High King was awarded the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children’s literature in 1969.
Did I underrate your favourite chronicle of Prydain?