Our journey through The Chronicles of Prydain continues! It stumbled a bit, review-wise, but I have found my feet again! And thanks to a bit of forgetfulness when it came to splitting the reading (whoops) this book is getting a complete review instead of a two-parter.
But I thoroughly enjoyed it! Let’s talk about it. (Spoilers follow.)
We’re on the fourth volume of this series now, and I’m still a little amazed by the fact that Taran Wanderer gave me so much of what I spent the last three books wanting to see, all at once. There’s no Eilonwy in sight – she’s only mentioned in relation to Taran’s feelings about her. (The author still manages to work both Gurgi, Fflewddur and King Smoit into this story, though.)
But! This is about Taran’s Noble Quest (or, Taran’s Quest For Nobility?), which begins because Taran is pining for Eilonwy but wants to be someone who’s worthy of a princess, and so goes in search of the truth about his origins. Our boy hero secretly hopes to find out that he’s of noble birth, but as his quest goes on it becomes clearer that this is going to be less about finding fortune and status and more about finding himself. Growing up, and learning some things that matter much more than any accident of birth, noble or otherwise. To that end, his journey across Prydain brings him into the lives of some interesting people with skills to teach him and wisdom to share. And, because this is still an epic adventure, after all, some less pleasant people who are not into sharing, but still teach him a thing or two…
Gurgi also comes into his own here, as the Samwise Gamgee to Taran’s Frodo. The heartfelt loyalty he brings often seems to go hand in hand with comic relief, and this is no exception. I’ve taken to Gurgi far more completely than just about any other character, I think. He needs the biggest hug imaginable, a lot of the time. Plus a bath and a comb, but mostly the hug – both on account of how sweet he is, and in thanks for the belly laughs.
“Gurgi does not care for famous sheep or fleecy bards”
Same, Gurgi. Same.
But this is about Taran, and I admit when I realised what sort of story this was going to be, I was worried it would end up irritating me, as Taran was wont to do up to this point in the series. He’s shown the potential for growing out of childish or selfish viewpoints, and in some ways he has had to grow up fast, but until now his progress was slow. An inch at a time, and it felt like it came in fits and starts. This book throws him in at the deep end, at last, and the fact that he sets out on his quest with a particular hope for it in mind, however vague and self-serving, was no surprise to me.
Nor was it a surprise when he doesn’t find what he thought his heart desired, in the end. He finds out much more about himself than he’d bargained for, and perhaps it isn’t what he thought he wanted, but the painful process of growing up and figuring one’s self out is one that I’d have to be much more cold-hearted than I am not to be affected by, and my irritation with him soon gave way to warmer, fuzzier feelings. It certainly didn’t hurt to see him form a bond with King Smoit who, upon hearing of Taran’s quest, admits to him that in his heart he’d like nothing more than to have someone he could love like a son, having no actual sons of his own, and that he would gladly welcome Taran in that regard.
Careful with my heart-strings there, Smoit, they are very delicate you know.
But though he’s grateful, Taran has A Quest and must see it through (yes, I facepalmed here), and so he lets Smoit down gently. Oblivious much, Taran?
But onward he must go, and I found a lot to facepalm over and be a bit glib about, if I’m being entirely honest, but to his credit Lloyd Alexander goes into far more depth when it comes to Taran’s character than he ever has. There are still those irritating moments, but there’s also still moments of lightheartedness that I realise are also a mark of his writing style, as much as either the Epic Fantasy Quest checklist of tropes or the subtle little subversions of them.
As far as those subversions go, with the absence of Eilonwy they are also largely absent this time around, but I found that I minded less given the extra time spent knocking Taran into shape, young adulthood-wise. Eilonwy might not be able to marry a commoner, lad, but I’m pretty sure she’d rather not marry a whiny young man-child with shallow perceptions either.
I can’t say it, enough, really: I am endlessly glad Taran went on this quest, even if he didn’t find what he thought he wanted in the end. He found the truth he needed, and that will always be more valuable. He also had a good few of those aforementioned shallow perceptions and beliefs challenged along the way, which brings me to a moment from his first encounter – this one being with the witches in the Marshes of Morva.
“I believe you know my quest from its beginning to its end, and that I seek to learn my parentage.”
“Parentage?” said Orddu. “Nothing easier. Choose any parents you please. Since none of you has ever known each other, what difference can it possibly make – to them or to you? Believe what you like. You’ll be surprised how comforting it is.”
That last couple of lines is so on the money, in light of what follows for Taran – his time with Craddoc, and Taran’s struggle with what he believes the truth of his birth to be. He believes what Craddoc tells him about their relationship, but at the same time he’s clinging to what he believes he really wants, in his heart – and the bitterness resulting from that struggle, need versus want, is too real. There’s the comfort Taran takes in finding a loving home, however bare and humble the state of that home is, versus the comforting fantasy he still nurses about being someone “better”. Someone noble and heroic and strong. Someone truly gifted, to his mind, which is ironic given that everyone he meets who might fit that definition is also pretty deeply flawed in some way.
THE LESSONS HEREIN, TARAN. LEARN THEM. Some gifts might be humble to your eyes, but that doesn’t mean they’re worth less. They may be difficult to obtain, but that only makes their value greater. Nothing worth having is easy, as the saying goes.
But this time he does learn. And so this book is by far my favourite of the series, even if Eilonwy isn’t around to puncture Taran’s ego for him. But I have actual hope that this time, the puncturing will stick. And, if my eternally romantic self is being totally honest, that it will pay off for him if/when he sees Eilonwy again…
I guess we’ll see what the final book in the series brings.