I was surprised when walking through Costco Sunday with the family to see that Disney has released a 25th-anniversary edition of The Black Cauldron. This morning I realized that even the Wall Street Journal took note of the event. I did not see this movie when it was originally released, but I rented it earlier this year and watched it with the kids, who thought it was great.
I, on the other hand, was disappointed with it because it so clearly failed to measure up to its source material, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series. If you have young children or are yourself a kid at heart, consider reading this series which derives so much from the Western tradition.
Lloyd Alexander based his series on Welsh folklore and mythology. For example, several of his characters, such as Arawn the death-lord, are loosely borrowed from the Mabinogion, one of the most important collections of Welsh tales. Prydain, the name of the land in which the stories take place, is itself the Welsh word for “Britain.” The stories also have a dose of Arthurian flavor; characters speak of (and eventually go to) a mythical land to the west called “the Summer Country,” corresponding to the Avalon of Arthurian legend. Last but certainly not least, there are explicit Biblical references as well. For example, in The Book of Three, the characters are led by a pig into a hidden valley discoverable only by animals. In this valley lives an ancient man who is a clear analogue to Noah; the remains of his ark are still visible on the slopes of the nearby mountain.
Against this backdrop of classical and Christian references, Alexander tells exciting stories of adventure, friendship, and self-sacrifice. The protagonist, a boy named Taran, is a humble Assistant Pig-Keeper who serves the centuries-old wizard Dallben. Taran dreams of adventure, but when it actually comes knocking at his door, he finds he is unprepared for it.
Nevertheless, throughout the books he struggles with his pride even as he attempts to prove himself to the people he admires. His maturation throughout the series provides an outstanding Christian example to young people (especially to boys): he stops trying to take credit for the good things and to shift blame for the bad things, and he becomes more genuinely interested in helping others. By the end of the fifth book, he gives up his fondest dream out of a sense of duty and is rewarded in ways he never thought possible.
I read and reread these books when I was a kid, but never knew anyone else who had read them, so my enjoyment of them was always very private. However, I’ve recently found that several of my acquaintances are also familiar with and appreciative of the series; I think all of my graduate students this semester have read them, in fact. I still have my original copies of the five books and go back and look at them every few years. They are well worn and probably will not survive the first of my children who reads them, so I am thankful the series is still in print. I hope my kids enjoy the books as much as I have over the years and take the same lessons from them. If you have never visited Prydain, there’s no time like the present!