Echoes of Middle-earth in The Chronicles of Prydain
Lloyd Alexander uses many figures from Welsh mythology to give voice to some of the greatest characters in The Chronicles of Prydain series. Some are merely names he fleshed out to have lives in Prydain they did not have at first. Others he adapted and gave their own stories, whether similar or different than their first appearances. Among those he includes are Prince Gwydion, son of High King Math; Gurgi, who appears half-man, half-beast; the dread dark lord, Arawn, his underworld realm of Annuvin, and his magic cauldron; Adaon, son of the great bard, Taliesin, and Taliesin himself; the triple witches Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch; Coll and Dallben, Taran’s mentors and father figures; Fflewddur Fflam, the king who is happier as a would-be bard; and the intelligent pig Hen Wen.
There are also many parallels to The Lord of the Rings within Prydain. Gwydion reminds some people of Strider. He strikes me more akin to Gildor and at times Gandalf in admonishing Taran about Gurgi. Gurgi could be Sméagol’s twin (though fortunately not Gollum’s) and mirrors Sam in loyalty. Taran is akin to Frodo, who longs for adventure and becomes caught up in greater peril than he ever imagined.
Taran’s first call to adventure starts with a great disturbance among the animals. Coll charges him not to let Hen Wen out of his sight, but such terror takes hold of the pig, she flees into the forest. Taran gives chase but loses her. He gains instead sight of the dread Horned King and also meets the noble Gwydion, who thinks Hen Wen sensed the King and fled from him. Taran, Bilbo, and Frodo all fight to overcome their fear when adventure draws them from the safety of their peaceful lives. Among the young man’s companions, the fiery princess Eilonwy, Fflewddur the king-bard, and Gurgi,
Taran alone was uneasy. To him, the bright morning felt deceptively gentle; the golden trees seemed to cover dark shadows. He shuddered even in the warmth. His heart was troubled, too, as he watched his companions. In Caer Dallben, he had dreamed of being a hero. But dreaming, he had come to learn, was easy; and at Caer Dallben no lives depended on his judgement. He longed for Gwydion’s strength and guidance. His own strength, he feared, was not easy to his task. (Three 114)
The fellowship Taran forms with his friends is akin to the one the hobbits form. It extends even to the point of the young man not asking anyone to go with him, but then bowing to the wisdom of safety in numbers. Just as Frodo realizes Gandalf wisely chose Sam as his companion in adversity, Taran understands the same about his friends. “I thought I would be able to reach Caer Dathyl by myself. I see now that I wouldn’t have got even this far without help. It is a good destiny that brings me such brave companions” (Three 128).
Another parallel between Taran and Frodo is their relationship with Gurgi and Sméagol. Both have initial disgust, receive admonishment to treat him better, refuse to kill him, and overcome their first reaction to extend compassion and friendship.
Taran is brave, selfless, and sometimes Sam-like in hope. As he and his companions face the threat of a wolf attack, he shows all these qualities after Gurgi is seriously injured. “If they attack, we shall stand them off. . . . Gurgi was willing to give up his life for us; I can do less for him. Above all, we must not lose heart so close to the end of our journey” (Three 132).
Taran and company also find an unexpected friend, just as Elrond predicted the Nine Walkers would in their Quest to destroy the Ring. Medwyn saves the young man and his friends from the wolves and guides them to his hidden valley home. Similar to Frodo as he crosses the stream Nimrodel, Taran walks across lush grass and feels his exhaustion fall away. Akin to Gandalf who pities the slaves of Sauron, Medwyn feels sorrow for the once beautiful birds who the dark lord Arawn tortured to become his terrible and terrified servants, the gwythaints. As Sauron and Melkor seek to corrupt and enslave all beings, so does Arawn desire. Medwyn’s valley is a peaceful place like Rivendell with similar healing available to wounded bodies and spirits. Animals in Prydain know to come to this blessed valley if in deadly peril, grieved, or in pain.
Just as Frodo longs to stay in Rivendell, Taran desires to remain in Medwyn’s valley. But both hobbit and young man know they have a task to do, which they willingly accept and from which they will not turn aside. Taran makes Medwyn’s compassion for the gwythaints his own, after he and his companions come upon a young, wounded one. Taran refuses to let their dwarven guide, Doli, kill it, which is the only safe option, for such birds are normally vicious enemies. But like Bilbo’s and Frodo’s refusal to kill Gollum, who they know well intends them harm, Taran instead treats the bird’s injuries and carries it with him in a cage. The hobbits and Taran know their compassion could come back and bite them (in the case of the younger Baggins, literally!), but they do not act on ‘what if’s and ‘might be’s. They deal with their potential adversary in the concrete reality of the present, not an imagined future that may or may come about. In doing so, they not only save the life of their would-be enemy, they save their own.
Like Frodo at Minas Morgul, mesmerized by the terrible sight of the Witch-king, Taran comes close to the Horned King and his army:
The giant figure towered above the men-at arms, who galloped behind him. The curving antlers rose like eager claws. As Taran watched, terrified but unable to turn away, the Horned King’s head swung slowly in the direction of the heights. Taran pressed flat against the earth. Arawn’s champion, he was sure, could not see him; it was only a trick of his mind, a mirror of his own fear, but it seemed the Horned King’s eyes sought him out and thrust like daggers at his heart. (Three 193)
Here, Taran faces a bleak moment of despair at the sight of the great black mass of the Horned King’s army and thinks he is too late and a failure, just as Frodo does. Both feel they tarried too long on the way, but the time Taran spent caring for the wounded gwythaint is well spent for the moral growth that comes from it.
What happens in the immediate aftermath of the Horned King’s armies after his downfall is akin to the armies at the Black Gate after Sauron’s fall. Both run away in great fear.
Taran plays a critical role in the King’s defeat, but like Frodo, he does not wish any reward except to go home. Sadly, his kinship to the hobbit continues after he gets home. He confesses to Dallben, he feels himself a failure. He does not feel any of the good that came from his quest came from him. He did naught but make mistakes. His homecoming is bittersweet for he does not feel himself truly at home anymore.
Taran’s adventures, however, are far from over. Dallben calls a council which Gwydion heads to decide what to do with the continued threat of Arawn. Like the disparate people who come to the Council of Elrond, Fflewddur Fflam, Doli, and two kings from neighboring kingdoms arrive at Dallben’s. This gathering decides upon an action as audacious and seemingly foolish as Elrond’s. They will simply walk into Arawn’s domain with the bold goal to destroy the Black Cauldron where many of the dark lord’s forces come from. Gwydion calls Taran and the others to adventure and sends them on their way, after they freely choose to be sent.
Adaon accompanies them and becomes a mentor to Taran. His words about destiny are similar to Galadriel’s and Frodo’s recognition the path they must walk is already in front of them. “There is a destiny laid on us to do what we must do, though it is not always given to us to see it” (The Black Cauldron 71). Adaon’s brave acceptance of his destiny gives Taran the strength to embrace his.
Taran continues on his way after he is separated from Gwydion. Against what wisdom and sense would indicate, the young man and his companions elect to follow what the council decided and retrieve the Cauldron from Arawan’s kingdom. But they cannot destroy it. The weight of carrying it upon their shoulders is akin to the terrible weight of the Ring around Frodo’s neck. Taran stares into the face of despair at the seeming impossibility and futility of their task in dragging such a weight, but Sam-like, Eilonwy encourages him to continue.
Pity in Taran grows after he understands what eats away at the rude prince, Ellidyr, who makes an attempt on his life. Like Bilbo and Frodo’s pity for Gollum and Frodo’s for Saruman, this is something Taran gives wholeheartedly to his assailant. Ellidyr’s heroic and sacrificial death is in some ways similar to Gollum’s and in other ways the opposite. In both cases, the villain becomes the source through which the enemy’s treasure is destroyed, but Ellidyr makes this choice willingly, defeats the evil within him, and becomes a hero at the end.
At the end of this adventure, Taran has similar feelings to Merry who tells Haldir, he would have never left home if he knew more about the evil in the wider world. Taran receives similar counsel from Gwydion as Merry does from Haldir. Gwydion’s words about friendship also echo Merry’s own about the lengths he and his fellow conspirators will to go to protect Frodo:
‘It is strange’, [Taran] said at last. ‘I had longed to enter the world of men. Now I see it filled with sorrow, with cruelty and treachery, with those who would destroy all around them.’
‘Yet, enter it you must,’ Gwydion answered, ‘for it is a destiny laid on each of us. True, you have seen these things. But there are equal parts of love and joy. Think of Adaon and believe this.
‘Think, too, of your companions. Out of friendship for you, they would have given up all they given up all they valued; indeed, all they possessed.’ (Cauldron 177).
Echoes of Middle-earth continue in the third book, The Castle of Llyr. The first time Prince Ruhn holds Eilonwy’s bauble, it does not shine for him, but later on, it glows brighter as he grows braver, just as the light in the phial of Galadriel grows in accordance with the goodness and valor of the one who bears it.
Taran takes advantage of another opportunity for moral growth after the giant, Glew, makes it clear he wishes to kill either him or one of his companions. The young man shows mercy after the giant is knocked unconscious. He refuses to give into Fflewddur’s idea to kill their adversary. Here Taran echoes Frodo’s refusal of Sam’s desire to kill Gollum: “I know he tried to do us ill, but I still pity him the wretched creature and mean to ask Dallben if he can help him” (Lyr 117).
Eilonwy’s struggle against her evil mentor, Achren, is similar to Frodo’s torment on Amon Hen:
The girl swayed as if torn between mighty forces that stormed with her.
. . .
Eilonwy, Taran realized in a surge of hope, was struggling against all that held her. The anguished girl was beyond all threats of Achren, beyond all help from the companions.
Then suddenly, her lonely combat ended. (Lyr 155)
The fourth book, Taran Wanderer, provides more echoes. The poor couple who befriends Taran and Gurgi after they run afoul of Lord Goryon’s men in the woods are like to the unexpected allies Frodo and Sam encounter in Faramir and his Rangers.
The bone fragment Taran finds in a tree is the hiding place of the life of the dark wizard, Morda, akin to the Ring for Sauron. Both villains learn the folly of placing a great part of their power in an object outside themselves that can be destroyed. Morda’s attempt to sway Taran to his side with promises of great power recalls the Ring’s attempts to seduce and coerce Frodo. Reminiscent too is Morda’s name and his “baleful, unlidded gaze” (Wanderer 104) to the dark realm of Mordor and its lord. Balor of the Evil Eye of Celtic mythology, grandfather of the great Lugh of the Long Arm, also used such a gaze.
The jewel the Fair Folk gave to the House of Llyr, which holds such power and which Taran refuses, mirrors Faramir’s recognition and refusal of the Ring. Indeed, one can hear the Ranger’s voice as easily as Taran’s: “Its power is vast – too vast, perhaps, for any man to hold. Even if I could learn its secrets, I would not choose to do so. . . . Do you call me wise? At least I am wise enough to know I’ll never have wisdom enough to use it” (Wanderer 110).
Lyr and the fifth and final book, The High King, show the evil steward Magg is to a lesser degree like to Saruman. Both have sold themselves to darkness in hope of advancing into greater power.
Medwyn’s dire prediction of what will happen if all men and creatures do not do their utmost to defeat Arawn echoes what would have happened if the Free Peoples of Middle-earth did not rally to defeat Sauron:
The race of men face the slavery of Annuvin. So, too, the creatures of Prydain. In the shadow of the Land of the Dead, the nightingale’s song will choke and die. The galleries of badgers and moles will become prison houses. No beast, no bird, will roam or fly with the joy of a free heart. Those who are not slain – theirs will be the fate of the gwythaints, long ago made captive, tormented, broken, and their once-gentle spirits twisted to Arawn’s vile ends. (King 90).
These last words also sadly describe Frodo’s ordeal against the Ring and how it broke his will at last.
Taran’s perilous adventures and great deeds transform him. They deepen him and show to him his humble beginnings are where he belongs. He dreamt long to be a hero, but after passing through many dangers, he gains enough self-knowledge to admit he would be more at peace just as an Assistant Pig-Keeper. Still he does not hesitate to do what he must in the battle against evil, which shows another part of his kinship with hobbits. He tells Annlaw Clay-Shaper, “My way is not the warrior’s way; yet, if I do not bear my sword now, there will be no place in Prydain for the usefulness or beauty of any craftsman’s handiwork” (King 101). He also feels some of the sorrow the Ring-bearer did. “‘There are those,’ [Taliesin] said gently, ‘who must learn loss, despair, and grief. Of all paths to wisdom, this is the cruelest and longest’” (King 114). At the time Taliesin said this, he did not know if Taran would walk such a way of sorrow, but certainly the young man felt all of these things during his struggle to defeat Arawn.
The free peoples of Prydain and Middle-earth make similar desperate decisions to keep hope alive in the midst of despair. After the fall of Caer Dathyl, Gwydion recognizes there is no way they can win against Arawn’s Cauldron-Born warriors. Gandalf and Aragorn realize their strength in arms will not carry the day against Sauron. Nonetheless, these leaders all freely pledge themselves to storm the land of their enemy to do what they can.
The landscapes in this final book also echo Middle-earth. The Red Fallows are like the desolation before Mordor. The snowstorm Taran and his companions must endure is as bad as the one on Caradhras. Eilonwy’s and Gurgi’s hypothermia is worse than Frodo’s.
Taran faces a choice between evils about which path to follow akin to Frodo’s at the Black Gate. He trusts Doli, but the dwarf’s way may lead only to death after an apparently repentant Achren warns them of its dangers. Or should he take Achrenn’s way, which she says is the only possible way into Arawn’s dark realm of Annuivin? Taran’s uncertainty whether he can trust Achren, who was evil once and may still be, recalls Frodo’s uncertainty whether he can trust Sméagol. Another sign of Taran’s moral growth and discernment is he has the same response to his dilemma as Frodo does. They both decide to put their trust and their lives in the hands of one who was once an enemy and could still prove to be.
Taran’s heart is glad at the defeat of the Cauldron-Born, but the reason why attests once more to his great growth. “Yet I hate them no longer. It was not their wish to bend in slavery to another’s will. Now they are at peace” (King 221).
The fall of Arwan’s fortress is like to the fall of Barad-dûr.
With a twist to Frodo’s decision to go to the Undying Lands and leave his homeland and most all his beloved friends and kin, Taran refuses the gift to go to the Summer Country where many of his dearest companions go. There is too much left to do in Prydain. There is one beloved friend he does not lose, who like to Arwen, forsakes the immortality of the Summer Country to cleave to the one she loves. Like the humble Sam, gardener turned Mayor, Tarin, Assistant Pig-Keeper, becomes King and reigns benevolently over his own Shire, with his own Rose at his side.
Lloyd Alexander notes, “The chronicle of Prydain is a fantasy. Such things never happen in real life. Or do they? Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we can do. Our capabilities seldom match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart” (Author’s Note, Three). May we all embrace our own quests as fully and courageously as those in Prydain and Middle-earth did!
Alexander, Lloyd. The Book of Three. Usborne, 2004.
—. The Black Cauldron. Henry Holt, 2006.
—. The Castle of Llyr. Henry Holt, 2006.
—. Taran Wanderer. Henry Holt, 2006.
—. The High King. Henry Holt, 2006.
This is one of the papers I wrote for my Master’s Degree at Signum University.
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