• William Stark

The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander: Sacrifice and selflessness

Second book in the Chronicles of Prydain


Overall rating: 9.5/10


Plot: 9/10

Quality of writing: 9/10

Characters: 10/10

Concerning content (language, violence, etc.): small

Difficulty: 3/10

Age level: 8 and up

Summary

Taran, along with his friends and allies, returns in the second book of Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, as they set out together to find and destroy the Black Crochan, the magical cauldron that Arawn Death-Lord uses to create his deathless warriors, the Cauldron-Born. However, as conflicts develop between members of the group and new information about the Crochan surfaces, it begins to seem that their quest may be more difficult than they had imagined…


While The Black Cauldron retains all of the positive attributes of the previous book in the series (The Book of Three), it expands its range of topics to include more complex thematic elements (sacrifice and redemption are recurring themes); as Alexander says in the author’s note, “If a darker thread runs through the high spirits, it is because the happenings are of serious import not only to the Land of Prydain, but to Taran, the assistant Pig-Keeper, himself…Even in a fantasy realm, growing up is accomplished not without cost.” Overall, The Black Cauldron is an excellent work of fiction that utilizes more complex themes while retaining the first book’s positive characteristics.


Plot

This book’s plot can essentially be divided into two halves: the first half deals with the protagonists’ search for the Crochan, while the second deals with their efforts to destroy it. While this could be confusing for some readers, it lends a “narrative” quality to the story overall, and makes it more realistic. The plot as a whole develops at a reasonable pace, and despite a few lulls in the action, tends to keep readers engaged. Alexander strategically uses sections packed with action throughout the story in order to keep the plot moving; however, these are interspersed with less action-filled sections (as I mentioned before). Overall, the plot of The Black Cauldron is quite engaging, and has a fair degree of cohesiveness, given its “split” design. (9/10)


Characters

While Alexander continues his trend of creating personable and interesting characters in this book, he infuses the characters with new complexity and levels of meaning, particularly through his use of elements such as self-sacrifice and redemption. Take the character Ellidyr, for example: at the beginning of the book, he is proud, haughty, and selfish; but by the end of the book, he has repented of his former ways, enabling him to sacrifice himself in order to destroy the Black Crochan. However, the new levels of meaning in the characters do not mean that familiar characters from The Book of Three have lost any of their personable-ness or amusing quirks: fans will continue to enjoy Gurgi’s rhyming exclamations and Fflewddur Fflam’s troubles with his harp. Overall, the characters of The Black Cauldron are quite well-written and deserve a 10 out of 10.


Difficulty

This book is not too difficult, apart from occasional occurrences of somewhat “archaic” language; however, this should not pose a problem for most readers. (3/10)


Quality of writing

Alexander’s writing is excellent throughout the book: his descriptive language is not only well-written, but also quite detailed, especially when describing the fantasy world of Prydain (in which the book is set). Alexander also seems to have the knack of writing characters that are extremely sympathetic: that is, the reader can understand with their motivations and aims, making the story more engaging. Additionally, the characters in this book incorporate more complexity and development (as I mentioned before), especially as seen in the character Ellidyr’s repentance and sacrifice. Overall, the quality of writing in this book is very good, and deserves a 9 out of 10.


Concerning content

As with The Book of Three, this book has no language (and the exclamations the characters do use are more often amusing and endearing than anything else). There is some violence: characters occasionally receive various cuts and other wounds from battle or mishaps, and one protagonist is killed by a knife-wielding enemy, while another throws himself into the Black Crochan (the only way it can be destroyed), killing himself in the process. That said, Alexander keeps graphic description to a minimum, and the battle scenes are all relatively short. There are also some scenes that younger readers may find scary: a witch threatens to turn the companions into frogs, and scenes in which the companions fight monster-like creatures do occur throughout the book. However, these are not really that “scary” and should only bother younger readers.


Age level

This book is fairly easy to read, and has no language and quite moderate violence. On the whole, this book is recommended for readers from age 8 and up (although older readers may find the plot slightly simple for their taste).

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