The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander – Reviewed by Sarah Wendorf

Before I begin talking about The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander, I have some pictures I must share. Let’s call them Exhibits A, B and C.

Exhibit A is my copy of The Black Cauldron. Try to ignore the obnoxious ocean of pink. Note the nearly falling off cover. Note the tattered spine that comes up on one side. Do you see the crinkles at the bottom from water damage? This is what happens to books read everywhere with no heed for book safety or the future structural integrity of the book.
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Exhibit B shows the pages of my book. It no longer lies flat. Dog-earred corners mark my favorite spots, places that can still make me cheer, laugh and groan today. This is a book well loved and one abused by that love.
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Exhibit C is the cover design of the copy I read from the library. My picking up The Black Cauldron had nothing to do with the cover as I have never seen a cover of a title in this series that I did like. Picking up this book all those years ago had everything to do with trust in the author, a trust my wonderful elementary school librarian gave me when she recommended I read Westmark, another Lloyd Alexander book.
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately of why I love fantasy books in trying to think of how I can share them with people who aren’t junkies of the genre like me. Part of my love for fantasy is tied up in the foundation laid by that elementary librarian. It’s hard to quantify a book love, but I’m going to try.
If it was all about the magic, I would pitch The Black Cauldron like this:  With a black cauldron that can produce deathless warriors, Arawn threatens all of Prydain. When plans to steal the cauldron out from Arawn’s control with the aid of a dwarf who can turn invisible go awry, it falls to a small band of unlikely heroes to brave the Marshes of Morva to find the evil device. Guided by dreams, beset by tragedy, they find the marshes only to be confronted with the threat of being turned into toads by three mystical beings. What can they offer these three women to gain the cauldron? A harp that knows the truth? A magical bauble that glows? Something more precious than these is needed.
 
If it was about the action: Taran is thrilled to receive his first sword and be part of a great quest to wrest a powerful weapon away from Arawn. He’s devastated to know that his part is to guard the pack animals. But even the best laid plans do not unfurl as they should. Danger finds Taran and his friends soon enough when a scout discovers someone else has stolen the weapon before them. Now the ragged group must fight free of the near invincible Huntsmen, plunge headlong through dangerous fens, face betrayal and tragedy in a race to discover the location of the Black Cauldron.
 
If it were about the supernatural creatures: Undead warriors. Men who become all the stronger should one of their party die. Women with the power to change your bones. All these must be faced to destroy a fell cauldron in the hands of the Dark Lord.
 
None of those approaches get the book or my love of it right. In the end, it isn’t about the magic, the action or supernatural creatures I am glad I never have to see let alone meet. It’s about people—the struggles, joys,  sacrifices, and changes they go through. I say people and not characters because when I’m in the grips of a book, I’m surrounded by people who are more than words on a page.
Why should you read The Black Cauldron?
For Gurgi: the excited, often terrified, always hungry creature with his fits of loyal bravery. While he often endures the scorn of others, this fellow fond of his “munchings and crunchings” has a good heart under all his shagginess.
“Clever valiant Gurgi, who joins master to keep him from harmful hurtings!” p. 46
For Eilonwy: A princess oft confused for a scullery maid who is unfamiliar with the words stop and silence. She doesn’t shy away from saying what she thinks or calling down bullies.
“I thought about it a long time after you left, every bit as long as it took you to cross the fields. And I decided. If you can be allowed on a quest, so can I.” p. 47
For Adaon: His kindness and perceptiveness have stuck with me.
For Ffllewddur Fflam: A king who would rather be a bard. His harp strings snap whenever he colors the truth.
“I’d have taken any excuse to get out of that damp, dismal castle for a while.” p. 9
For Taran, Assistant Pig Keeper, as this is his story most of all: Impetuous, fiery, determined, unwilling to stand aside. It could be easy to write him off. After all, he’s an orphan with an unknown heritage in a fantasy series with a quest. You don’t have to read a lot of fantasy to know that those things are not uncommon.
You’d be selling Taran short to think him unforgettable or ordinary. Taran struggles with his identity and his worth. While he speaks as one from yesterday, Taran’s struggles against those who would overlook him and his desire for respect can still touch readers today. Like any teenager, Taran’s emotions lead his actions and his words get him in more trouble than he intends. Growing up brings unpredicted changes and unexpected challenges. I, for one, love Taran’s journey as he comes to find out that having one’s life glorified in song and story is not the most important of things.
“You boast of your name,” Taran replied. “I take pride in my comrades.” p. 23
Sarah Wendorf is the LMTC Director of a 5th-6th grade school in southern Wisconsin.  She can be found on Twitter as @pageintraining and writes at pageintraining.wordpress.com