P = Prydain (A-Z Challenge)

Does anyone remember a little Disney movie called The Black Cauldron from the mid-1980s? Yes? I want you to get an ice pick and a hammer. I’ll wait. Ready? Now, I want you to place the pointy end of the ice pick near your temple or eye. Still with me? Okay, use the hammer to drive the ice pick into your brain. You may need to do this more than once to remove the memory of this movie from your brain. If you still have the ability to read when you are through, come back here or have someone read the rest of this to you. Are we ready to go? Okay, then…

Now, as a stand-alone movie, The Black Cauldron wasn’t that bad. It was exciting, fun, I remember the music being good, and it felt very dark. I will say that upfront. I will even go as far as saying that I like the movie’s depiction of Gurgi. He was as cute and cuddly and looked almost exactly the way I pictured him. But the resemblance to the books was…lacking. In the words of the author of the Chronicles of Prydain books, Lloyd Alexander:

“First, I have to say, there is no resemblance between the movie and the book. Having said that, the movie in itself, purely as a movie, I found to be very enjoyable…”

Yikes, right? Well, I agree with him. The books, published throughout the 1960s, were magnificent and are very, very unappreciated (as in they are not as popular as Oz, Narnia, Xanth, etc. and they very much deserve to be.) There were five books in the series, starting with The Book of Three, about Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper for an oracular white pig named Hen Wen. Taran is an orphan taken in by Dallben the sorcerer, and Taran spends his days dreaming about being a warrior. Arawn the Death-Lord has released one of his most fearsome servants, The Horned King, and Dallben has to consult Hen Wen about him. The adorable little pig Hen Wen gets frightened by her own visions and the approach of the Horned King and runs off. Taran goes to find her, and the journey begins.

The books take place in a medieval place called Prydain, which closely resembles Wales in structure and mythology. Swords have names, bards are everywhere, there are different kingdoms ruled by the High King, there are dwarves and Fair Folk, and there is the pool of all evil, Anuvyn, ruled by the aforementioned Arawn who has some rather nasty creatures at his disposal. Now, in addition to the Horned King, Taran must face the Cauldron-Born (essentially zombies who are brought back to life by tossing them in the Black Cauldron) who can only be killed by total dismemberment. No double-tap will suffice here. Then there are the gwythaints, giant birds who have been tortured and maimed and warped by Arawn and who now do his bidding. And don’t forget the Huntsmen, wild men/warriors who travel in packs. They are strong yet can be killed, but you don’t really want to do that. See, they are bound to each other spiritually: if there are ten Huntsmen and you kill three, the remaining seven gain the strength of the fallen three. They travel in small packs of savage, bestial men with only nominal fear of death.

Sounds good, right? There’s more.

Taran’s friends eventually include some colorful characters. And some of them are so adorable that you can’t help but love them. Gurgi is a small, furry humanoid who is perpetually hungry and speaks in the third person, but whose speech is quirky and fun. He’s always talking about crunchings and munchings (food), or if he is to see a battle he will talk about fightings and smightings, or after a bath he will talk about washings and sloshings. Stuff like that. Then there is Eilonwy, a young girl who embodies the word “feisty” and is the descendant of a long line of enchantresses, who is just learning her powers. (Think Brave’s Merida with magic and a sword.) She’s feminine but tough, and is very practical. She’s always making odd comparisons which will still make me laugh aloud. (Such as, “He helped us…just the way a robber helps you tidy up your house!”) She has a glowing golden sphere she calls a bauble which can glow in the dark at her command and is, of course, more than it seems. Doli is a dwarf who can eventually turn invisible, though it makes his ears buzz painfully. He is a warrior and that odd combo of lovable and cranky which makes me so happy. Last, there is Fflewddur Fflam, a king/almost-bard with a penchant for exaggerating the truth. Unlucky for him, he owns an enchanted harp whose strings will snap when he lies. The bigger the lie, the more strings will snap. However, it plays beautifully and makes up for his shortcomings as an almost-bard who didn’t pass his bardic tests.

In the first book, they fight and take on the Horned King, rescue Hen Wen, and do all sorts of other stuff (that was me being vague on purpose, by the way). In The Black Cauldron, the armies of the good guys realize that if they are ever going to defeat Arawn, they have to destroy the zombie-generating Black Cauldron, which has recently gone missing from Arawn’s evil land. All the good guys unite and head out to find it, not realizing the terrible price it will require to destroy the Cauldron. Sacrifice is an ongoing theme throughout the books. It is often painful, and there isn’t a moment you don’t feel for Taran and his friends — you may be exhausted by Taran’s pig-headedness, but there is never a moment you don’t care about him.

The movie The Black Cauldron stems from that brief period where Disney was trying to go darker, which was necessary to do the books justice. However, in the process they made many crucial mistakes. First, they combined the first two books, and I can even understand that in a way — thematically the first book probably didn’t have enough to sustain a standard film length (without masterful filmmaking and scriptwriting). There are five books in the series and when this came out, entire series just weren’t made, and certainly not in traditional animation form.

Second, they robbed some of the characters of everything that made them unique, nuanced, or entertaining. Most horrifying, Eilonwy lost all her spirit in the movie and became just another boring blond princess character, constantly in need of saving. (Imagine Disney going back and robbing Merida of all her spirit, energy, and strength. Essentially, that’s what they did with Eilonwy.) In the book, let’s just say that you didn’t want to mess with a feisty young swordswoman with red-gold hair who is discovering her talent for enchantment (though she needs some serious training). Fflewddur became an ancient gnarled thing upon whom it pleased Disney to foster boob jokes. Taran was generic and bland. Doli, a red-haired cantankerous warrior dwarf? Well, he was turned into a freekin’ fairy. He had occasional bouts of crankiness that really came off like bipolar disorder. In fact, the only character who got away unscathed was Gurgi, and he became the one good character whose cartoon representation was essentially him.

Third, they took away the epic feeling of the books, the feeling that these people belonged to a rich and colorful world where terrible things sometimes happened. And they turned the gwythaints into goddamned dragons! WTF? The movie flopped terribly, which makes studios reluctant to revisit that territory, which is a travesty. Somehow, these books are not as popular as their peers, despite winning two prestigious awards. Look up “Prydain movie” and ignore all the bashings and trashings of Disney’s The Black Cauldron. You will see a bunch of people whose lives and hearts these books have touched who want nothing more than to see them properly done into movies…which will likely never happen.

The books are definitely worth reading. If you like fantasy, you should absolutely the Chronicles of Prydain, even if you’re used to the hardcore fantasy like Lord of the Rings (with which there are many commonalities), Game of Thrones, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, etc. The Prydain novels are short, practically pamphlets in comparison, but contain a surprising depth of character and adventure. Additionally, what do you have to lose? They don’t take much time to read, really, and are definitely worth it. If you have pre-teens or young adults into fantasy (hell, or adults; the books stand up regardless of age), I cannot recommend these books highly enough. There is sadness, happiness, plenty of laughs, lessons, growth of characters, a lot of appealing darkness, and love.

Now, who do I have to hump to get the Prydain series made into good movies? They don’t have to be live action; I’m okay with good CG. Well? Damn it, pay attention, someone! Am I going to have to hand out thrashings and whackings? Stabbings and jabbings? Cuttings and guttings? *cackle*

Alternate letter considerations: Pokémon, Princesses (Disney, probably *gay*), People Skills.

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~ by Darren Endymion on May 19, 2014.

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