Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Adventure classics -- An enchanted kingdom

The Black Cauldron

by Lloyd Alexander


Once upon a time there was a boy named Lloyd who wanted to write books but whose family forced him to take a job in a bank. No, make that -- there was a boy named Taran who wanted to be a hero but had to settle for a job as an assistant pig-keeper. And before he could fulfill his dream, he, like his creator, Lloyd Alexander, had to learn a lot more than how to wash pigs.

In his quest for adventure, Alexander joined the U.S. Army during World War II, traveling to such strange lands as Texas, Germany, France, and in a move that earned the gratitude of fantasy lovers -- Wales.

“It seemed I recognized faces from all the hero tales of my childhood,” he wrote in his memoir, My Love Affair with Music, of his time in Wales. “Not until years afterwards did I realize I had been given, without my knowing, a glimpse of another enchanted kingdom.”

But decades, and the writing of novel after novel, would pass before he could turn his wartime training in Wales into the setting of the books for which he is best known -- The Chronicles of Prydain, inspired by the landscape and mythology of the ancient Celtic country.

The second book of the series, The Black Cauldron, was named a Newbery Honor book by the Association for Library Service to Children.

In The Black Cauldron, Taran and his friends, the wizard Dallben and Princess (and sorceress in training) Eilonwy learn of the plan of Arawn, lord of the evil kingdom next to Prydain, to expand his army with undead warriors steeped in a magical cauldron.

“‘Who has not heard of the Cauldron-Born,’ the war-leader of Prydain asks. ‘They emerge implacable as death itself, their humanity forgotten.’”

Taran is only too eager to win the honor of destroying the cauldron. But capturing the magical cooking utensil itself -- guarded by three of the most gruesome, and also funniest witches in all literature -- turns out to be the easier part of the quest. The far greater difficulty lies in destroying it.

In fact, the evil cauldron almost destroyed the animation division of Disney. It was the first animated Disney film to receive a PG rating, after a release delayed from the 1984 holiday season until the next summer, after undergoing extensive editing to lighten the most gruesome sequences. It was one of the most expensive flops of its year.

In some ways, it was only ahead of its time, with work by then unknowns Tim Burton and John Lasseter (now head of Pixar). Until the time comes for a remake, please enjoy the Prydain books, widely available. For more information about the movie curse of the cauldron and the history of animation, I enjoyed the discussion at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a November of fantasy with a look at Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story. And yes, there was also a movie.)

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