After the five-part Chronicles of Prydain came to a close, fans of the series requested more stories from Lloyd Alexander, and he obliged with this anthology. There are eight short stories in all, set in Alexander’s Welsh-inspired land of Prydain in the time before our favourite Assistant Pig-Keeper was born, and each one includes familiar characters or legendary circumstances from the original books. In particular, many of the tales pit the forces of light and life against the main antagonist of the saga: Arawn, the dark Lord of Death.
The first and last stories, “The Foundling” and “The Truthful Harp,” deal with the backgrounds of two major characters in the original books: Dallben and Fflewddur Fflam respectively. Dallben is the foundling of the title, who is discovered as an infant by the three mysterious crones and raised as their own. However, when he reaches adolescence he accidentally tastes of a magical brew and his eyes are opened to the true nature of his guardians. He sets out to find the meaning of wisdom, with a tome titled “The Book of Three” as his only possession.
“The Truthful Harp” is a beautiful, humourous story about the king of a tiny kingdom “so small he could almost stride across it between midday and high noon” and how he desired to become a bard. But when Fflewddur Fflam approaches the Chief Bard with his request, he is given a mysterious harp that does something rather odd whenever he stretches the truth.
Likewise, “Coll and his White Pig” recounts the youth of a major character in the saga. It tells the tale of Coll, who gives up fighting for farming, and the adventure that was briefly mentioned in The Book of Three. When Coll’s beloved white oracular pig is stolen by forces of Arawn, Coll undertakes a mission to save him, calling on allies in the forest to aid him in his infiltration of Annuvin. It also recounts Coll’s meeting with Dallben, and how the two men came to live under the same roof.
“The Rascal Crow” and “The Smith, the Weaver and the Harper” also deal with Arawn’s greedy reach for power and his attempts to steal away that which benefits mankind. In the former he sends his Huntsmen out to corrupt or destroy those of the animal kingdom. The wise Medwyn calls his animals to his secret valley in order to warn them of the threat, but Kadwyr the crow finds the whole thing amusing, particularly the efforts of the gnat, the spiders and the lumbering tortoise. But in typical Aesopian fashion, it is these overlooked creatures that will be his salvation when Kadwyr finds himself the target of one of the Huntsmen.
The second story is more of a cautionary tale, in which master-craftsmen lose their gifts through their own greed. Both a blacksmith and a weaver are masters of their arts, but tricked into giving up the tools of their trade when Arawn offers to take their own hammer and shuttle in exchange for more “magical” items. But when Arawn approaches Menwy the bard, something quite different happens…
Out of all the stories “The Sword” and “The True Enchanter” are probably the most valuable in adding depth and background to the mythos of Prydain. They are to the series what C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew was to The Chronicles of Narnia in terms of acting as prequels to what follows.
“The True Enchanter” recounts the meeting of Princess Elionwy’s parents; Geraint and Angharad. When Princess Angharad of Llyr is told to find an enchanter for a husband, she is unimpressed with her first two suitors. But when Geraint steps forward, they both know it’s love: “He stood waiting, saying nothing more, while his glance and the glance of Angharad touched and held each other.” It’s nearly impossible to pull off the “love at first sight” trope, but naturally Alexander does, and the lovers’ escape (which includes a familiar golden bauble) is made especially bittersweet by the eventual fate of Elionwy’s mother as discovered in Taran Wanderer.
Meanwhile, “The Sword” is the tragic, haunting story of Dyrnwyn’s history and the creation of Spiral Castle. King Rhitta’s slaying of a simple shepherd sets off a chain reaction that leads to the King’s downfall and the circumstances behind Dyrnwyn’s resting place where Taran and Elionwy find it in The Book of Three. The story even explains why the sword is black and why the engraving on the scabbard has been scratched away.
Finally, “The Stone” is a light little story about a farmer who, on meeting an old man on the side of the road (strongly hinted to be Dallben) begins to dread the onset of old age. So when he rescues a member of the Fair Folk from a fallen log — Doli, before he was able to make himself invisible — he wishes that he’ll remain young forever. But of course, such a wish has grave side-effects.
It is worth saying that I came to this anthology with somewhat of the wrong impression as to what to anticipate from these stories. They are entertaining and enlightening, but not what I expected in terms of their importance to the history of Prydain. With the exception of “The Sword” and “The True Enchanter,” the stories are better described as fairy tales that just happen to include familiar faces from the original The Chronicles of Prydain.
Of course, this in no way detracts from my enjoyment of The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain. With his use of talking animals, threefold obstacles, wishes gone wrong, the advantages of cunning over physical strength and the moral lesson to be extracted from each story, it’s clear that Alexander has taken his inspiration not just from Welsh mythology, but from traditional fairy tales, Aesop’s fables and even Shakespeare (the bloodstains on Dyrnwyn that cannot be scoured off reminded me of Lady Macbeth’s “out, out, damned spot!” It is a lovely anthology, but sheds little light on the history of Prydain, of which there was plenty of material to be mined: such as the coming of the Children of Don, the dark relationship between Achren and Arawn, and the origins of the Horned King. I was also a little disappointed that there wasn’t a story concerning Gwydion (who surely had some adventures in his time!)
But as always, Alexander infuses his words with warmth and vitality. Alexander knows life’s priorities, and his wonderful storytelling ensures that the simple pleasures of life are always triumphant over not just evil, but more human foibles. Reflecting on the simple wonders of nature, the preciousness of tools over jewels, and the comfort of hearth and home, Alexander manages to insert an innate truthfulness and wisdom into his tales that never comes across as preachy. This is an essential companion book to The Chronicles of Prydain, and can be read before, after, or during your reading of the original five books without fear of spoilers.