The Black Cauldron, Book II of The Chronicles of Prydain.
Last we left Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper, he is back in Caer Dallben, having brought home Eilonwy, the spirited if somewhat dreamy and sea-princess, and Hen Wen, the oracular pig.
When The Black Cauldron begins, Taran, our beloved and dauntless Assistant Pig-Keeper is on his way to give Hen Wen a bath. He is set upon by an arrogant prince, Ellidyr, who despises Taran just for being a "pig-boy". Ellidyr seems to have a major chip on his shoulder, even as he shows he is capable of courage. From the start one can tell he will be a tragic character, one that falls because of hubris.
Later, Gwydion himself appears in Caer Dallen, with other warriors of renown; a council has been called at Caer Dallben: It seems Arawn the Death Lord has grown bold and has started to build his army of the "Cauldron-Born" -- merciless undead warriors risen by the twisted magic of the Black Cauldron. Where previously Arawn has only robbed barrows and the graves for the Cauldron-Born, there are rumours now that living men are kidnapped and murdered to add to the ranks of the Cauldron-Born. The mission of the council is to go into the heart of Annuvin -- Arawn's stronghold -- and steal the Black Cauldron.
The story now takes a darker turn, and because of the kind of girl that I am, I like it better. There is more at stake now that Arawn is on the move, and Taran and his companions come to learn real loss.
Loss and sacrifice are the theme in The Black Cauldron. Lloyd Alexander himself wrote in the Author's Notes: "Even in a fantasy realm, growing up is accomplished not without cost." Maturity means understanding that with our actions there will be a consequence. Taran and his companions will learn that the quest for The Black Cauldron exacts a heavy toll. Arawn himself paid a heavy price to acquire the Black Cauldron -- though exactly what he paid is left to the imagination.
The book ends on a good note. Taran is coming to his own as a hero-in-the-making -- he has shown he is willing to sacrifice his selfish glories for recovering the Black Cauldron for what needs to be done. As part of growing up, he has also begun to realise that the world of men is "filled with sorrow, with cruelty and treachery, with those who would destroy all around them."
The story reminds us, that what defines a hero and a man, is his choices and what he is willing to sacrifice. And how lucky is Taran, to have friends who would give up all that they have for him.
I like The Black Cauldron, because of what it has to say about sacrifice, about growing up, and about reserving judgement. Onward to Book III of The Chronicles of Prydain, to The Castle of Llyr!