I’ve already read the entire Chronicles of Prydain series. I loved it, so I picked up a matching copy of this book, The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting — maybe a story about Taran’s early childhood mixed in with some more traditional background lore — but what I got was perfectly delightful.
The book is made up of eight short stories. The first, “The Foundling,” is not, as I had expected, about Taran’s origin or early childhood. It is, rather, about Dallben’s early years. It turns out that he has some interesting foster parents — Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch, the three fate-like figures who seem to know all (or cause all) events in Prydain. We also learn how Dallben became so wise, the story of which echoes how Finn MacCool earned his intelligence in Celtic mythology. Finally, we also get to find out how Dallben obtained The Book of Three and what consequences he had to face for owning it.
The second story, “The Stone,” is modeled on a traditional folktale frame; we do have Doli, but it’s not really a story about him. He merely serves as the fairy-world representative for the main character, Maibon. In exchange for helping Doli out of a jam, Maibon compels Doli to honor the rule of granting a boon to a human who comes to a Fair Folk’s aid. Maibon wishes for something foolish, and we get to see the result.
“The True Enchanter” feels both familiar and new. Drawing from both the Western fairy tale structure and the plot of at least one Greek myth I can think of, Alexander writes of an enchantress princess, Angharad, and her difficulty with the rules placed on her regarding her choice of a husband. Told by her mother she must only choose from the pool of enchanters, Angharad quickly decides that the first two suitors, based on their magical performances, are not for her. The third suitor, however, turns out to be more interesting.
“The Rascal Crow” truly reminds me of one of Aesop’s fables. I think it could fit right in with his canon. After the animals of Prydain learn of the evilness of King Arawn, Kadwyr the crow disparages the offers of help the other species bring to the defense. Insisting, teasingly, that he can carry out all the tasks better than the other animals, he sets off to protect the land. Alexander shows us the consequences of believing only oneself to be competent and the value of learning to trust and rely on others.
For the fifth story, “The Sword,” Alexander writes about the origin of the great sword Dyrnwyn and of how it became tainted. Rhytta, the King of Prydain, inherited the sword. Through his arrogant and dismissive behavior toward his subjects, Rhytta commits a terrible act. From there, the sword changes slowly from shining to stained as the king makes further and further mistakes, yet refuses to change his behavior.
“The Smith, the Weaver, and the Harper,” explains how a disguised Arawn managed to take the forging and weaving knowledge of Prydain away from its artisans. Neither the smith nor the weaver Arawn tricks manage to realize that something for nothing is never really for nothing — there is always a cost. The harper, however, manages to see what his fellow tradesmen were not, and confronts the true face of Arawn.
The penultimate story, “Coll and his White Pig,” is, delightfully, about Coll. We still don’t learn how Coll happened to own Hen Wen. Alexander does, however, show us Coll’s nature through the actions he takes while attempting to rescue Hen Wen after she is captured by Arawn’s henchmen. Not one to leave us completely hanging, Alexander also tells us how Coll and Dallben came to be living together in Caer Dallben.
The last story is about Fflewddur Fflam, our favorite truth-bending bard. “The Truthful Harp” begins with Fflewddur’s study to become a bard, and how that didn’t go so well. After failing his test, Fflam is given a new harp by the Chief Bard. Fflam goes through several adventures (and several harp strings) before arriving back to the Chief Bard and reporting on his exploits, first through fibbing and later by telling the truth.
I love the lessons Alexander imparts to the readers of The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain. He takes inspiration from several different traditional folklore and mythological traditions while keeping Wales in the forefront of his mind. While the stories can stand on their own, they are, I suspect, easier to understand and enjoy if one has first read the books in the Chronicles of Prydain series. That’s the only reason I can’t give it a 5; some younger readers, especially, are likely to be a little lost coming in to some of the stories. Overall, however, I think most children, young adults, and, yes, adults, will enjoy what Alexander can tell them about the goings-on in Prydain.