The Book of Three

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The Book of Three
First edition dustjacket with Ness artwork
Author Lloyd Alexander
Cover artist Evaline Ness
Country United States
Series The Chronicles of Prydain
Genre Children's fantasy novel
Publisher Holt, Rinehart and Winston
Publication date
March 12, 1964
Media type Print (hardcover)
Pages 217 pp. (first)[1]
ISBN 0-8050-0874-8
OCLC 17720934
LC Class PZ8.A37 Bo[1]
Followed by The Black Cauldron

The Book of Three (1964) is a high fantasy novel by Lloyd Alexander, the first of five volumes in The Chronicles of Prydain. The series follows the adventures of Taran the Assistant Pig-Keeper, a youth raised by Dallben the enchanter, as he nears manhood while helping to resist the forces of Arawn Death-Lord.

In 2012 The Book of Three was ranked number 18 among all-time best children's novels in a survey published by School Library Journal, a monthly with primarily U.S. audience. The concluding novel, The High King, was also among the top 100.[2]


The series was inspired by Welsh mythology and by the castles, scenery, and language of Wales, which the author experienced during World War II army combat intelligence training.[3][4]

The planned title of the first book was once The Battle of the Trees,[5] the title of a Welsh poem featuring the sons of Don led by Gwydion against the forces of Arawn.

Plot summary[edit]

The youth Taran lives at Caer Dallben with his guardians, the ancient enchanter Dallben and the farmer and retired soldier Coll. He is dissatisfied with his life as a farm laborer, longing to become a great hero like High Prince Gwydion and others he knows from his studies with Dallben. Dallben discourages Taran's daydreaming and tells him of a new threat beside Arawn: a warlord known as the Horned King. He forbids Taran from leaving the farm and charges him with the care of Hen Wen, the oracular white pig. Coll attempts to mollify Taran by conferring upon him the title of Assistant Pig-Keeper. The responsibility does not please Taran, nor can he fulfill it when Hen Wen flees the farm in evident terror, following the bees and chickens.

Dallben and Coll hope to ask Hen Wen about the animals' unrest. Before they can do so, she overwhelms Taran, who follows her into the forbidden forest. After a long chase and losing her trail, he watches a host of horsemen gallop toward his home, led by one who must be the Horned King himself. One warrior spots him, but he escapes with a glancing blow from one sword hurled at a distance and runs, heedless of his direction until he drops.

He awakes to find his wound treated by none other than Gwydion, the crown prince in Prydain's ruling House of Dôn, who has been traveling to Caer Dallben to consult Hen Wen himself. Although he is one of Taran's heroes, his shaggy and disheveled appearance does not fit the latter's expectations. Learning the Horned King has passed that way and the pig this way, Gwydion determines to follow the pig and takes Taran along. They encounter Gurgi, a hairy humanoid living in the forest, who has seen Hen Wen cross the river Avren northward, and who is also able to lead them to the Horned King's camp. There under cover of darkness they observe a ceremonial sacrifice of captives by the local warlords who have joined with the Horned King. Gwydion surmises that their target will be Caer Dathyl far to the north, the home castle of the House of Don. He determines to ride that way to warn the royal court rather than look for the pig. (It is at this point that he explains much of Prydain's geography to Taran.)

Gurgi flees when four scouts discover the companions. Gwydion captures one by enchantment and slays another, so the horsemen fall back, but a pair of undead foot soldiers remorselessly approach: the Cauldron-Born. Gwydion orders Taran to flee for his life on the horse Melyngar, but Taran stands his ground. The Cauldron-Born are deathless and powerful; fortunately, their goal is capture. Both men are wounded as they and Melyngar are taken ... to Queen Achren in Spiral Castle. The sorceress asks Gwydion to help her to overthrow Arawn, once her consort, and to join her in ruling Prydain together. He and Taran are separately taken below when he refuses.

In his dungeon cell, Taran is visited by Princess Eilonwy. She lives in Spiral Castle to learn enchantment from her self-proclaimed "aunt" Achren. She knows all the castle's secrets including how to come and go anywhere. Taran suspiciously tells her little but asks her to free his companion, then himself, and bring weapons. Eilonwy agrees, probably to spite Achren. She returns without weapons and leads Taran out of his cell, through the labyrinth of tunnels. Suddenly Taran falls through a collapse to a lower level she does not know, but she joins him nevertheless. They find the evident barrow of a lord with many guards. (It is the death chamber of High King Rhitta, the last to wield the legendary sword Dyrnwyn.) They take weapons and continue through the catacombs and breaches to an exit in the woods. As they emerge, Spiral Castle is sheathed in blue light and they see it collapse.

Perhaps owing to Taran's secrecy, the man who waits with Melyngar is not Gwydion but Fflewddur Fflam, a king by birth but a wandering, story-telling bard by choice. The three search the ruins, salvage some weapons and other equipment and mourn Gwydion's death. Eilonwy is now homeless and will travel with them, naturally.

(She has taken the king's sword and its departure has destroyed the castle.)

Gurgi rejoins Taran with news of a great army nearby. Taran chooses to take up Gwydion's task, to warn Caer Dathyl, rather than to search for the pig. (Fflewdur gives more geography lesson.) Unfortunately, they are spotted and pursued by Cauldron-Born, whom they flee day and night. They have no food and finally stop for Gurgi to scrounge. He falls from a tree and breaks his leg, asks Taran to kill him rather than let him be a burden or leave him alive. Taran refuses and a long friendship begins.

Gurgi's leg becomes infected, and fatigue induces a fever in Eilonwy. They carry both on horse but slowly. Barely they outlast or outdistance the deathless warriors, who weaken with time and distance away from Annuvin. They turn from pursuit, but they have driven the companions far east of their northward course

Gwydion's horse Melyngar intervenes and leads them to the valley of Medwyn, which is hidden from humankind. Medwyn heals Gurgi while Taran discovers the bees and chickens of Caer Dallben, but not the pig. Nor does Medwyn know of Hen Wen's flight. Medwyn respects Taran's manner and welcomes the orphan to stay; Taran loves the valley and is tempted to leave worldly responsibilities but still feels obligation to warn Caer Dathyl. Medwyn gives them provisions and directions.

Their way is mountainous. When they encounter a lake of black water, Taran thinks to take an easier route by wading through shallows rather than clambering around. Instead, they find themselves drawn away from the shore and finally swept underwater, to the realm of the Fair Folk. Gurgi escapes but guards take the others to King Eiddileg, who treats them gruffly, but softens when Eilonwy expresses rare gratitude for all that the Fair Folk have done for humankind. Gurgi finds them with news that he has spotted Hen Wen. The Fair Folk rescued her, but Eiddileg grudgingly agrees to let Taran have her, to re-equip their party, and to provide a guide.

The guide is Doli, a red-haired dwarf. He leads them on a good pace to Caer Dathyl, until they encounter an injured fledgling gwythaint, one of the great birds of prey that Arawn has enslaved. Doli would kill "the eyes of Arawn" and Fflewdur agrees, but Taran determines to save it and deliver it alive to Caer Dathyl; he takes time to build a cage and tend its wounds. The gwythaint recovers quickly and escapes overnight, much to Doli's fury. Later that same day, Hen Wen also escapes and flees, just before the scouts of the Horned King's army spot them all. The companions repel the scouts and continue to Caer Dathyl, but can now hope to reach it only barely ahead of the army. In fact, before they see the castle, vanguard troops approach them. Fflewddur orders Taran and Eilonwy ahead on Melyngar while he, Doli and Gurgi stand to fight.

Melyngar carries Taran and Eilonwy straight through a party of foot soldiers, but the Horned King sees them and gives chase himself. He catches them at the top of a hill, and breaks the boy's sword on the first blow. Taran seizes Dyrnwyn from Eilonwy, but lacks the "noble birth" needed to draw it. Exposing only a part of the blade, white flame burns his arm but throws him to the ground and momentary safety. Just before losing consciousness, he sees another man in the trees and hears an unintelligible word. The Horned King's mask melts and he bursts into flame.

Taran wakens in bed, in a room with Hen Wen and Eilonwy. She tells him of the Horned King's death and his army's defeat. The man on foot was Gwydion, who had been with Achren at another stronghold, for his torture, when Spiral Castle fell. Having survived the haunted(?) Oeth-Anoeth, he understands the hearts of all creatures, which enabled him to communicate with the gwythaint Taran had saved, and then with Hen Wen. The fledgling led him to the pig, who had run away because she sensed him. From the oracular pig he learned what could destroy the Horned King, his secret name, and was led to Taran by the fledgling again. Eilonwy has given Dyrnwyn to him, recognizing his nobility.

The companions are given treasures from Caer Dathyl in recognition of service to the House of Don. Eilonwy gets a ring made by the Fair Folk, Gurgi a wallet of food that cannot be depleted, Fflewddur a golden harp string that can never break, Doli the ability to turn invisible (which he unusually lacks).

In the course of his adventures, Taran realizes more and more that Dallben was right, and that Caer Dallben is where he most wants to be, living the quiet life of an Assistant Pig-Keeper. He asks only to return home, for he has learned its value, and Gwydion accompanies him personally, along with his faithful companions, Eilonwy and Gurgi who are now homeless.


The Book of Three and its successor The Black Cauldron were loosely adapted by Walt Disney Productions and released in 1985 as Disney's 25th animated feature film, under the latter title. Gross receipts for The Black Cauldron did not match its production costs, commercially a great failure.

Lloyd Alexander's reaction was twofold: "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."[3]


  1. ^ a b "The book of three". LC Online Catalog. Library of Congress ( Retrieved 2015-11-02.
  2. ^ Bird, Elizabeth (July 7, 2012). "Top 100 Chapter Book Poll Results". A Fuse #8 Production. Blog. School Library Journal ( Retrieved 2015-11-02. 
  3. ^ a b Lloyd Alexander Interview Transcript (1999). Interview with Scholastic students. Scholastic Inc. Retrieved 2011-12-17.
  4. ^ About the author (1973). The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain, Henry Holt and Company, first edition, page [87].
  5. ^ Lloyd Alexander: A Bio-Bibliography by Jacobs and Tunnel [clarification needed]
  • Alexander, Lloyd (1999). The Book of Three. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-6132-0.
  • Alexander, Lloyd (1999). The Foundling and Other Tales of Prydain. Enlarged edition. New York: Henry Holt and Company. ISBN 0-8050-6130-4.
  • Tuck, Donald H. (1974). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: a bibliographic survey of the fields of science fiction, fantasy and weird fiction through 1968. Volume 1: Who's Who, A-L. Chicago: Advent:Publishers. ISBN 0-911682-20-1.