The High King

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The High King
High king.jpg
First edition cover
Author Lloyd Alexander
Cover artist Evaline Ness
Country United States
Language English
Series The Chronicles of Prydain
Genre Fantasy novel
Published October 27, 1968 (Holt, Rinehart and Winston)
Media type Print (hardcover & paperback)
Pages 288
ISBN 0-8050-1114-5 (first edition, hard)
OCLC 23225498
LC Class PZ7.A3774 Hi
Preceded by Taran Wanderer

The High King (1968) is a high fantasy novel by Lloyd Alexander, the fifth and last of The Chronicles of Prydain. It was awarded the Newbery Medal for excellence in American children's literature in 1969.[1]

The series follows the adventures of Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper, as he nears manhood while helping to resist the forces of Arawn Death-Lord. In the concluding volume Taran and companions join the rest of Prydain in a great effort to defeat Arawn directly. Finally Taran must decide whether to be High King.

Thirty years later, Alexander explained to Scholastic students: "The High King was the final logical development of the first four books in the Prydain Chronicles. It was not an easy book to write, but at least I was building on a foundation that I had already made. I never considered a different ending ...". He did cry afterward, as the exchange implies many readers have done. After seven years "the characters were as close to me as my own family. ... I wept at the end – to see Taran confronted with such a brutally difficult decision."[2]

"The final choice is never offered to us in the real world ... In another sense we face this kind of choice again and again because for us it is never final."[3]


The series was inspired by Welsh mythology and by the castles, scenery, and language of Wales, which the author experienced during World War II intelligence training.[2] At one stage it would conclude with a fourth book entitled The High King of Prydain, approximately following the first three as published.[4]

"While it grew from Welsh legend, it has broadened into my attempt to make a land of fantasy relevant to the world of reality."[5]

Plot summary[edit]

The story begins only days after the conclusion of Taran Wanderer. It is nearly winter, less than two years after events of The Castle of Llyr.

Taran and his companion Gurgi return from wandering to Caer Dallben, in haste after getting news from Kaw the crow that Princess Eilonwy has returned from the Isle of Mona. Indeed, they find her at home, along with her escort King Rhun of Mona and the former giant Glew who had been magically restored to human size by a potion from Dallben. Taran knows himself now and he is determined to marry Eilonwy.

Before he can propose, the bard-king Fflewddur Fflam and his mount Llyan arrive with a gravely injured Gwydion, Prince of Don. Servants of Arawn had assaulted them and seized the magical black sword Dyrnwyn. Fortunately their purpose was to secure it and depart, rather than to kill Gwydion. When Fflewddur asks how Taran escaped, the question baffles Taran. Everyone compares stories and determine the truth: evidently Arawn himself came from Annuvin to the verge of Caer Dallben in the guise of Taran, with no more than the powers of Taran, in order to lure Gwydion into the ambush.

Because Dyrnwyn may be pivotal as a threat to Arawn, Dallben consults the oracular pig Hen Wen to determine how it may be regained. During the reading, the ash rods used to communicate shatter and the two thirds of Hen Wen's answer are discouraging and vague.

When Gwydion heals sufficiently, he sets out with Taran and others to meet with King Smoit. Gwydion insists that he alone should enter Annuvin to seek the sword, but Smoit's Cantrev Cadiffor is on the way. The small party divides for Rhun and Eilonwy to visit the ships of Mona en route.

When Gwydion, Taran, and others reach Caer Cadarn, they are imprisoned by Magg, former Chief Steward of Mona and a traitor. He and a small force have imprisoned King Smoit and imprisoned or deceived his men. When Eilonwy approaches with the other party, she detects something amiss and they cautiously send Fflewddur Fflam to the gate as a bard traveling alone. After entertaining soldiers for a night, he returns with the bad news.

Gwystyl of the Fair Folk is also outside the stronghold, en route home after closing the waypost near Annuvin, personally bearing his final observations to King Eiddileg. Eilonwy takes him by surprise and he reluctantly reveals the voluminous Fair Folk stores concealed in his cloak. With his personal assistance, and stocked with magical smokes, fires, and concealments, all but King Rhun with their mounts break in and free the prisoners. The plan goes awry, however; King Smoit and his men are finally able to regain control only by Rhun's intervention, which costs his life.

Learning from Gwystyl that the Huntsmen and Cauldron-Born of Annuvin are active outside that realm, Gwydion turns from the quest for Dyrnwyn to planning for battle, first at Caer Dathyl. Gwystyl, Fflewddur, and Taran leave to gather support, respectively, from the Fair Folk, the northern realms, and the Free Commots. Meanwhile, unknown to Gwydion, the pet crow Kaw has been attacked by gwythaints while spying near Annuvin. Chased far east, he manages to reach Medwyn and the guardian of animals has raised the alarm, asking all the creatures of air and land to oppose the forces of Arawn.

Taran, Coll, Eilonwy, and Gurgi travel under the unfinished banner of the White Pig on a green field, designed and embroidered by Eilonwy. Taran musters the Commots, and sends them marching in groups to Caer Dathyl while the smiths and weavers rallied by Hevydd and Dwyvach work day and night to equip them. The people rally to the banner of the White Pig because "it is the banner of our friend Taran Wanderer".

Soon after Taran and the last Commots reach Caer Dathyl, King Pryderi arrives from the western realms. In council he announces his new allegiance to Arawn, for the good of all, because "Arawn will do what the Sons of Don have failed to do: Make an end of endless wars among the cantrevs, and bring peace where there was none before." He is rejected utterly but permitted to return unharmed to his command of the greatest army. Battle begins the next day. Although the Sons of Don and allies have the best of it, the Cauldron-Born arrive en masse before evening, bearing a great ram. The attack parts for their remorseless march to the gates, which they finally burst through and raze the fortress overnight. High King Math and most defenders inside are killed, and Gwydion is proclaimed High King in camp.

The Cauldron-Born have never before left Annuvin in numbers. Gwydion determines that the best chance is to attack while it is guarded by mortal men alone. He will lead the Sons of Don to waiting ships on the north coast and attack by sea, while Taran leads the Commots to delay the Cauldron-Born's return march, as their power wanes with time and distance from Annuvin. There is no time to wait for other allies to arrive.

Taran and his army reinforce a broken wall and "man" it with branches; they are able to hold the tired Cauldron-Born warriors beyond arm's length by brute force, and turn the march from a straight and easy route into the rugged hills. Thanks to a company of Fair Folk, and to the wolves and bears, they destroy most of the Huntsmen who accompany and lead the undead. At last the Cauldron-Born break free of the hills and return to the lowland route. Regaining strength as they near Annuvin, it would be futile for the exhausted allies to meet them head-on again. Inevitably they will march the long, easy route to Arawn's stronghold.

Taran and the remainder of his army finally reach Annuvin by a combination of the direct route, a mountain path of Doli's, and a secret pass over Mount Dragon shown to them by Achren. Taran sees that victory is nearly in Gwydion's hands (he is already in the courtyards of the stronghold) but that the Cauldron-Born are about to reach Annuvin. A few of the undead break ranks to meet Gwydion. Taran's group attempts to slow the Cauldron-Born by hurling stones upon the warriors, and Taran tips the great "dragon" rock off the very summit to roll down on them. Where the rock had been resting, Taran finds the sword Dyrnwyn where it had been hidden by Arawn. As a Cauldron-Born warrior approaches him, Taran desperately draws the blade. Wielding Dyrnwyn, Taran slays the undead warrior. At that instant, all of the Cauldron-Born die as well, crying out for the first and only time.

Taran's group enters the fray, and the battle continues through the halls of Annuvin. Taran is almost deceived by Arawn - who has taken the guise of Gwydion - into giving up the sword. After the chaotic defeat of Arawn's forces, the companions gather before the Great Hall. Achren identifies Arawn in the form of a serpent near to striking Taran and grabs him. He strikes her fatally, but Taran cleaves him with Dyrnwyn before he can strike again.

With the death of Arawn, the stronghold of Annuvin bursts in flame and falls in ruins, destroying all of the magical implements inside; only scrolls, containing knowledge of farming, smithing, and other crafts, are rescued. The sword Dyrnwyn begins to fade, losing its magic. Eilonwy and Chief Bard Taliesin are able to read the old inscription on the scabbard: "Draw Dyrnwyn, only thou of noble worth, to rule with justice, to strike down evil. Who wields it in good cause shall slay even the Lord of Death."

The allies travel to Caer Dallben by ship. Gwydion tells that in victory the Sons of Don, with all kinsmen and kinswomen, must return to the Summer Country. Indeed, all those who still have magic will depart. The Fair Folk have shut down surface wayposts and closed their realm. Dallben and Eilonwy with personal powers must go, and others who have served well have the option, Taran among them. He proposes to Eilonwy at last, and she accepts.

The Sons of Don plan to leave the next day. However, Taran becomes uncomfortable about his decision overnight. The witches Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch appear as beautiful young women and reveal that they too are departing, and leave him with the unfinished tapestry of his life. He realizes there is much work to be done to rebuild Prydain, and he has made many promises; he determines to remain behind. Eilonwy is able to willingly give up her magical nature in order to remain with him, and the two are married.

Dallben reveals that Taran completes a path prophesied in the Book of Three whereby an orphan of "no station in life" would succeed the Sons of Don as High King. Dallben had traveled to seek such a one and try to hasten the day of Arawn's defeat; on this journey, he found a baby, hidden in the trees beside a battlefield of great carnage, without any token of parentage: Taran.

Taran receives many gifts including The Book of Three itself, although it no longer foretells what is to come, only "what has been". In it Dallben writes a conclusion, "And thus did an Assistant Pig-Keeper become High King of Prydain."


  1. ^ "Newbery Medal & Honor Books, 1922-Present". Association for Library Service to Children. American Library Association. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  2. ^ a b Lloyd Alexander Interview Transcript (1999). Interview with Scholastic students. Scholastic Inc. Retrieved 2011-12-17.
  3. ^ The High King, Author's note, p. viii.
  4. ^ Lloyd Alexander: A Bio-Bibliography by Jacobs and Tunnel [clarification needed]
  5. ^ The High King, Author's note, p. ix.


External links[edit]

Lloyd Alexander at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database

Preceded by
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Newbery Medal recipient
Succeeded by