Humility, Charity, and True Honor: A Book Review of Black Cauldron (Prydain Chronicles #2)

In Lloyd Alexander’s Black Cauldron, second of The Prydain Chronicles, both Taran and Prince Ellidyr show in wonderful character arc’s different paths to the the same virtues of humility and charity.1 While we may like Taran and dislike Ellidyr from the beginning, their arcs begin in similar places. Both possess great pride and shame in light of their birth and seek to remedy their situations by the same means. We must remember that, as Iroh says in Avatar: The Last Airbender, “Pride is not the opposite of shame, but its source. True humility is the only antidote to shame.” Taran is ashamed of his unknown parentage and his lowly position as Assistant Pig-Keeper; all this he sees as dishonorable, and hopes to gain honor through great feats of heroism in battle and adventure. Ellidyr is last in his line of brothers in a royal house which is poor and not high esteemed, and he also seeks to gain honor in the very venture for which he and Taran are both employed. From hence, both take very different routes on their paths of failure and redemption, yet their contrasts and parallels teach great lessons of virtue. 

Denial of Self for the Other

In the scene where the Cauldron is trapped in the river, Taran and Ellidyr each make a significant moral failure—Ellidyr of wrath, and Taran of dishonesty and imprudence. To better understand their paths to this point, we must look briefly at a scene much earlier in the story. When Ellidyr and Taran struggle to be ahead of the other on the edge of a steep hillside, Taran falls, as does his horse, and Ellidyr demonstrates incredible strength in helping both back up. Ellidyr expresses that he did not intend Taran to fall, showing some good will toward the other, before then insulting him. And when questioned, Taran tells only of his own blame, not of Ellidyr’s. Ellidyr thus shows that he is rash, but not wholly of a bad heart; and Taran demonstrates his own rashness, as well as his ability for self-denial. I am not sure whether he ought to have told the whole truth, that they each slighted the other (Ellidyr did instigate it, so there would not necessarily be reason to hide Ellidyr’s blame). Perhaps he did right, but we shall come back to this notion presently. In the aforementioned scene at the river, when the Cauldron is trapped, Ellidyr, who alone is strong enough to lift the Cauldron out of its stuck position, says that in order for him to offer Taran his help, Taran and his companions must swear a binding oath that they will lie concerning who found the Cauldron. Taran, and his friends for his sake, so swears; and they free the Cauldron, after which Ellidyr, in a sudden rage of pride and envy, attacks Taran and the others, chasing them off and stealing their horses and the Cauldron to take back himself. Again, Ellidyr reveals his haughtiness and rashness, and shows that his good will has declined to such a point as to be replaced by malicious wrath. Taran, on the other hand, has grown in his ability for self-denial, valuing the task’s completion higher than his own glory in its undertaking and accomplishment. 

But I do not call Taran humble, because he swears a binding oath to lie. His sense of honor, of true honor and not of vainglory, is outweighed by pragmatism. What seems to be an honorable act on his part in swearing the oath, while it does humiliate him, ultimately is too akin to his beginning motivations of pride to be able to vindicate him. For in the beginning, he would forsake true honor for vainglory, overemphasizing outward acts as if they were more important than the human heart. It is true that in the beginning he was more focussed on his part in things, and thus denying, here puts more emphasis on the task’s completion than on his recognition, which is a proper focus. Yet his forsaking of honesty and integrity in order for the task to be accomplished, and knowingly leading others to make the same decision, shows a greater emphasis on outward acts being accomplished than on human hearts being preserved and honored—which is, ultimately, the purpose which the task of destroying the Cauldron serves, as does every task of great worth; since all men die regardless, yet souls are immortal, and the spirit and heart are of greater worth than the body (else no man would give his life rather than compromise his own integrity). And if one were to disagree that he acted dishonorably in this way, we can recall that Adaon expressed much earlier in the book his fear of what might happen to the heart of Ellidyr, should the Cauldron come into his grasp. While the Cauldron had not yet come into Ellidyr’s grasp alone, Taran might have exercised greater prudence in his decision by wariness of Ellidyr’s heart, of which ill intent Ellidyr further revealed in this demand of the oath. And as “[e]thical virtue is the print and seal placed by prudence upon volition and action,”2 an imprudent action cannot be just, and therefore cannot be honorable, as we will discuss later. Moreover, were Taran’s greatest focus true honor, purity of his own heart, and the good of others, then in seeing Ellidyr’s pride, in knowing that the enemy’s scouts had already espied the Cauldron there, and faced with an impossible decision (for to do evil is no question), Taran did indeed have the option—perhaps, with the knowledge he had at the time, the only prudent one—to throw himself into the Cauldron, destroying it, and giving up his life to save the hearts of his friends and, more than he might have known, Ellidyr’s. For had Ellidyr not been later captured, he might not have come to repentance, as he himself admitted to Taran. Now this is not meant to judge Taran, for he like Ellidyr has not completed his character arc by this point, and his decision is understandable. I only mean to compare the two arcs and study how each comes to understand and possess true honor. And as stated above, his act of self-denial in this scene was crucial to his growth in humility by denying his desire for glory and fame. 

In the scene in King Morgant’s camp, Taran makes an important decision for his own heart by showing mercy to Ellidyr. With every right to boast, Taran pities him, spares him insult, and frees him when the chance is offered. For Taran, this shows the importance of self-denial for the sake of the other, which is the right order of self-denial—that is, for charity. Only in humility are we able to show mercy, forgiveness, and disinterested kindness toward others. His repeated acts of self-denial—in the two aforementioned instances at the hillside and at the river, as well as in his bearing many of Ellidyr’s insults silently and in his giving up Adaon’s broach as his own chance for heroic greatness—these have lead him to this point, a point in which his heart has become lowly enough as to be capable of sincere and willing mercy. His arc in this book is also a good example of how virtues are built up, which I discuss in more detail in my review of Taran Wanderer

“. . . the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace.”

St. Mother Teresa4

Ellidyr’s arc both contrasts and parallels Taran’s own, and is said well in his last words before giving his life to destroy the Cauldron: “I had not strength enough to break my own bonds, but I can still serve you.” The first part of this line has a two-fold meaning, both of which bear thematic elements. First, he references the moment earlier when Taran had asked Ellidyr if he could break his own bonds by force, and Ellidyr tried but failed, saying Morgant had taken the last of his strength. This, when coupled with his final act of giving his life by running unarmed against the soldiers into the Cauldron, redirects his reliance from his own strength of body and his skill with a sword, which had up till then been associated with his most noble acts, and instead places it on his strength of heart. Second, this line alludes to the fact that he did not before have clarity to see the great “beast” which ruled him, nor the humility to repent of his pride, until he failed in his prideful quest and Morgant captured him. Whether he would have done so if he had not been captured, he says he cannot say; but he insists on his intention to take the Cauldron back to be destroyed, and not to use it, to which Taran replies, “I believe you, Prince of Pen-Llarcau. And now, perhaps even more than you believe it yourself.” Ellidyr contrasts Taran’s arc in this way, that while Taran gained virtue by repeated trial, often in small acts, Ellidyr gained virtue after loss of that which was dear to him—a sense of his own honor, his physical strength, and his horse (since he was captured)—and then, with the choice of redemption laid plainly before him in a single act of self-denial, valiance, and charity, he took the opportunity to rise quickly from the depths of dishonor. Perhaps not the depths of true dishonor—for he would not have used the Cauldron for evil—but from the depths of humiliation, to which he was cast unwilling, and whence he must either despair or rise, and rise quickly, even in a few hours, unburdened by the aforementioned vanities he had formerly sought happiness in. His final act was not so much to the development of virtue, but its proof; yet a proof which, if lacking, would prove the virtue also lacking. Just as a man may love a woman and, if he should die before marrying her, his love was still real; yet if he should refuse to marry her, it is plain to all that he never possessed real love for her. For “love never fails.”3 

His resurrection of character comes to a similar place as Taran, at around the same time: to the virtue of charity, love of the other for the other. In his final words, “I can still serve you,” Ellidyr bears witness to the true nature of honor and to his own redemption. His last words did not exalt himself, nor seek any self-glorification. It may be argued that the knowledge of the fame which his final feat would acquire was part of or most of his motivation, but this falls short for two reasons. First, he did not know that help was just moments away—for all he knew, the companions would all be killed after he died, and none would know that it was he destroyed the Cauldron. Second, his final words are words which evoke the true nature of honor, which does not serve oneself. This is different from Taran’s earlier emphasis, by the taking of the oath, on the accomplishment to the detriment of his own and his friends’ hearts; for Ellidyr does what perhaps Taran ought to have done at the river, sacrificing his life instead of his heart, which is of greater value than his life, and which can be lost before death. Ellidyr does the prudent, just, courageous, and loving act of placing virtue above self-preservation or glory, and of placing others before himself. He does not cry out that he can redeem himself, or that he can still destroy the Cauldron in a heroic feat, but rather that he can still serve Taran, and in a truly humble way, not in a flaunt of his own strength but rather in a self-gift of the last he had, of all he had. True honor serves the other, for the sake of the good. It cannot be granted by others in the form of fame; it cannot be bought; it is found not in pleasure but in righteousness for righteousness’ sake; and it belongs not to the exterior action but to the heart of a man. Indeed, had Ellidyr failed in destroying the Cauldron, his heart would have held honor no less. Nor would Taran’s heart, in showing Ellidyr mercy, have held honor any less. Before, either of them could have gained the Cauldron, yet without honor; and in fact each attempted to do so, Taran in swearing an oath of falsehood, and Ellidyr in taking the Cauldron by violence. The destruction of the Cauldron cost a life; but in its undertaking and in the accomplishment were gained two men’s hearts, and the lives of many other who would have died, and the hearts of those who in the face of evil and darkness would have lost hope, joy, and courage. 

  1. I am speaking of charity (and any virtue mentioned) in the Catholic philosophical sense, that is the virtue of love—willing the good of another.
  2. Aquinas, Quaestio disputata de virtutibus in communi, 9.
  3. 1 Corinthians 13:8
  4. The full quote is: “The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace.”

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