The Book of Three, Chapter 19 – The Secret
Taran comes to in a sunlit chamber. His injured arm is bandaged and smarts painfully, as does his poor tender head. Hen Wen is there, and he hears Eilonwy’s “silvery laugh” – she’s been watching over him, waiting for him to wake up. He’s looking much better, she says, but is still the color of a boiled leek (hee). Taran asks if they are in Annuvin, but Eilonwy says, ew, no, they’re in Caer Dathyl and it’s lovely. Taran suddenly remembers the Horned King and asks where he is, to which Eilonwy replies “in a barrow, most likely, I should think,” being that he’s quite dead and all. She explains that after Taran grabbed Dyrnwyn away from her “rather roughly” and burned his arm trying to draw it, he passed out and missed “the earthquake, and the Horned King burning until he just, well broke apart. It wasn’t pleasant.” But then the Sons of Don arrived on the scene, and they were so handsome that even Eilonwy is at a loss for a simile to describe them.
The chamber door opens, and in come Flewddur, Gurgi, and Doli – suddenly it’s the end of “Return of the King” in there with everyone jumping on the bed. (Well, OK, the beginning of the end – if you’re talking Extended Edition, I think there are about 30 minutes of movie left at that point, but I digress.) Gurgi was wounded in action and is very proud to have been a brave warrior in his own right. Fflewddur describes the thrilling battle with nary a harp string breaking – that is, until he says he wasn’t scared. Eilonwy flies into nurse mode and shoos them all out, saying Taran needs rest and no one is to come back until she says they can. Right on cue, we hear a deep, sexy, wolfman voice: “Not even I?”
It’s Gwydion, y’all! And he’s finally looking like a prince in some clean clothes and a gold disk pendant. (It’s a great dramatic surprise, but somehow I feel like Eilonwy, in her breathless recounting of the events, would not have left out the very pertinent fact that he didn’t die.) Taran gets up from his couch and drops to one knee, but Gwydion raises him and says that’s no way to greet a friend: “It gives me more pleasure to remember an Assistant Pig-Keeper who feared I would poison him in the forest” (heh). Gwydion has Dyrnwyn at his side; Eilonwy gave it to him, recognizing that he was the right one to have it – and indeed, he’s able to draw it without any of that pesky fire stuff shooting out. Taran is all, how are you not dead, and Gwydion explains that he wasn’t in Spiral Castle when it fell – Achren had already taken him off to a castle called Oeth-Anoeth, which apparently is a place she and Arawn have just for torturing and killing people, like a lakehouse of doom.
Achren had tried once again to tempt Gwydion to the dark side, telling him that she ruled Prydain before Arawn, and that it was she who made Arawn ruler of Annuvin. Arawn then betrayed her (she didn’t say how), but she suggested that she and Gwydion together would have the power to depose Arawn and rule instead. Rule Annuvin, or rule Prydain? It’s not clear. Maybe first one and then the other. But it’s moot, because Gwydion is noble, and so naturally he told her to go to hell, prompting her to torture the heck out of him. Very close to death, he nonetheless clung to hope, and finally he got to some sort of state of enlightenment, beyond life and death. At that point, the prison walls melted away – like, literally? How did that happen exactly? Did he melt them with the power of his mind? I don’t know why this is hard for me to accept, given that we’ve seen several instances of magic in the book, but somehow it sounds less like magic and more like some sort of religious ecstasy or nirvana. Anyway, he was free. He hung out in the woods for a few days healing from his wounds, went to Spiral Castle to look for Taran but found it in ruins, and then set out for Caer Dathyl again. A few days later, a gwythaint flew out of the sky and spoke to him (after his ordeal/enlightenment, Gwydion can now understand the speech of all living creatures. Bonus!), saying that a band of travelers and a white pig were nearby. It was totally the fledgling that Taran helped out of the thornbush! Awww.
Next, Gwydion ran into Hen Wen, who told him the Horned King’s secret name. What the eff? I don’t remember anything about a secret name from when I read these books the first time. But apparently it’s the one thing that could destroy the Horned King, and that’s why he wanted to get Hen Wen so badly, before she could reveal it. Gwydion tells Taran that when you can look evil in the face and call it by its true name, it loses its power. OK… but maybe this plot point could have been introduced a little earlier in the story? And then, to make things even more confusing, Gwydion won’t tell Taran and Eilonwy the secret name, saying that it must remain a secret. But… I thought the secrecy was what made it powerful? So confused. At least now we know that it was the unintelligible word, spoken by Gwydion, that set the Horned King on fire. And it’s cute (if a little condescending) when Gwydion tells Eilonwy the name “was not half as pretty as your own.” Taran asks where the gwythaint went, and Gwydion says he doesn’t know – come on dude, I thought you knew everything now – but that she(!) won’t return to Annuvin for fear of Arawn’s retaliation. Will we ever see her again? Perhaps.
This is a jam-packed chapter, so I’m going to end here even though there are a couple of pages left. Next week: we conclude The Book of Three!
I always find the melting away of Oeth-Anoeth to be somewhat of a contrivance myself. If Gwydion has reached some sort of enlightenment, it doesn't seem to have much effect on him through the rest of the series. His ability to speak with animals is never mentioned again, for example, though I can think of several times it might have come in handy. You'd think a guy who had basically understood Everything About the World due to his time there would easily see through Arawn's shape-shifting ruse in the last book. But let me not jump too far ahead…
LOLing at "lakehouse of doom". Well, you'd hardly expect Arawn and Achren to have a cottage in the Alps, would you? Makes you wonder how they furnished their love nest back in the day…well, maybe not.
Exercising power over another being through knowledge of his/her real name is a pretty standard trope throughout fantasy and mythology. But Gwydion's reluctance to speak it after the fact is an interesting topic for speculation. Now I want to come up with a reason for it…
I'd be very interested to hear a Sunrise theory on why Gwydion can't reveal the HK's secret name to Taran and Eilonwy. And I would totally read a fanfic about Arawn and Achren picking out castle furnishings together. I suspect that Arawn, like Gaston, uses antlers in all of his decorating!
I recently re-read this book. I loved it as a kid and thoroughly enjoyed it as an adult now, until the scene where Gwydion is imprisoned so long he learns the secrets of life and death and the walls melt away. Which makes sense because… ??? And the bad guy being killed by speaking his true name needed some foreshadowing, it was just random. It made me feel like Gwydion was likely still stuck in prison in reality and drugged out of his mind.
Thanks for commenting, Ben! Did you go on to read the whole series after your re-read?
I agree, the wall-melting just makes no logical sense within the world-building that the book has done so far. It would have been far better if it were something like while he was imprisoned he was able to secretly observe Achren’s way in and out of the fortress and was able to escape.
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