“Who has not heard of the Cauldron Born, the mute and deathless warriors who serve the Lord of Annuvin? These are the stolen bodies of the slain, steeped in Arawn’s cauldron to give them life again. They emerge implacable as death itself, their humanity forgotten. Indeed, they are no longer men but weapons of murder, in thrall to Arawn for ever.”

When I was a kid there was one film that truly terrified me. This was a children’s event movie, promoted with tiny plastic figurines in packs of Kellogg’s Cornflakes. I emerged from the cinema after watching The Black Cauldron twitching with fear at the memory of skeletal warriors and poor Gurgi’s fate.

As it happens the novel Disney based their movie on is quite different (yay for Gurgi!). Bear in mind this is a review of a second book in a series of five titles. I will say that I had no trouble getting to grips with the plot despite having no knowledge of the preceding chapter in Alexander’s series.

Taran, Assistant Pig-Keeper to the magician Dallben dreams of becoming a hero. Instead he has to tend to and feed his master’s pig. Granted, the pig in question Hen Wen is a magical pig, with the gift of prophecy, but a pig nonetheless. Life at Caer Dallben is quiet, unbearably so after Taran’s previous adventures fighting against the minions of the dark lord Arawn.

One day a sour-looking young man named Prince Ellidyr rides up to Taran’s pig-pen and in an insulting tone demands to see Dallben. Feeling slighted, the Assistant Pig-Keeper challenges the stranger and receives a firm beating for his trouble before his master breaks up the fight.  Ellidyr and a number of other lords and warriors, including friends Fflewddur the bard with a harp that breaks its own strings if he tells a lie and Doli a foul-tempered dwarf with the ‘gift’ of invisibility, have been invited to Caer Dallben for a council of war.

Even the Pig-Keeper has a seat at the council, much to the disgust of his friend the Princess Eilonwy (as well as the arrogant Ellidyr). Dallben reveals the reason for his calling this meeting. The High King Gwydion has a plan to strike a fatal blow against the undead forces of Arawn, who rules the neighbouring kingdom of Annuvin. The source of his power, The Black Cauldron, must be taken from him and destroyed, at one stroke removing his ability to create his armies of deathless warriors.

Gwydion assigns tasks to everyone assembled, requesting that Taran, Ellidyr and the wise warrior Adaon protect their rear guard at the border of Arawn’s realm and after a night’s rest they set off on their quest.

However, despite all of their planning, Gwydion’s warriors discover that the Black Cauldron itself has been stolen from Arawn. Fflewddur and Doli arrive to warn Taran of the disaster moments before they are forced to flee the Huntsmen of Annuvin, whose strength doubles whenever one of their number is killed. Cut off from their comrades, with the agents of Arawn standing between them and Gwydion’s base, Taran makes the fateful choice to follow the path of the stolen Cauldron into the Marshes of Morva, where he is told three creatures known as Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch live. They provoked Arawn’s anger by stealing his most prized possession and may intend an even more wicked use for the ‘Black Crochan’.

I have not mentioned that Taran is joined by Princess Eilonwy and the comical creature known as Gurgi, who followed the party into the wilderness. Alexander, as this is a children’s book, introduces plenty of pubescent battles of the sexes. There is even a comical scene when Taran insists that she help him ‘gird’, his new sword. “After all,” he added, “you’re the only girl in Caer Dallben”.

The main conflict, however, is not between Gwydion’s armies and Arawn’s deathless hordes, but Taran and the prideful Ellidyr. Over the course of the book, with the help of the wise Adaon, the Pig-Keeper learns to recognize his rival’s true nature.

Alexander draws lightly upon Welsh mythology, putting his own spin on the characters of the Mabinogion. There is also a welcome avoidance of simplistic morality, with goodness and evil identified as the result of choices made by the characters.

Fast-paced and rich, great mythic fantasy.