I actually had to consult some reference materials (thank you Literature Resource Center, the Foundation Stones of Prydain, and the Prydain Wiki) and listen to the first disc twice to figure out what was going on (note to self: don't wait five years between books). The "companions" (Alexander's term and I do like it) from the first book -- Taran, the Assistant Pig-Keeper, the beautiful princess Eilonwy, the ever-hungry man-beast Gurgi, the fibbing bard Fflewddur Fflam, and Doli of the Fair Folk -- join the quest of Lord Gwydion to locate and destroy the black Cauldron of the death lord Arawn, who deposits the bodies of dead men into the Cauldron where they emerge Cauldron-Born (zombies). The companions become separated from the quest and end up unexpectedly locating the Cauldron in the possession of three witches, Orddu, Orwen and Orgoch, where they learn two things: 1. The only way to obtain the Cauldron is to trade something meaningful for it and 2. the only way to destroy it is if someone voluntarily enters the Cauldron. The pot will be destroyed, but so will the person who went inside it.
I think you can tell by the cast of characters why I was initially so confused. The names, oy, the names! Flying fast and furious, none of them recognizable (to most listeners), some of them similar sounding (Arawn - Annuvin, Eilonwy - Ellydir, Gwydion - Gwythaint), created a big mishmash in my head. Once I got things straightened out, though, I enjoyed the story. I understand that the Chronicles are grounded in Welsh mythology, notably a collection called the Mabinogian, but a reader doesn't need to know this in order to appreciate it. I kept getting flashes of The Fellowship of the Ring (the actual fellowship, not the book) with its mismatched characters, each with a quirk or two, together on the same quest. Alexander brings humor, loss, sacrifice and danger into what amounts to a very short book (under 200 pages); nothing is wasted.
Of course, narrator James Langton helps immensely with the names. Instead of tripping over them time and again reading to yourself, Langton whips them off with confidence and ease. He fully voices this story, creating believable, individual characters for a large cast of humans and non-humans. The three witches are very memorable if a bit cackling, as are the lilting bard (pronounced FLOO-dah) and Doli (who sounds like Sean Bean in the Sharpe series [this is not a bad thing]). He's equally at home voicing our innocent hero, a jealous and impatient warrior, and evil incarnate. Langton delivers the narrative in a bard-like voice, one that is pleasant on the ears and knows how to pace a good story. Plus, I now know that Prydain does not have a long i: Prih-DANE. (In further developments in what I know -- Prydain is Britain in Welsh.)
This recording is old enough that it ended with that familiar (to me) audiobooks-are-good-for-young-readers message from Jim Dale. ("Hullo, this is Jim Dale.") I think that message colored a significant amount of my early listening, so I enjoyed the flashback.
[The (poor) reproduction of the map of Prydain was retrieved from the Prydain Wiki (and is probably not copyright-free since it is from the print books, and I feel bad, but not badly enough). I think I've said before how much I like a map in a book.]
The Black Cauldron (The Chronicles of Prydain, Book 2) by Lloyd Alexander
Narrated by James Langton
Listening Library, 2004. 5:26