The Gwythaints are dragon-like creatures that serve the Horned King, and are supporting antagonists in both Lloyd Alexander's fantasy book series The Chronicles of Prydain and Disney's The Black Cauldron. In the book series, they are a race of ferocious eagle-like creatures that were also once under the command of Arawn Death-Lord. In the film adaptation, they are reptilian wyvern-creatures instead of birds.
Description and Origins
In the Chronicles of Prydain, the gwythaints are black birds of prey larger than the largest eagle, with red eyes, curving beaks, and talons as sharp as daggers. Arawn captured them long ago and tortured them into his service; he keeps them in iron cages in his stronghold of Annuvin and they serve him out of terror. Reminiscent in spirit to the Flying Monkeys of L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz, the Gwythaints are the eyes and ears of Arawn, spying and bringing information. They are not above attacking, however, and do so on several occasions.
Medwyn, a Noah-like character, explains, "Once, long ago, they were as free as other birds, gentle and trusting. In his cunning, Arawn lured them to him and brought them under his power. He built the iron cages which are now their prison house in Annuvin.".
The Fledgling Gwythaint
Taran, the protagonist of the Prydain series, takes Medwyn's word to heart, and when he finds an injured fledgling gwythaint, he builds it a small cage and nurses it back to health. The other companions want to kill it, but Taran refuses. Though it also seems to warm to Taran and also Princess Eilonwy, it escapes, and the companions fear that it will reveal their plans. Instead, it repays Taran's kindness by informing Prince Gwydion (who has the power of speech of animals) of their location, and helps them to resolve the novel's plot.
The Fledgling Gwythaint reappears in the fifth novel of the series, The High King. In a climactic scene, Taran is dangling precariously from a ledge on Mount Dragon when a gwythaint seems to attack. Amazingly, it is the same Fledgling Gwythaint, who instead rescues him and lifts him to the top of the mountain. He then attacks the encroaching Cauldron Born, and is tragically struck down after its noble actions. In addition, the Fledgling Gwythaint placed Taran exactly where the stolen sword Drynwyn had been hidden, again helping resolve the novel's main narrative. Taran's early kindness was repaid many times over.
Alexander's mother recalled he frequently brought home injured animals as a child; this perhaps was reflected in the story of the Fledgling Gwythaint.
Fate of the Gwythaints
Unlike the Fledgling Gwythaint, the other Gwythaints are ruthless to the people and animals of Prydain. Besides the sense of oppression they developed, they attacked numerous characters in the series. They inform Arawn of the companions' plans in The Black Cauldron. In The High King, they attack and injure Kaw, the crow, as he spies on Annuvin, and they nearly kill the sorceress Achren, and she is only saved by an "army of crows" so great in number that they drive away the eagle-sized gwythaints.
When Arawn is killed and his power destroyed, the gwythaints also die. Sadly, they do not return to their unspoiled state.
The Black Cauldron
In the Disney film The Black Cauldron, which is a loose adaptation of the entire series, the gwythaints are drawn to resemble wyvern. They serve as the Horned King's minions and dragons, and he sends them on missions to find whatever he is looking for. They manage to find Hen Wen when Taran accidentally let her escape in the woods. Taran sees the gwythaints, and tries to help Hen Wen and fight the gwythaints. However, because the gwythaints are powerful, one of them is able to hurt Tarans with its claws; they capture Hen Wen the pig and take her back to the Horned King's castle.
They are later seen on a perch in the castle, while Creeper and the other henchmen celebrate the capture of Hen Wen. One of the henchmen gives the two gwythaints a bone to eat. Everyone, including the gwythaints, appears to be having fun until the Horned King appears in an eerie crackle of lightning.
Later when Taran and Hen Wen try to escape, Creeper, the henchmen and even the gwythaints try (without being ordered) to give chase; the gwythaints are chained to their perch, but are strong enough to break the perch free of the stone wall and pursue Taran. However, the gwythaints are tripped up by the perch they are still attached to, causing a commotion and forcing the henchmen to give up chase for a few seconds. However, Creeper manages to capture Taran, but Hen Wen escapes in a moat, and during this scene the gwythaints are chained up to the wall, off-screen.
They are later sent to follow Taran to find the Black Cauldron, which they succeed in doing, and they are chained up again. One of them is killed when the Horned King's castle is destroyed and the other gwythaint is saved by Creeper off-screen. The gwythaint escapes with Creeper, who is laughing madly that the Horned King is dead and cannot punish him, riding on the gwythaint's back and flying away.