The Horned King was a mighty and much-feared war leader, and the champion of Arawn Death-Lord. The enchanter Dallben said he was "as powerful as Gwydion; some say more powerful." The Horned King was a man of evil, "for whom death [was] a black joy." No man knew his name, nor had seen his face. He rallied around himself many cantrev lords with the intent of defying the Sons of Don and marching on Caer Dathyl.
The Horned King rode a black horse and wore a crimson cape that flowed from his naked shoulders, and a mask in the shape of a human skull, with great stag's antlers that "rose in cruel curves". His gigantic arms, left bare, were stained crimson. He wielded a sword.
Skills and Powers
The Horned King was a mighty warrior reportedly on par with Prince Gwydion. He was a skilled rider and swordsman, and beyond his purely martial powers he seemed to produce a chilling effect on all those who beheld him. His mere presence caused the beasts of the forest to quiet, and Taran was awestruck by his visage. It remains unknown whether this power was one of enchantment or due to his ghoulish appearance.
The Horned King was first seen by Taran while seeking the oracular pig Hen Wen, who had fled Caer Dallben when the Horned King drew near. The Horned King's forces attempted to move against Caer Dathyl, while Fflewddur, Eilonwy, Taran and Doli attempted to reach the city and warn it.
At the climax of the book, face-to-face with Taran and Eilonwy, the Horned King hesitated briefly when Taran partly drew the enchanted sword Dyrnwyn from its sheath. That in turn gave Gwydion the opening he needed to destroy the Horned King with the only weapon that would work -- the power of the Horned King's true name (which he had learned from Hen Wen). At the utterance of his name, the Horned King was struck by a flash of lightning and destroyed by flames.
The true name itself is never revealed in the Chronicles. When Eilonwy asked Gwydion for it, he only revealed that it was "not as pretty as yours."
In a late 16th-century manuscript, Peniarth ms98, a summary of the earlier Welsh poem "Cad Goddau" provides details not found in the original poem:
- These are the englyns that were sung at the Cad Goddeu (the Battle of the Trees), or, as others call it, the Battle of Achren which was on account of a white roebuck and a welp; and they came from Hell, and Amathaon ab Don brought them. And therefore Amathaon ab Don, and Arawn, King of Annwn (Hell), fought. And there was a man in that battle, unless his name were known he could not be overcome; and there was on the other side a woman called Achren, and unless her name were known her party could not be overcome. And Gwydion ab Don guessed the name of the man....
This was the summary from which author Lloyd Alexander drew the basic plot for the first book in the Chronicles of Prydain, The Book of Three. Further, according to author Robert Graves in his 1966 book The White Goddess, which Alexander used as a source of inspiration and research, the use of secret names is a common mythological motif. "In ancient times, once a god's secret name had been discovered," wrote Graves, "the enemies of his people could do destructive magic against them with it." (p. 49)
As to the antlered aspect of the character, Graves notes that such headdresses were often worn by ancient British kings and that these items had been discovered in burial mounds. In other regions, such as Russia and Scythia, horns were sometimes engraved on bronze helmets or stylized as tall hats.