The Grey King by Susan Cooper

This is the fourth book in Susan Cooper’s five-volume sequence, The Dark is Rising, and I feel as though things are starting to fall nicely into place ahead of the fifth and final book, Silver on the Tree. I’m beginning to form a better understanding of the opposing forces of the Light and the Dark and how the various characters and elements of the series have their roots in Arthurian legend and British folklore. However, this book also raises new questions and explores issues and topics not yet touched upon in the earlier novels, so there’s still a long way to go before the end!

The Grey King begins with Will Stanton, the eleven-year-old boy – and ‘Old One’ – we met in The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch, going to stay with an aunt and uncle in Wales while recuperating from hepatitis. His parents hope it will be a nice, relaxing break for him, but it turns out to be just the opposite! During Will’s illness, he has forgotten the details of the quest begun in the previous novels, but as his memories slowly return he remembers that his next task is to find the golden harp that will awaken six sleepers who will join the final battle between Dark and Light.

The three Drew children, who played such important roles in Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch, don’t appear in this book, but Will receives help this time from a new friend, Bran, a boy he meets in the Welsh hills. With his white hair and pale skin, as well as a mystery surrounding the disappearance of his mother, Bran has never fitted in with other children and leads a lonely, solitary life with only his beloved dog, Cafall, for company. When Will learns that Bran is ready to help him with the next stage of the quest, a bond forms between the two and they set out together to find the harp and wake the sleepers.

The villain this time is the Brenin Llwyd, or the ‘Grey King’, an ancient and powerful Lord of the Dark who lives high in the mountains, his breath forming a ragged grey mist that can be seen for miles around. Although Will and Bran have little direct contact with the Grey King for most of the book, they are aware of his presence all around them and of the work of his agents, the bitter and spiteful farmer, Caradog Prichard, and the powerful grey foxes known as the Milgwn. Like the other books in the series, this one is wonderfully eerie and atmospheric, and while the Dark continues to feel evil and malevolent, we are again made to question how ‘good’ the Light really is:

Those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun…Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light…At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe.

As with The Dark is Rising, I felt that the mission was completed much too easily (I was particularly disappointed with a game of riddles, as very little effort went into solving them). The tasks that have faced the Drew children seem to be more difficult and dangerous somehow, maybe because they are ‘ordinary’ children and don’t have the powers that Will has. However, the quest is only one aspect of the novel and there are other elements that interested me as much or more. I particularly loved the Welsh setting – and was grateful for the lesson in Welsh pronunciation Will receives early in the novel! I also enjoyed getting to know Bran and discovering how he fits into the overall story.

I’m looking forward to reading Silver on the Tree and finding out how it all ends!

Book 4 for R.I.P. XVI

11 thoughts on “The Grey King by Susan Cooper

  1. Calmgrove says:

    This is the next title in TDIR which I am yet to read but, with its Welsh setting it’s one I’m looking forward to. Interesting what you say about cloudy mist curling about the mountains being the Brenin Llwyd’s breath — here in Wales it’s usually called dragon’s breath in actual fact, so I love the way SC hijacks and subverts traditional beliefs.

  2. Lark says:

    I know I read the first two books in this series when I was a kid, but now I’m wondering if I ever read this one. It doesn’t seem familiar. I wonder if my sister still has her copies of these books so I can borrow them and see. 🙂

  3. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    I haven’t reread the whole series for many years but I think this book is autographed! Susan Cooper lives near me and I saw her a couple years ago at an event with Gregory Maguire who wrote Wicked.

    As an adult rereading juvy favorites, I do sometimes think the issue/quest is too easily solved. It takes someone like Elizabeth Marie Pope in Perilous Gard to create a resolution that reverberates. On the other hand, I occasionally get annoyed when it seems like the author realizes in the last chapter that it’s going to take another book (or three) to figure it all out because that seems manipulative.

    I was impressed by the Winner’s trilogy by Marie Rutkoski and the two Crows books by Leigh Bardugo but a lot of the YA fantasy being published seems interchangeable so I haven’t been reading much of it.


    • Helen says:

      Yes, I think maybe I’m expecting too much from a book that was written for younger readers – although I still haven’t read The Perilous Gard and am pleased to hear that Pope gets the resolution right. Most of today’s YA fantasy novels don’t appeal to me, but I do like the older ones!

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