A bit later than originally planned, but I hope you’re still with me as we come to the fourth of the five books in Susan Cooper’s wonderful children’s adventure fantasy series, The Grey King, published in 1975.
Catch up with the previous posts here:
This time the action centres around Will Stanton again who is sent off to near Aberdovey / Aberdyfi in Wales to stay with his uncle for some R&R after suffering from hepatitis. His mind begins to clear with the clean air and his magic as one of the Old Ones returns. He knows that during his stay in Wales, he will be the key on the next part of the quest to rescue the golden harp to stop the Dark, as the first verse of the prophecy goes:
“On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks.
There fire shall fly from the raven boy,
And the silver eyes that see the wind,
And the Light shall have the harp of gold.”
Will’s companions from Greenwitch, the Drew children, aren’t part of The Grey King, although they’re fondly remembered by Will. Instead he will need a new helper, and that is Bran Davies, the adopted albino son of nearby farmer Owen Davies. Bran, named for Bran the Blessed in the second branch of the Mabinogion, is translated as ‘raven’ or ‘crow’ in Welsh, and being an albino, I was immediately reminded of Owen Sheers’ retelling of the story of Branwen, Bran’s sister in White Ravens – part of Seren’s wonderful New Tales of the Mabinogion series.
Will and Bran will become close friends; there is a nice scene where Bran is teaching Will how to pronounce Welsh words, telling him to blow round both sides of his tongue with it touching the back of his front teeth to get the ‘ll’ sound. They will fall out and make up before the book is over too. It’s good for Bran, a loner, to have a friend.
Together, Will and Bran, with Bran’s dog with the power to see the wind, Caffall (named for King Arthur’s dog), will have to fight the Dark together. The Dark comes in many forms: including that of neighbouring farmer Caradog Pritchard who had lusted after Bran’s mother and turned bitter since, enabling the Dark’s Grey King to control him; he is obsessed with blaming Caffall for the worrying and wounding of his sheep. The sheep maimers are the huge grey foxes belonging to the Grey King though, the Milgwyn, reminding me of Lewis’s ‘Maugrim’, the White Witch’s wolf from The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Part of Will’s task is to awake the sleepers under the hill which took me back to Alan Garner’s The Moon of Gomrath, where twins, Colin and Susan, awaken the ‘Wild Hunt’ – although they are truly wild unlike Will’s sleepers. You may ask where is Merriman? Well, he plays but a small part in this book, but he is there!
The Grey King steers us ever deeper into Celtic folklore with the Mabinogion bound up with more Arthurian myth. I liked the balance more in this one between the more natural magic vs the mage magic of the Old Ones and the Dark, given that Will was the lead character, compared with Will’s mage-making second instalment to the series. Bran is a great addition, and I’m glad that all the main characters will be reunited in the final book, Silver on the Tree, of which I will try to post before Christmas!