#TDiRS22 – The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 4: The Grey King

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!

14 thoughts on “#TDiRS22 – The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 4: The Grey King

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      She gets the balance of the children’s story vs the grown-up themes and material really well in this one.

  1. Calmgrove says:

    I absolutely see why it won its plaudits, the inaugural Tir na n-Og Award and the Newbery Medal, and I love that you picked up that there were adult themes there along with the focus on the young protagonists. Each instalment seems to get better and better, certainly in terms of reader satisfaction and the reader’s sense of being drawn further into this ancient conflict between Light and Dark. A magnificent evocation,. Annabel!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Greenwitch is my favourite so far still, but this comes very close – especially with its Mabinogion leanings.

  2. Lory says:

    When I read this as a child I had no other acquaintance with Celtic myth or Arthurian lore … I still don’t know that much about the field, and I appreciate having the background and connections pointed out. Even without conscious knowledge, I think it gave me a deep sense of that stream and a love for a landscape where I’ve never been. I still feel the magic when I visit it through the book again. And I have never forgotten that little lesson in speaking Welsh.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’m lucky in that I’m fairly steeped in British and European legend in my childhood reading as much as my adult, so I can see a lot of connections, but reading without that can be just as joyous. That Welsh lesson was so lovely, wasn’t it.

  3. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    Each book is so different but I think this one has the strongest sense of place and it is great to see Will so confident and in possession of his power, befriending Bran, talking to John Rowlands, negotiating with the Dark . . . Cooper is always good at creating secondary characters but there were too many to keep track of in The Dark is Rising and the action in Greenwitch required very few. Here, there are just the right amount. Will’s family does not take up much space but they are supportive. The contrast between Owen who is serious and turned to religion after losing Gwen/acquiring Bran and John Rowlands, both farmers, is interesting. It is John who taught Bran to play the harp and also John who recognizes that Will is an Old One and offers to help. He notices that Cafall did not have blood on his mouth as he would have if he had maimed the sheep.

    I loved the riddle scene. I can’t think of another such situation where the judges represent both sides.

    I wish I could remember the moment when I first read it and realized, “Wait, that’s King Arthur!” I remember dressing up as Queen Guinevere for Halloween when I was about 10 with a pretty decent homemade costume and cone shaped hat (that kept blowing off) and being deflated that no one knew who I was!


    I doubt I will stay on Twitter much longer but I will see you all in January!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thank you so much for your wonderful review on your own blog. I agree, the secondary characters were particularly strong in this volume. See you next month! (But don’t go from Twitter… it’s so hard to build up new presences elsewhere).

  4. hcethatsme says:

    Another one I thought I had read but never have – based on the cover with what looks like a German shepherd (wrong breed surely?), all this time I thought the Grey King was a dog! I was obsessed with all things Arthurian as a kid so I’m extra-sorry I missed this one.

    CLM (@ConMartin) – such good points about the books being very different from each other and this one having the right number of secondary characters. There’s also a happy medium here between Will as an Old One (not really human) and Will as an actual kid who’s getting over an illness and dealing with a new place. I continue to be fascinated by the notion of High Magic being beyond Light and Dark, “the strongest and more remote force in the universe.” I pulled two other quotes: about Caradog raging: “All that could be seen in him was the urge to hurt, and it was, as it always will be, the most dreadful sight in the world.” And this was both funny and true: after Will’s fall, the family treat him “as a fragile piece of china which, since it had magically survived without breakage, should be set very carefully on a shelf and not moved for a special conciliatory length of time.”

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I never read these books as a child, so the series has been a real pleasure to read for the first time. Yes – I really liked Will’s balance here too. That Caradog quote you’ve pulled out is an excellent one.

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