Jul 7 2011 11:13am

Evil and Riddles: The Grey King

The Grey King by Susan CooperThe Grey King, the fourth book in The Dark Is Rising sequence, once again abandons the three children from the first and third books to focus on Will and his battle against the forces of the Dark, this time adding a new character with rather different ties to Arthurian mythology. Dealing with the issues of loss, parenthood, identity, isolation and healing, it is perhaps the richest and most satisfying book of the series. It was awarded the 1976 Newberry Medal.

The book begins when Will, recovering from hepatitis, is sent to Wales to recuperate, on the apparent hope Wales will be a quieter place than his home. This turns out to be an optimistic thought, as Will’s arrival in Wales happens to coincide with some dark doings indeed: a nasty neighbor named Caradog Pritchard, sheep killings, mysteriously swerving cars, and an ominous cloud formation.

This last, a ragged cloud hanging in tatters about a mountain top is considered an evil omen indeed: the Welsh farmers call it the breath of the Grey King. It does not take Will long to realize that this is not merely a metaphor: the Grey King is quite real indeed, and quite evil. (I have to admit to quite enjoying the thought of British weather as actively evil. I mean, I knew it was, but having a fantasy book offer actual proof is a great touch.)

Will also has to try to recover his memories of the past few books — illness has given him amnesia, a neat narrative trick that allows Cooper to remind readers of a few necessary details from previous books here and there in this one as Will’s memory slowly returns, rather than providing a short summary.

As he is beginning to remember, he meets a young boy named Bran, an albino who plays the harp and has a dog almost as white as he. Bran has been raised largely alone, after his mother abandoned him, by a man who is not his biological father, and the dog is his one true friend. When the dog is accused of sheep killing, Bran reacts with terror and fury. Will, meanwhile, realizes that something else is going on here, in the endless battles between Light and Dark and the Grey King. Both soon find themselves wrapped in magic and stepping into mountains, and into a final confrontation of breathtakingly beautiful imagery, with some of Cooper’s finest writing.

Merriman, the older magician of previous books, is barely in this one, which, I think, strengthens the entire work. In previous books, his presence as mentor lent a certain sense of safety to the proceedings; here, the comparatively isolated Bran and Will feel no such thing. It also leaves both boys more open to traps and persuasion, especially in the case of Bran, angrily looking for explanations. And the isolated Bran, even when almost speechless with sorrow, is a more strongly drawn character than the other children of the series.

Alas, the highlight of the book is also in some ways one of its most irritating scenes: the grand riddle game, where Will and Bran must answer three riddles in order to gain a magical harp. Drawn from Welsh folklore, which offers numerous examples of triads and riddles, the scene is powerful and lyrical...

...and yet, without specialized knowledge of Welsh folklore and the specialized properties of beech wood, and perhaps not even then, readers do not have a hope of solving any of the riddles. Even a short, “Ah, yes, that’s a lovely beech box, but be careful not to get it wet, because beech doesn’t do well in water,” would have helped. As it is, readers are presented with some information about the Elders of the World (not mentioned before this); the three generous men of Britain (ditto); and an extremely bad pun about beech trees which is not even all that biologically correct. The end result is a scene of beauty and frustration.

In contrast, while the riddles in The Hobbit are certainly not easy, they could be solved by a careful child reader; at the very least, a reader can say, ah, I get that! Here, the response is more, and they knew that answer how? And it’s especially frustrating since elsewhere, Cooper helpfully includes some guides to pronouncing Welsh right in the dialogue for readers who have no idea how to pronounce “w” in Welsh or just why this harmless letter is suddenly disguised as a vowel. If she can provide language lessons, perhaps a bit of information about the Elders of the World and the generous men of Britain would have been lovely.

Another note: despite the tale of Bran’s mother, and a few appearances here and there by Will’s not exactly an aunt, this is hands down the most masculine book of the series. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself — I have no objections to books focused on male characters. But coming fourth in a series that did feature women characters in at least secondary roles, and directly following a book that showed women as the neutral, chaotic forces of nature, it feels… odd, reinforced by the discovery that the guardians of this book’s magical item are all men.

Also, those of you fond of musical instruments, especially magical and antique musical instruments, and filled with the desire to protect them, say, from getting flung into cold bodies of water while they are fully strung, should brace yourself for some painful moments.

But perhaps because Cooper knows her setting so well, The Grey King feels more immediate, more real, than its predecessors. The slaughtered sheep represent not merely terror, but a genuine economic loss for the farmers, and for once, the battle between good and evil seems less abstract, and more something that is causing real harm, not merely to the fighters, but to those who aren’t even aware that the battle is going on. And the Arthurian elements, tightly woven into the story, provide a mystery that readers disappointed by the riddle scene can solve.

I don’t exactly want to encourage people to start a series on the fourth book, but if you were left cold by the other entries of this series, you might want to give this one a try.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida, where she is careful to keep a harp, a mountain dulcimer, keyboard and recorders out of the rain.

Andrew Lawler
1. Andrew Lawler
I so agree that there is a real sense of risk and loss in these books. They really are some of the most moving fantasies around.
Fade Manley
2. fadeaccompli
I remember being deeply confused by the entire second half of this book the first time I read it; and then, the next time I read it, at least half of that still confused me. I suspect the lack of any previous exposure at all to Welsh folklore (honestly, I'm not sure I even knew Wales existed before I read this book as a child) didn't help on that point.
3. shalamiope
I recall reading the series for the 1st time in 8th grade (in order). I remember being exceedingly confused by half this book, and it subsequently became my least favorite - until I re-read them after college and understood a lot more. (And knew how to research! Web search was just beginning in junior high!)

I adore the imagery in this book more than the others, and how much more real the sense of love and loss is. I would agree that it would be a difficult place to begin the series, but if a reader didn't make it through all 3 of the earlier books, reading this one might encourage them to give the series another try.
David Goldfarb
4. David_Goldfarb
It's been long enough since I read the book that I don't have any comment on it; however, I want to note that "Newbery" is spelled with only one R.
Mari Ness
5. MariCats
@Andrew Lawler - This was actually the first book of the series that made me feel that loss; I felt that most of the main (good) characters would survive in the other books and were never in real danger. Here -- the sheep and the dog made it feel more real.

@fadeaccompli and shalamiope - Ok, now this is beginning to bother me -- because I don't think anyone should have to turn to outside research or knowledge in order to enjoy a book. I think it's cool to recognize stuff like that, but a book -- well, at least a novel - should be self-contained.

@David Goldfarb - Gulp! You are absolutely right - my bad.
Andrew Lawler
6. Finny
The Grey King is my favourite of the five. It is also the one I read first, as it's the only one of them my elementary library had, and it's the only one I found in a used bookstore some years later (in a nice large print casewrap hardcover).

I suppose because of being introduced to Will and Bran, and Wales, long before I read the other four books (which I did not know existed until I was in high school; I'd first read The Grey King in grade five), I never have really warmed up to the Drews. The Grey King is my favourite, followed by Silver on the Tree, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, and finally Over Sea, Under Stone, which was the last of the books I read.
Matt Wright
7. matty42
Great book, very atmospheric and very real in terms of the danger and tension.

This was the first one I stumbled across as well, in my elementary school library in the third grade. I think this was also the first book that I got fined for keeping late, because I just kept reading it over and over.
Fade Manley
8. fadeaccompli
@MariCats: I think it's a mixed bag sort of thing. On the one hand, if I hadn't read a book like this, when would I have found out about Wales, and the fact that it had its own language and culture and wasn't just some oddly named bit of England? Not for a damn sight longer, that's for sure. And it'd be selfish of me to demand that additional explanations get thrown in for particularly clueless readers; I get frustrated easily when there's an awful lot of Helpful Asides in a book where I can pick up those things easily.

On the other hand...the book was, I think, aimed at a sufficiently large audience that it was expected a lot of readers wouldn't know the backstory, as the bits about pronunciation and so forth certainly showed. So even in retrospect, it seems to me like it could've done better in explaining things.

On the gripping hand, I still don't remember what the hell was going on in any of Greenwitch except that I was annoyed at non-Will characters suddenly being given prominence, either. So it may well just be that since I read books quickly and lightly at that age, anything that required actual analysis and thought and picking things up from context tended to sail right over my head anyway.
Birgit F
9. birgit
The newer German editions have some footnotes that explain things that children might not know like historical or mythological allusions. One footnote in the first book is an annoying spoiler: The first time Merriman appears, a footnote says that Barney later notices that the name sounds like Merlin.
In this book Will suddenly doesn't know Welsh, but in other books his magic allows him to understand any language. There is one scene where Will overhears a conversation and understands it although it should have been in Welsh since the people don't realize he is listening.
Andrew Lawler
10. seth e.
I was always fond of this book too, though it wasn't my favorite. It's interesting hearing people talk about the unclear setting, though; I wasn't exactly familiar with the concept of Wales as a kid, but I sailed right past all that stuff. It didn't bother me at all.

Whenever Jo Walton re-reads a Heinlein juvenile, she talks about how she saw soda jerks and, I don't know, slide rules as just as sf-nal as rockets and Ganymede. The recent past in a different country is also a fantastical world, and I think that's how I saw sheepherding in Wales. Of course I didn't understand some of it, it was practially numinous to me.

Also, I believe I'd read Patricia McKillip's Riddlemaster books by this point, so I was familiar with the idea of "riddle" as "arcane knowledge," rather than just a brain-teaser.

birgit, @9 - As I recall, I saw Will's sudden problem with language as explained by the difference between his human side and his Old One side. In Grey King, he's been sick, and is cut off from part of himself; also, he's trying not to attract the King's attention by assuming his full identity.

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