Evil and Riddles: The Grey King

The 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.


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