The Grey King by Susan Cooper,
The Dark is Rising sequence, Book 4.
Illustration by Julie Dillon.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1975).
“On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,The Grey King
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks.”
The fourth book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence opens with a prophetic rhyme which, with its alliterative phrases, antonyms and allusions, reads like a riddle to be solved – which in a way it is. The day of the dead is the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain, the modern Halloween, which once upon a time marked the end of summer and the start of the new year as autumn begins ushering in winter.
Noson Galan Gaeaf – ‘the eve of the first day of winter’ – is the Welsh term for All Hallows Eve, an ysbrydnos or ‘spirit night’ when the departed walk abroad in spirit. Cooper’s The Grey King is set in Gwynedd, the northeast corner of Wales, at precisely this period, and it’s especially fitting that I completed it at the very time and in the area where the story’s action takes place, around Tywyn near Aberdyfi.
It was in 1950s Aberdyfi – where, Cooper tells us, she spent many teenage holidays – that her Welsh Uncle Llew told her about the Brenin Llwyd or “Grey King” who features at the sinister heart of this spellbinding fantasy. It’s to nearby Tywyn and its hinterland that eleven-year-old Will Stanton comes to recuperate from hepatitis and where he has to call on all his powers to combat the malign forces on the slopes of the Cadair Idris massif.
Hills in the Cadair Idris range seen from Tywyn in the Dysynni valley. © C A Lovegrove
First of all, this is no ordinary fantasy. True, it follows on from three preceding fantasies set in Cornwall and Buckinghamshire which increasingly upped the incidence of magical scenarios and characters; and admittedly we touch on legends and folklore which are more than mere stories for entertainment, being immanent in the action of the novel’s present-day. But The Grey King, for all its spells and malign adversaries, is firmly about people, human emotions, and relationships.
Will comes to stay with Welsh relatives on a farm inland from Tywyn on the Cardigan Bay coast, where the climate and environment may aid his recovery. But here he soon feels the brooding influence of the Dark which he’s met before, when it was also revealed that in reality he was an Old One of the Light. The close-knit community dispersed among hill farms is full of distinctive figures – his aunt, uncle and cousin of course, but also John Rowlands, Owen Davies and Owen’s unusual son Brân. But also there’s Caradog Pritchard, a man with a shadowy history who seems to have developed irrational obsessions about his neighbours’ sheepdogs.
Within a few short days Will will have to adapt to a different way of life, negotiate fraught relationships, gain a smattering of the Welsh language – and hold the forces of the Dark at bay. What are the mysteries that the land of Gwynedd harbours and what happens when figures out of Arthurian legend and Welsh lore emerge to affect the course of human history?
Susan Cooper’s storytelling is outstanding. Added to her capacity for making the random workings of magic credible is her ability to make us accept the existence of her characters and to care about them as individuals; and then there’s her poetic descriptions of landscape, weather, feelings, descriptions which without being showy are crafted with precision and beauty. Nor must I omit her sensitive inclusion of some Welsh phrases because, this being Gwynedd, the reader should know that the iaith Gymreig is spoken here as a matter of course and that, although admittedly I’m Sais, even a smattering of Welsh aids one’s appreciation immensely.
It’s hard to write in depth about this instalment in the series without giving too much of the story away, but the fact is that the stanzas which form the epigraph to The Grey King allude to many of the motifs appearing here, from the door of the birds to a raven boy, from a pilgrimage route to a golden harp and on to Six Sleepers and Arthur’s sword. Just how they are woven in with an intense tale of love, jealousy and loss is for the curious reader to discover and to savour.
Read as part of Annabel Gaskell’s The Dark is Rising sequence readalong. As is usual a follow-up post will introduce spoilers in an attempt to enlarge on Cooper’s themes.