When the year dies

Llyn Mwyngil, Tal-y-llyn lake © C A Lovegrove

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,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks.”

The Grey King

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.


#TDiRS22 @ annabookbel.net

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.

22 thoughts on “When the year dies

  1. I have to say, this is probably my favorite. I read it a few years ago for the Dewithon not knowing anything about the series. I always seem to read series out of sequence! Anyway, I love the atmosphere Cooper creates in this novel, the magic of the language and the mysterious landscapes. I agree, it is “outstanding!”

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    1. Atmosphere, magic, mystery – I agree, Laurie, it’s all here! And naturally I have to add, having visited here, the place is everything it’s cracked up to be – not as spectacular as some landscapes but quietly brooding, with the sense that some legend or other is behind every rocky outcrop.

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  2. “Her poetic descriptions of landscape, weather, feelings, descriptions which without being showy are crafted with precision and beauty” — well put! Among some of the dreck that is out there, for adults as well as for children, this really makes her work stand out for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Exactly! Little if anything jars in her writing; whether it’s passages about action or sections of dialogue it flows, it feels absolutely natural. It’s an object lesson in how not to let the narrator get in the way of the narrative, I think.

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  3. I enjoyed all of the books in this series but this is one I found particularly fascinating. I loved the atmospheric setting and the mixture of Welsh folklore and Arthurian legend. I’ll look forward to your follow-up post!

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    1. I’ve already written the follow-up and it’s scheduled for early December, after a few reviews I’ve already lined up! And I agree, unlike the Home Counties and a Cornish fishing village – environments which may feel familiar to many readers – the scattered settlements of inland Wales might come across to them as a bit, well, alien or mysterious.

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  4. I’ve just been drafting my post on this book, Chris – and it really is a stunner, isn’t it? I’d forgotten much of it, though elements did come back, and I loved the weaving together of the Welsh and Arthurian legends. And having visited North Wales many, many times since I last read this book, the language and location felt much more familiar! Cooper’s writing really is outstanding.

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    1. Like many a book set in a particular geographical location, landscape descriptions take on extra pertinence if one has been there, but even if not the writing has to be good to evoke the place well, and Cooper certainly does that!

      And another thing: I’ve only ever lived in the south of the country – De Cymru – so am more familiar with the lilt of North Pembrokeshire speech and, to a lesser extent, that of the Marches (where much less Welsh is spoken); rural North Walian voices are very different, and I was trying very hard to hear the Welsh phrases as spoken by the Gogs!

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        1. I too like to binge now and again, though admittedly it’s less frequent nowadays – the last time was a month or two ago with the first two series the His Dark Materials TV adaptations in anticipation of the third due this December!

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  5. I may or may not ever get around to reading this series, but, oh your photographs Chris! I’ve only been to Wales twice, but you capture so many of the feelings I have for this place in your photos. I yearn to return.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, you’ll be in for a treat with my follow-up post, Bronwen, chock-full of photos from a recent visit to the area!

      And of course with your own heritage and, of course, name I’m unsurprised you have feelings for this part of Wales – naturally you’ll be aware that Branwen from The Mabinogion was from Gwynedd, as was her brother Brân the Blessed (whose namesake appears in this story as a young albino lad).

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    1. Thanks, Anne, this was one I remember taking out of the library in the 70s but found difficult to get oriented in and never finished, either this or the series. Pleased you liked the photo – on a second visit the day was a bit brighter and I banged off a few more shots, one or two of which may appear in the next post!

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  6. How have I not read this? Pretty much every summer, our annual holiday was a week in Fairbourne, up the coast from Tywyn, apart from the year we stayed on the Joneses’ farm inland from Tywyn, on the way to Abergynolwyn. I’ve always loved how ancient everything felt around there. Castell y Bere and Bird Rock are particular favourites in that landscape. The Grey King has gone straight onto my wishlist, Chris, and is filed away for a future Dewithon read. Diolch yn fawr!

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    1. Croeso, Jan, this’ll be right up your heol or ffordd then! I only saw Bird Rock from a distance, and Castell y Bere will have to be for some future break, I think. As a kid in the early 50s the better half used to stay in a former railway carriage parked by the Fairbourne station, so recent visits to Fairbourne, Tywyn and Barmouth have for her been a form of pilgrimage to family holiday haunts.

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      1. How lovely! The railway was my favourite thing as a child, followed by the ferry ride across to Barmouth. There was no former railway carriage to stay in by the 1970s, sadly. We stayed on what was known as Holiday Village – the bungalows at the back, looking over the dyke to Arthog. Right up until her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, I carried on going to Fairbourne for a week with my mum. The last time I was there was 5 years ago to scatter her ashes at Llynnau Cregennan at the foot of Cader Idris. She’d climbed Cader one year while I read on the beach, and we used to do a big walk from Llwyngwril to Cregennan and back down to Fairbourne via Arthog, so it seemed right to join her ashes to the land there.

        Do go to Castell y Bere. It’s my joint favourite Welsh castle, along with Harlech.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. So many memories, Jan, I can see why the mention of the area in this post brought them back for you.

          Castell y Bere’s commanding position reminds me of similarly placed fortifications like Carreg Cennan and Dinas Bran, but of the Welsh castles I’ve visited the ones I found most spectacular have been Pembroke, Caerfili and Caernarfon, but I do have a soft spot for the likes of Kidwelly, Cigerran and Raglan.

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          1. Yes, lots of memories! I’ve visited Caernarfon from your castle list, which I agree is spectacular. We recently visited Rhuddlan, which is very brooding. I like Beaumaris, too. I want to go on a tour of Welsh castles now!

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