When Susan Cooper was writing the fourth title in her The Dark is Rising sequence, The Grey King (1975), she was drawing from family connections with the southwestern corner of Merionethshire (now part of Gwynedd) where she had holidayed as a child, where some of her relatives lived and where her parents retired. So some of the places referenced in the novel were based on real locations, while others were inspired by places she was familiar with.
She also was inspired by local legends attached to specific sites, legends which she either borrowed wholesale or freely riffed on. In this discussion post I want to give readers some background to both the locations and the legends, drawn from a couple of recent visits to the area (one of those around Hallowmas, the time of year The Grey King is set) and my longterm interest in folklore, archaeology, and Arthurian legend.
Needless to say, if you haven’t read the novel there will be spoilers galore.
The novel opens in the small seaside town of Tywyn (‘Tuh-win’), on “the windy grey platform of the small station” where Will Stanton waits “in a thin drizzle of October rain”. In summer the train from Birmingham to Pwllheli is busy with summer visitors en route to the Llŷn peninsula or intent on taking the Talyllyn heritage steam railway up to Abergynolwen; in the depths of autumn Will notes the deserted shops in the “little grey town” (from a recent November visit, I can vouch for it having changed little from when Cooper wrote these words):
[H]e saw a church, a small hotel, more neat houses. Then the road was widening and they were out between trim hedges, with open fields beyond, and green hills rising against the sky: a grey sky, featureless with mist.‘The oldest hills ‘
Later Will returns to Tywyn, where he sees “a cinema with an imposing Victorian front grandly labelled ASSEMBLY ROOMS.” Then he visits the nearby church of St Cadfan, a Dark Age Breton saint, believed to be more or less contemporary with the legendary King Arthur and likely to be the founder of the earliest building.
Inside, “the church was shadowy and cool, with sturdy white painted walls and massive white pillars.” Though tidied up by 19th-century restorers the Romanesque nave hadn’t changed much from when an earlier watercolour had depicted the interior with its wonky pillars, and certainly not in the first week of November 2022 which is when I saw it.
In the chancel are a couple of medieval tomb effigies, one an ecclesiastic, the other in armour. Will notes the (to him) unpronounceable name of the church’s armoured benefactor Gruffudd ab Adda of Ynysymaengwyn, who died in the 1330s. He is depicted either sheathing or unsheathing his sword. Maybe subconsciously this echoes a line of the prophetic verses that are an integral thread in the book sequence: By Pendragon’s sword the Dark will fall.
Will then notices in the northwest corner of the nave “a strange long grey stone set up on end, incised with marks too ancient for him to decipher.” This is the so-called Cadfan Stone, fashioned around three centuries after the saint’s heyday, with inscriptions on its four faces commemorating individuals; Will reads “that the inscribed stone in the church was said to be the oldest piece of written Welsh in existence.”
Cooper gives a free ‘translation’ of the inscription, but recent scholarship is more tentative.¹ In fact the name interpreted as Cadfan – a name often rendered as Catamanus in the Latin of that period, as on the memorial stone of a 7th-century king of Dyfed – may instead read ADGAN.² It’s the mention of St Cadfan however that alerts Will to significance of the “Cadfan’s Way where the kestrels call” which appears in the prophecy.
Up in the hills around his aunt and uncle’s home (Bryn-Crug, Clwyd Farm) and searching for evidence of Cadfan’s Way, Will comes across the sinister spectral milgwn (singular milgi) which plague sheep flocks and threaten Will and his new friend Bran. Strictly speaking milgi (feminine miliast, from mil ‘animal, beast’ and gast ‘bitch’) refers to a greyhound in Modern Welsh and not a grey fox as suggested here, but of course Cooper knew this: what she may have had in mind for her milgi likely had its roots in Welsh folklore and Arthurian tales.
First of all we note the Cŵn Annwn, the Hounds of Hell, known by their white coats and ears tinged with red, and supposedly inspired by the cries of skeins of migrating geese in autumn. Noted in both the Mabinogi and elsewhere in medieval lore these are the hounds used in the Wild Hunt, known to run abroad on high days and holidays such as Halloween. Cooper’s pack of milgwn hunting Will and Bran around All Hallows Eve therefore fits the pattern of the Cŵn Annwn.
The Cadair Idris range runs northwest from Tywyn, between the Dysynni river and the cwm through which a B-road and the Talyllyn narrow gauge railway ascend to Abergynolwen and Talyllyn lake. At 893 metres – approaching 3000 feet – Cadair Idris itself is said to be the seat or stronghold of the giant Idris, or alternatively is named after a 7th-century Meirionydd prince called Idris ap Gwyddno.
But Cooper will also have been aware of Arthurian associations. In the native Welsh tale Culhwch ac Olwen comes the incident of the hunting of Gwyddrud and Gwyddno Astrus, “the two whelps of the bitch Rhymhi,” at the confluence of the twin rivers Cleddau far to the west in Pembrokeshire. Arthur asks a local, “Have you heard about [Rhymhi] here? In what form is she?” “In the form of a she-wolf,” he’s told, “and she goes around with her two whelps. She has killed my livestock many times.” Through divine intervention Rhymhi and her two offspring are restored to human form, suggesting that they may have been werewolves. And I’ve seen one or two suggestions that the story of Rhymhi and her two sons may be alluding to the legend of Rome’s foundation after Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf: in Welsh Rome is Rhufain (“Hree-vine”).
And here we may wonder whether the translations of milgi as greyhound, and of miliast as greyhound bitch, might each be better rendered as ‘hound which is grey’ and ‘grey hound bitch’. Then we may recall that just over the Pembrokeshire border – by Hebron in neighbouring Carmarthenshire, on the bank of the river Taf – is Bwrdd Arthur, Arthur’s Table, also known as Gwâl y Filiast, the ‘lair of the grey hound bitch’. Several other South Walian Neolithic cromlechs share a similar doggy designation, namely a second Gwâl y Filiast, the easterly of two discrete tombs by Mynydd Llangyndeyrn, though both are also called Bwrdd Arthur; then there’s Twlc y Filiast (‘kennel’, Whitland, Carmarthenshire), and yet another called Gwâl y Filiast (St Lythans, South Glamorgan). In North Wales Llety’r Filiast (‘dwelling’, also known as Llandudno Burial Chamber) sits on the Clwyd promontory of Great Orme. Note that folklore associates at least two of three chambered tombs with the legendary Arthur.
So the upshot of this diversion is that one could approach the nature of the milgwn in two or possibly three ways. They may be like Hell Hounds, hunting selected livestock and humans. They may be like werewolves in that they are transformed servants of the Dark in lupine form. Or they may be not grey foxes but grey wolves, the literal ‘beast-dogs’ that the Welsh milgwn describes. Might Cooper even have intended a bit of all three?
A few miles inland from the Dysenni estuary is Craig yr Adeyrn, or Bird’s Rock. Apparently its sheer face is the furthest inland that cormorants roost, but other birds such as choughs and peregrines nest here too. Here’s where Will and Bran encounter a pack of milgwn and where they enter a mysterious and mystical cavern in search of a golden harp.
(Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain in 1968 had already featured an ancient Welsh harp in her alternative historical timeline, generally located in mid-Wales but ending up in sight of Cardigan Bay, as does The Grey King.)
Across a ridge to the south and nestling in the foothills of Cadair Idris is Talyllyn lake, in Welsh properly Llyn Mwyngil or Myngul (Talyllyn is the name of the adjacent settlement). Here, on the northwest slopes of the lake, is where Will has a confrontation with the Dark, and it’s here where he wakes the Sleepers.
Located in a glaciated valley, the glacial ribbon lake was formed as the glaciers retreated when a landslip effectively damned the valley, allowing the valley to fill with fresh water. The Dysynni river has its source here; and in 1844 Tŷ’n y Cornel Hotel – the “house at the corner” of the lake – was built, becoming popular with fishermen.
Talyllyn lake’s Welsh name is claimed to mean “the pleasant lake” in the novel. It probably actually signifies the Lake with a Narrow Neck: mŵn means ‘neck’, cul means ‘narrow’. (As a side note, Welsh mwng is “mane” – the hair at the nape of the neck.) The only way that it might be translated as “pleasant” would be to assume that Mwyngil or Myngul was a contraction of dymunol (“duh-meen-ohl”) which does indeed mean pleasant or agreeable.
And it’s at Talyllyn lake in the Cadair Idris range that I want to pull together the significance of some of the Arthurian and Dark Age legends that Cooper seems to be edging towards in the final instalment of the sequence.
- First we have the sixth-century saint Cadfan whose church is at Tywyn and whose feast day, significantly for The Grey King, is 1st November. He was the son of a Breton princess Gwen Teirbron, and there is another Gwen in the novel (who also echoes the name of Arthur’s wife Guinevere.) And it’s on Cadfan’s Way that Will picks up the scent of the milgwn.
- Bran’s dog Cafall is named after Arthur’s legendary hound. (Cafall is possibly related to Latin caballus, a horse, indicating either its size and strength or that it was originally indeed Arthur’s mount. Arthur’s mare Llamrei has a presence in Silver in the Tree, as we shall see.)
- Cadair Idris is claimed to be Arthur’s Seat in the novel as opposed to that of Idris, and this may be Cooper’s way of anticipating the legend of the Sleepers who, in some insular traditions, were King Arthur and his warriors in a cave under a hill.
There’ll be more to come, especially as we’ve yet to come across the Pendragon’s sword which is mentioned in the verses. But all that will have to wait till after Silver on the Tree!
¹ A leaflet in the church (which in 2016 celebrated 1500 years since Cadfan’s arrival in Tywyn) gives a recent translation as Tegrumui wedded wife of Adgan [lies] near to But Marciau – The mortal remains of three – Cin woman of Celyn, a mortal wound remains – The mortal remains of four.
• Susan Cooper. 1975. The Grey King. Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013.
• Sioned Davies, translator. 2007. The Mabinogion. Oxford University Press.
• Scott Lloyd. 2017. The Arthurian Place Names of Wales. University of Wales Press.