November’s book in the readalong of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence is the fourth in the series, and the title is “The Grey King”. I approached this particular title with interest; and it does seem to me that as I move on through the sequence, I’m actually remembering less and less about the books! “Grey…” is set in Wales, which is pretty much all I could recall as I started the book, though as I read on I began to remember more about the story…

“Grey…” is very much Will Stanton’s adventure; although he was the focus of the second book, “The Dark is Rising“, and a part of book three, “Greenwitch“, here we find him on a solo quest of his own, and at the start of the story he’s very vulnerable. Recovering from a serious illness (which we later find out is hepatitis), he’s weak and convalescent; but most crucially, he’s forgotten his quest and the rhyme which sets out how the Light must fight the Dark. Sent off to Wales to stay with family, there is no sign of his usual ally, Merriman Lyon, and Will cannot recall the power he has or what he can do.

Will is billeted in the hills of North Wales, around Tywyn, staying with the Evans family in their farmhouse, and of course farming is crucial to the people of this area. He soon encounters a strange albino boy, Bran Davies, who lives with his father and roams the local hills in the company of his beloved dog, Cafall. Before long, Will has been prompted to recall everything – his quest, who he is and why he has been sent to Wales. However, he is up against a deadly foe in the form of the titular Grey King, one of the oldest Lords of the Dark, although he has limitations; he cannot break the laws of High Magic, and may be restricted to his stronghold on Cader Idris. The Dark Lord is aided by the Milgwn, huge grey foxes who are threatening enough in their own right but who can also bring sorrow to the forces of the Light. And another opposing force is the twisted local man, Caradog Prichard, who spews bile and evil at every turn.

Will is not without allies, though; the Evans family and local man John Rowlands are on his side; and Bran, despite his strangeness and potential hostility, provides support. But the road Will takes to complete his quest is not an easy one, and it will involve loss, madness and all the bravery he and Bran can muster.

Needless to say, this was just as powerful a read as the other books in the sequence which I’ve revisited so far; and in fact it’s one of those works which transports you. The books, as we know, draw on the Arthurian legends and here the connection and influence is particularly strong; but in addition there is the source of Welsh folklore and the location itself, and this added an extra element for me. You see, when I first read these books, I think I’d only visited Wales once or twice and very briefly; but since that time, I’ve spent regular holidays in North Wales, and so the landscape, the language and the whole feel of the area was so much more familiar to me on reading “The Grey King”. In fact, I had to laugh ruefully at one section when Bran tries to teach Will the proper pronunciation of some Welsh names, as I’ve had that experience myself.

Once again Cooper creates a wonderful book which not only is an absorbing, exciting and often very moving book, but also manages to incorporate some very adult themes. Bran’s parentage is complex, with his mother who appeared, left him with Owen Davies, and then vanished, the subject of unwanted attention from Prichard. Prichard himself is portrayed descending into madness, demonstrating that negative human emotions can let the dark in to anyone’s mind. And Will has some very mature discussions with Rowlands regarding the battle between Light and Dark, and how the effect on humans is not necessarily of any concern to those involved in that fight. It’s frankly not the kind of material you’d expect to find in something billed as a children’s book, and it’s all the more powerful for it!

Really, there are so many layers to the book that I could talk about it forever! The character of Bran is a particularly memorable one, with his complex backstory, his loyalty to his father and his dog, and his friendship with Will. That relationship is not always easy for either, but it’s wonderful to see that his loneliness may be assuaged towards the end of the book. And those more compex issues are powerfully presented: from the effects on humanity of the actions of the light through Caradog’s madness, Owen Davies’ powerful passion, Bran’s solitary life and the effect on the farming humans plus the destruction caused by the Grey King and his servants, these are difficult topics and all add to the richness of the narrative.

The more I read my way through this sequence, the more I become convinced of the stellar literary talents of Susan Cooper. Her language and description is as ever stunning, conjuring the landscapes whether real or imagined, and her characters struggle with real human emotions and issues. As always with these books, there is real peril and moments of tension where you fear that the Light will lose, despite your knowledge that they must prevail. And there are moments of sadness and poignancy, as well as startling revelations at times when you suddenly realise important things about Bran’s parentage, or the reason his dog is named as it is.

Revisiting “The Grey King” was an absorbing and compelling experience, and I had to resist the temptation to continue reading the sequence; part of me wanted to rush on to the final book, but another part of me doesn’t want to finish this wonderful readalong. Re-reading “The Dark is Rising” series is turning out to be a highlight of my reading year, and I will be sad to see it coming to an end!


As I side-note, I couldn’t help notice that this book is dedicated to J.B. and Jacquetta – i.e. Priestley and Hawkes! I didn’t know that Cooper was friendly with this illustrious pair, and it does remind me I should get on with reading the books of theirs I have lurking on Mount TBR…