The Grey King

Book four in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence focuses once more on Will Stanton. It is set in North Wales and the Grey King of the title is a malevolent spirit who inhabits Cader Idris. In Welsh legend the mountain is home to Gwyn ap Nudd and his hunting dogs, the Cŵn Annwn (the latter of whom also feature in Juliet McKenana’s The Green Man’s Gift). Will ends up staying on an hilltop farm, and a theme throughout the book is of sheep being attacked by dogs.

The name Brenin Llwyd (meaning Grey King in Welsh) is also found in folklore and associated with mountains and the Wild Hunt. Given the propensity of Welsh mountains to be shrouded in mist, the name is entirely appropriate. It was a pleasant coincidence that I got to read this book while staying on a farm up in Y Bannau Brycheiniog, surrounded by fields full of sheep. Jo Hall’s greyhound, Lyra, put in a guest appearance on behalf of spectral canines.

It isn’t only Welsh folklore than Cooper has mined for this book. She’s spent quite a bit of time studying the Welsh. In particular she has done a decent job with the way that Welsh people speak. If you spend much time here you will detect a particular and rather strange habit of sentence construction which makes much more sense when you realise that you are listening to English being spoken as if it were obeying the grammatical rules of Welsh. There are occasional bits of Welsh scattered through the text, mostly untranslated. I’ve not had time to check it, or indeed see if it is southern Welsh or northern Welsh, because the two are quite different in some respects.

The basic plot of the book is that Will has to retrieve an object of power – a golden harp – and use it to awaken some people who are sleeping under the mountain. If, at this point, you are thinking, “I know who is sleeping under a mountain,” you would be dead right.

Cooper weaves this storyline together with some interpersonal drama in the small farming community in which Will finds himself. It is deftly done, and adds some much needed actual drama to Will’s quest. As in past books, he is often without agency because he is the Chosen One and so things just happen to him. The surrounding cast make the story much more interesting.

The descriptions of the mountain (which is a genuinely deadly place) have an almost Lovecraftian air of menace to them. Will might be a mighty Old One, but the mountain is older, cunning and malevolent. The atmosphere towards the end of the book is seriously impressive. I think this might be my favourite book of the series thus far.

book cover
Title: The Grey King
By: Susan Cooper
Publisher: Puffin
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