The Grey King: Newbery Medal winner

Susan Cooper The Dark is Rising, Over Sea Under Stone, Greenwitch,   The Grey King, Silver on the Treebook  review Susan Cooper The Grey King The Dark is RisingThe Grey King by Susan Cooper

Although it is not my personal favourite, The Grey King, the fourth book in The Dark is Rising sequence is generally considered the best in the series, and is the winner of the Newbery Medal. Following on from the other books, Will Stanton (an Old One of the Light, who protects humanity from the forces of the Dark) travels to Wales, in order to fetch the golden harp, which in turn will wake the mysterious Sleepers, fulfilling the next part of the prophesy chronicling the battle between Light and Dark.

But the circumstances surrounding his visit are grim: after a serious illness he has been sent to relatives in order to convalesce, and soon finds that he cannot remember the vital phrases of the prophesy. Though he can only remember bits and pieces, he is aware that he is meant to seek help from “the raven boy” and “silver eyes that see the wind” — whatever that means. Amongst his cheery relatives things are well, but in the hidden farmlands he soon meets a young albino boy named Bran and his silver-eyed dog Cafall. Bran’s mother disappeared when he was just a baby, leaving him in the care of Owen Davis, a devout and religious man who is kind, but strict with the lonely Bran. Though he is obviously unusual, only Will can see that there is something so much more to Bran than meets the eye.

He also meets John Rowlands, an aged and immensely wise farmer who is one of the few human beings who could possibly understand Will’s task, and Caradog Pritchard, a hideously bad-tempered man who is out to make things difficult for everyone around him. But beyond all of this is the malevolence of one of the greatest powers of the Dark: the Grey King and his vicious grey foxes who are out to prevent the Light from gaining their advantage with the golden harp.

Merriman Lyon, the linking factor in all five books has only a minor role here, and the Drew children are not present at all — this is solely Will’s quest that he must fulfil by himself, with Bran as the last major player in the series to be introduced. By its end we are all set to head into the final book Silver on the Tree.

It will help if you know basic Arthurian lore (in particular the love-triangle), since Cooper is subtle in her meanings, and never spells it out entirely. Bran’s mother’s situation will only resonant if you are fully aware of who she is revealed to be and what she once did. And of course, it is necessary to have read the previous books in the series in order to grasp the full meaning of what’s going on here.

A criticism leveled toward these books at one stage, were that they were too black-and-white: there was a Light side and a Dark side, the goodies and the baddies and that was all there was to it. But here for the first time, Cooper adds little touches of grey to the matter, or at least makes you look at the opposites in a different way. It is Rowlands who points out that the Light can be just as merciless and unforgiving as the Dark, that “at the center of the Light is a cold, white flame, just as at the center of the Dark there is a great black pit.” The Light can often be merciless and cruel, manipulating things to reach its own ends — and Rowlands claims he would choose one human life over their cold principles. As well as this there is a sense of powers beyond good and evil, a “High Magic” that governs over both of them and refuses to take sides.

As well as this the book deals with darker and more human issues than previously, such as violence, adultery, piety, betrayal, loss, temper, attempted rape (though portrayed extremely carefully), and the capacity for humanity to destroy itself. Cooper’s language is beautiful, her research thorough, her themes profound and her meanings deep and thoughtful. There is so much hidden depth (sometimes held within a single sentence that is easy to miss) that it’s impossible to list them all, but here’s one — Will assumes that it was the Dark’s powers that made him so terribly ill. But toward the end he begins to think it may have come from a completely different source…

Do yourself a favor and read these books!


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REBECCA FISHER earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand.

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One comment

  1. I loved this series when I read it when my kids were young. I think maybe I should read it again. I love the way each story’s complete but the bigger story just keeps growing.

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