The Grey King is the fourth book in the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. It was published in 1975.
There is an old tradition in North Wales that, within a certain hill, a harp of gold will be found by a boy followed by a white dog with silver eyes—a dog who can see the wind. Will Stanton knew nothing of this when he came to Wales, just before Halloween, from his English home for convalescence after a severe illness. But when he met a strange boy named Bran and Bran’s white dog, Cafall, memory awoke in him. For Will himself was no ordinary boy, but the last-born of the Old Ones, servants of the Light, immortals dedicated to saving the world from domination by the force of evil which calls itself the Dark. And it is Will’s long-appointed quest, as he now learns, to wake—with the sound of the lost golden harp—the six sleepers who must be roused from their long rest in the ancient Welsh hills to make ready for the last dreadful battle between the Dark and the Light.
The Grey King is sort of a mix of Greenwitch and The Dark is Rising in terms of mythological/strange things happening. It lacks some of the “British seaside adventure” style found in Greenwitch, but also lacks some of the heavier mythical descriptions and happenings that occur in TDIR. I quite like the balance that it strikes between the two, and as a result I think The Grey King is one of my favorites in the series.
The introduction of Bran is a little strange if you haven’t yet noticed all the references to the Arthur legends throughout the series. The Dark is Rising sequence really isn’t so much an original fantasy world as it is a sort of adaptation or tribute to Arthurian legend. And Cooper manages to hand-wave the convenience of Bran (and everything else in the series, really) by having both prophecy and the machinations of the Light and the Dark clearly explained and shown throughout the books. It’s a lot harder to say that Bran was conveniently found where Will was vacationing when it’s explained how the Light manipulated those circumstances so that Bran would be found. Although I do still find it a bit convenient that of all the places Will’s aunt lives, it’s where the harp will be found. Plot mechanics, I know, but still.
Speaking of the Light’s manipulations, I have absolutely no idea why Will had to lose his memories. It makes for a bit of a tedious beginning, but luckily he regains his memory quite early.
One main thing I disliked in The Grey King was the description of the Light and the Dark given by Rowlands to Will. The Light and the Dark are made out to be two forces on opposite sides, like two extremes. Each one only cares about defeating the other and each are, in some respects, similar in that “at the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe.” They are impersonal forces, and humans are separate from both of them. Will tells Rowlands that “the charity and the mercy and the humanitarianism are for you, they are the only things by which men are able to exist together in peace.” It’s as if the Light is catering to the humans by giving them charity, etc., but it itself is not charitable, merciful, or humanitarian. Will even says that the Light cannot make use of charity or mercy. I know that the Light does not represent “goodness” but I feel that Cooper has sucked a lot of feeling out of the world by making the Light and the Dark so impersonal. Why should we care who wins if both the Light and the Dark are just two opposite extremes? Sure, we want the Light to win because they will allow men to continue to be charitable, but the implication here is that charity and mercy stems from man and not something outside of them, like the Light.
One additional thing: Bran is supposed to be Will’s age, but no one sounds like they’re ten in this book. Will sounds older because he’s an Old One, but Bran sounds like he’s fifteen. I cannot see him as a ten- or eleven-year-old at all.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Where is Cader?”
Bran stared at him. “Don’t know much about Wales, do you? Cader Idris, over there.” He pointed to the line of blue-grey peaks across the valley. “One of the highest mountains in Wales. You should know about Cader. After all it comes in your verse.”
Will frowned. “No, it doesn’t.”
“Oh, yes. Not by name, no—but it’s important in that second part. That’s where he lives you see, up on Cader. The Brenin Llwyd. The Grey King.”