If you're going to write a fantasy novel for children, there better be at least one swordfight in it—preferably one per chapter. This rule is particularly true for fantasy novels set in the wilds of Wales, and especially if they involve characters with names like the Grey King and the Raven Boy.
The fact that there isn't one single swordfight in all of Susan Cooper's The Grey King should tell you exactly what kind of book we're dealing with. Throughout its 165 pages, the book manages to move about a fraction of an inch along its plotline, the totality of which seems to be a sense of foreboding the grows within the main character that a battle between Light and Dark is coming.
Will Stanton is that main character, sent from his English home to his aunt and uncle's farm in Wales after having been ill in order to get better. He meets an albino boy named Bran Davies who's mysterious and strange, a redhaired farmer named Caradog Prichard who's dull and mean, and some hardy Welsh farm folk who are nice but apprehensive.
Most of their apprehension comes from a string of sheep killings supposedly carried out by Bran's dog Cafall and John Rowlands's dog Pen, and Prichard's rage at these incidents. Will knows that these killings are actually the work of the milgwn, the grey foxes of the Grey King, who are able to appear as other dogs in order to carry out their murderous deeds.
A lot of time is spent driving Land-Rovers around hiding dogs from Caradog Prichard and trying to save the sheep. A lot of time is spent talking about Bran's mother, who abandoned him at a young age, but the boy's significance is never more than a suggestion for most of the book. And Will spends a lot of time mooning about reflecting on the Light and the Dark.
Turns out Will is an Old One (what that means is never explained), and he's supposed to fight the Dark. Wait, that's not right! He is an Old One, but he's supposed to help prepare someone else to fight the Dark. Or is he supposed to fight the Dark? Oh, and John Rowlands knows Will is an Old One.
Good for him, the reader wants to scream; why don't I have any idea what an Old One is, why he's fighting the Dark, and why he's in the body of a young boy?! The entire book moves like a thick Welsh fog, and makes about as much sense. In what one can only imagine is intended to be the climax, Will strums a golden harp, six ghostly riders gallop by and smile at him, Prichard tosses the harp in a lake, and the Grey King sighs deeply and vanishes from the valley.
Okay, I get it. The Grey King is the fourth book in the five-volume The Dark Is Rising Sequence, and there's a lot about Old Ones, golden harps, Raven Boys, Dark and Light, and Will Stanton that's covered (I assume) in the other books. Which raises the question, Why did the powers-that-be give this one a Newbery Medal? They must be agents of the Dark.
There is a hint at one point of where everything is going. Running away from a fire, Will takes Bran underground into a cavern where they meet three Masters. Two of the Masters are agents of the Light, but one is an agent of the Dark, and together they share in ruling (something, not sure what). They ask Bran and Will some questions and then give them the golden harp.
Aside from being a very boring scene (like most of the scenes in this book), what does this tell us about The Dark Is Rising? It tells us that Susan Cooper's understanding of good and evil is that it requires a balance of them in order for the universe to operate correctly, that Dark and Light are not independent but interdependent.
We also get a glimpse of this in descriptions of Bran's adoptive father, Owen Davies. Owen is a deacon at his church, and spends much of his time at chapel, doing good deeds, instilling morality into his son, and reading the Good Book. While he isn't outright derided for this, it is strongly suggested that he takes his faith too far. Is that even possible?
There's very little to recommend this book. It doesn't make me want to read anything else in the series, or even by Cooper. It's supposed to be a fantasy novel, but there are no wizard duels, battles, or dragons. Instead, two boys run around on the Welsh moors chasing dogs and being angsty about some vague Light and Dark. The Grey King (who barely makes an appearance in his own book) is aptly named—as dull and grey as the dreary landscape in which it transpires.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
Did you find this review helpful?