The Grey King is the fourth book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. It is a page turner. It would be enjoyed by boys or girls, from age 9 – 14, and older, especially those who enjoy folklore, magic, and Arthurian tales.
This book is about the classic battle between the Light and the Dark, good and evil. In an interesting twist, it talks about the ultimate good, what is good for the world over a long period of time and for the greatest number as opposed to helping a particular person. Our hero Will Stanton, one of the Old Ones reborn in a modern day boy, is warned not to love his Aunt Jen too much, because he will be called upon to work to the ultimate good and may have to sacrifice an individual for the good of the whole.
Will has been very ill with hepatitis and is send from his home in England to stay with his aunt and uncle on a sheep farm in Wales, beneath the shadow of Cader Idris, second highest peak in Snowdonia.
As a student at the University of Birmingham, I climbed Cader Idris in the snow with an ice axe and my first pair of real leather hiking boots. It was a difficult climb and amazing to stand on top, looking out over the snowcovered peaks of Snowdonia National Park. Mt. Snowdon is the highest peak but is also accessible by railway, so to my mind, not as serious a climbing challenge. As described in the book, the weather in Wales is often rainy, drippy or at least, very misty. On a number of hikes I would find myself scrabbling up very mossy, slick limestone boulders with a sheep suddenly bounding out of the mist above me. We have great descriptions of the rugged landscape in this book.
Will states in that book that this is his last quest. He woke from his fever vaguely remembering a poem from long ago. As he settles in on the farm, he meets an unusual looking boy Bran and his dog Cafall. Suddenly the memories return. Bran is almost albino from his description but with the unusual golden eyes of an owl. He lives with his unsmiling, chapel-going father. Together Will, Bran and Cafell start to fulfill the prophecy of the poem. We learn about warestones, sacred paths, foxes no one but the boys can see who ravage the sheep, and an angry farmer Pritchard who lives on the next sheep holding.
Common quest themes are crossing the threshold from the reality of England to the mystical land of Wales, then again during a fire on the mountain, through an incantation, crossing another threshold into the mountain. There three cloaked figures counsel the boys and help them to gain the golden harp which can protect them to some degree from the Dark powers of the Grey King and will be used to wake the Sleepers.
There is the loved woman who is lost — in this case Bran’s mother. There are a number of trials, fights with the evil Pritchard, and the loss of another loved being, the dog Cafell, whose name coincidentally (or is it a coincidence) is that of King Arthur’s dog.
This Winner of the Newbery Medal answers some questions at the end which only raise new questions and leave you eager to rush to the library to check out the next and last in the sequence, Silver on the Tree.