The Grey King

cover

NEWBERY MEDAL WINNER – 1976

The Grey King

by Susan Cooper

Book 4 in The Dark is Rising series

Age: 9+ (advanced reader)

Interests: magic, fantasy, folklore, King Arthur, England, Wales

Macmillan: 1975

165 pages

The Dark is Rising series:
Over Sea, Under Stone
The Dark is Rising
The Greenwitch
The Grey King
Silver on the Tree

Also by this author: King of Shadows, The Boggart, The Selkie Girl, Seaward

This volume is part of a complex fantasy series, in which modern-day British children are caught up in a battle between evil forces and the immortal figures of King Arthur and other legends of myth. The series is a little uneven, but most critics found that the two strongest books were the 2nd – The Dark is Rising, a Newbery Honor winner – and the 4th, The Grey King, which won the Newbery medal.

Previously, the three Drew siblings, under the leadership of their uncle Merry, become caught up in magical happenings in a tiny seaside town in Cornwall (Over Sea, Under Stone). Meanwhile, young Will – the seventh son of a seventh son and the main character of the whole series – finds out on his eleventh birthday that he is the last of the “Old Ones”. He meets Merriman (aka the Drews’ uncle Merry, and the immortal Merlin), who informs him that he must aid in the recovery of four artifacts of power needed to battle the forces of darkness (The Dark is Rising).  Back in Cornwall, Jane Drew is drawn into ancient village rituals involving a Greenwitch living beneath the waves (The Greenwitch). Will is sent to Wales to recover from a mysterious illness, and meets Bran, a talented harp player. The two boys manage to awaken the Sleepers – the original knights who served under King Arthur (The Grey King). In the final novel (Silver on the Tree) all the characters and artifacts come together for the final battle, and the forces of darkness are defeated. Bran discovers he is the son of Arthur, but chooses his current adopted life over immortality. The immortals depart from the earth forever, and the children involved lose all memory of the events other than fragments in their dreams.

Okay, so that’s the big picture. As for this individual book, it is obviously best if the previous books in the series are read first, at very least The Dark is Rising, as it deals with Will and is the most relevant to this volume.

Cooper builds her story out of actual legends of Britain, not only the King Arthur ones, but other pagan myths involving figures like Herne the Hunter, and elements from Norse mythology. The author is also skillfully evocative of place – some of the best passages are those describing the landscape and creating a fantastic atmosphere of mystery and threat.

I enjoyed reading the entire series; I’m always glad to read a YA writer who doesn’t write down to her audience, and these books are complex and committed to the material. I was so impressed with The Dark is Rising I selected it for a tutorial group I was leading a couple of years ago, and was surprised when the young teens in that group did not like the book at all. This New York Times Book Review gives a clue to where I went wrong:

[Susan Cooper’s book The Dark is Rising] … seems to have been prepared for a special small age group: those who can read with fluency and attention, but who haven’t yet been afflicted by adolescent cynicism.

This makes a lot of sense, in hindsight. With the exception of Over Sea, Under Stone, which is simpler and was written for younger readers, the books in this series, though not long, are dense and challenging. The fantasy threat is deadly serious and draws on wildly complex rules and requirements that Will and his friends must fulfill. The best match of reader would be someone young who is an advanced reader and eager for a reading challenge, but who is not yet jaded enough to look for flaws and find it all a little pretentious. Taking my cue from Will’s age, I think the best reader match would be advanced readers aged 9-11.

 

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.