Will Stanton is sent to North Wales to recuperate from a serious illness.
Certain that he has forgotten something important, he finds himself in the thick of conflicts both ancient and modern as the power of the Grey King stirs against him. Can the Light steer its forgetful servant in the right direction, or will the Dark claim the Thing of Power buried under the mountain?
This was my first brush with The Dark is Rising way back when. Having had my innocence knocked out of me by The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Black Cauldron, The Grey King quickly joined my pantheon of bittersweet British mythic fantasy. There’s a reason it was the one that won awards; it’s working hard on several levels, and Cooper is to be commended for bringing these to a harmonious close.
If Greenwitch gave us our first suggestion that much rides on the shoulders of men, The Grey King takes up that banner and flies it proudly. Much of the action lies heavily on the shoulders of the adults of Tywyn valley and their tangled pasts; Will only slowly comes to understand just how deep the fracture lines run through this community. In facing the Grey King, he is facing not only a Great Lord of the Dark (and for the first time we see the Dark in its full power, subtle, intimidating and forceful, rather than a human force to be brushed aside), but more than a decade of festering resentment.
John Rowlands – unexpectedly knowing for a mortal man – spells it out: once the battles of Light and Dark are done, the world will depend on men ‘and on how many of them are good or bad, stupid or wise. And indeed it is all so complicated that I would not dare foretell what they will do with their world. Our world.’
It’s a chilling thought, coming hard on the heels of Owen Davies’s irrational religious guilt, and of Caradog Pritchard giving way to unreasoning rage and shooting an innocent dog. It’s tempting to think of Pritchard as an agent of the Dark – Will’s instincts tell him to distrust Pritchard from the start – but I was glad to see that Cooper took a trickier road here. Pritchard’s nastiness is entirely human: he picks on Will for being English; on Bran for being different; and lashes out at anyone and everyone who he feels more powerful than. He’s another one-dimensional villain in a sequence well-stocked with them (unless you consider Hawkin a villain; I can’t), but he is more relatable for being recognisably human, driven more by self-interest than some nebulous agenda.
The personal scale may be human, but the story still includes spectacular set pieces: the grey foxes left a big impression on me, as did the scenes in which Will & John Rowlands find – and lose – a mauled sheep, which are properly creepy. But the showpiece sits at the heart, as fire sweeps across the mountain slopes and the farmers turn out with buckets and brooms to try and turn it aside: ‘It was like a huge beast raging over the mountain, gobbling up everything in its path with irresistible greed. It was so powerful, and they so small, that even the effort to control its path seemed ludicrous. [Will] thought: it is like the Dark – and for the first time found himself wondering how the fire could have begun.’
This comes early enough in the novel that we have not yet appreciated the extent of the Grey King’s power, and consequently I had a credibility issue with Will’s observation. Up until this point in the sequence, we’ve never seen the Dark as uncontrollable – the Light have always had access to a higher power to brush it aside. But The Grey King repeatedly underlines how dependent Will has been on Merriman’s powers. As the youngest of the Old Ones, he is also the weakest, and we see that here for the first time.
This doesn’t make him unequal to his first solo quest. When he and Bran go under the mountain (and I’m certain there’s a whole raft of symbolism here that went over my head; my Welsh myth is very patchy), it is Will’s instincts that must guide them through the tests of High Magic to reach the golden harp. Given my recent reflections on the moral ambiguity of the Light, I was fascinated to see that the High Magic – like the Wild Magic – does not distinguish between Dark and Light.
It’s John Rowlands who calls out the Light (much to my delight): ‘Those men who know anything about the Light know there is a fierceness to its power like the bare sword of the law or the white burning of the sun. Other things like humanity and mercy and charity that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light. The concern of you people is with the absolute good. You are like fanatics.‘
Will defends himself well against these accusations – neither John nor I can appreciate what a victory of the Dark would mean – but the points are scored. The Light goes to great lengths to keep those they defend ignorant of the threat they are being protected from; it is hardly surprising that their ruthlessness looks suspect once examined.
The discussion makes Will realise he too may have underestimated his allies: in assuming his illness was natural and his memory loss a minor act of malice by the Dark, he has overlooked that it has put him exactly where he needs to be. The Light is ruthless with its own, too.
All this leads inexorably to the final confrontation above Tal-y-Llyn. The Grey King’s influence and ten years of bitterness combine as Bran – the albino, the outsider, proud, aloof, lonely – comes to understand his heritage and the adults finally air their dirty laundry in full. As a child, I think I read Owen/Caradoc as a humbler romantic parallel to Arthur/Lancelot (although really it should be Arthur/Melwas), not truly understanding exactly what had happened.
Reading it as an adult it is cold and ugly and devastating: a woman flees her husband in fear he will reject his child, and finds herself caught between two other men – one of whom tries to rape her – rather than the wished-for peace to raise her son. And in the wings, as always, we find Merriman doing what is needful for the Light.
It’s powerful stuff. The Grey King is much more grown-up than anything that precedes it, and it finally pins its colours to the mast – from here on out, the battle between Light and Dark will be explicitly part of the Matter of Britain, not just a series of children’s adventures leaning heavily on local myth (although the way each book borrows specifically from the legends of its particular setting remains part of the joy).
Garner / Alexander or no, I’m still a little bemused that I liked it as my point of entry; on this re-read, I will admit that it has been supplanted by Greenwitch, which I’ve come to appreciate a lot more for closer reading.
In memory of Cafall, hero and friend.