In our Dark Is Rising series readalong, we’ve reached the Newbery-award winning The Grey King. Why did this particular book out of the five win the award? I think Greenwitch is a stronger book, although each of them has its points.
Now I know that the book was probably an example of the Death by Newbery syndrome, in which killing off a beloved character wins you acclaim and gold stickers. I’m not really avoiding spoilers in these posts, but just in case you don’t want to know, I’m not going to say who dies. It’s not that hard to figure out, anyway.
When I read the book as a child, what I loved most was the atmospheric setting which made me want to visit Wales, a lifelong dream I have yet to fulfill. I seem to have compensated by ending up in another mountainous landscape with lots of lakes and sheep (plus cows), plus frequent rain and fog. I may have to hold Susan Cooper partly responsible for this.
To get back to the book, the landscape is so strong as to be almost a character of its own — in fact the “Grey King” is a mountain, here cast as home base of a great lord of the Dark, whose breath creates the fog that wreathes it in mystery. Of the human characters we’ve met so far, there is only a curiously disempowered Will Stanton, who has lost his memory of the important verse whose discovery was the quest of the last book, and been laid low by an illness that sent him to Wales to recuperate. There he meets a new character, Bran, a strange boy with albino-pale skin and golden eyes, who turns out to be a key player in the next part of the quest.
The mood is generally somber, with Will alone for the first time and powerless before he recovers his memory and his magic; Bran’s family trouble (his mother ran away when he was a baby and his father has turned to the grim comforts of the Church); and a neighbor whose initial quarrelsomeness turns into something far more sinister under the influence of the Dark. Bran is in the interesting position of being a human boy who learns of the existence of the battle between Light and Dark, and has to decide whether to throw in his allegiance with Will, which is not so easy when he sees the price one sometimes has to pay for this. He also has to learn about his own heritage, which is both more awe-inspiring and more burdensome than it seems at first.
So there is lots to enjoy as the story unfolds. What I miss in this one is the numinous beauty and mystery that catches the heart and gives a a reason to side with the Light, other than grim necessity. There’s a touch of this in the boys’ journey into the heart of the mountain in quest of a magic golden harp, but then it turns into a dull guessing game, a kind of Celtic Jeopardy! that felt anticlimactic to me. The un-nuanced villainy of the main antagonist was also a weakness. It’s more creepy and unsettling when an otherwise good, or apparently or potentially good character gets taken over by the Dark. This time, it was too easy to predict where the danger would come from. On the other hand, it did give a powerful example of how our ordinary jealousies and grievances can be taken over and used for darker purposes.
One more book, and the readalong year is over. I am looking forward very much to that last installment, but will be sad when it’s finished. If you’ve been reading along, how are you doing so far? What did you most memorable about The Grey King?