Laurinda’s Rating: 4.5/5
The 1976 Newbery Medal Winner, The Grey King, is the fourth book in The Dark is Rising Sequence. I reviewed The Dark is Rising earlier this week.
Will, the main character from The Dark is Rising, gets severely ill with hepatitis. After he’s partially recovered, Will is sent to his aunt’s house in Wales to convalesce. There, he meets Bran, a boy who the locals think is magic and/or evil because Bran’s possessed of white hair and skin. Together with Bran’s dog Cafall, the boys roam the local hills, with Cafall directing Will to Cadfan’s Way. It is part of a new quest which Will must undertake. As Halloween approaches, Will feels the malice of the Grey King growing, although Will is yet unable to take action against him. To escape a fire spread by the Dark, the trio run inside the mountain. There, they succeed in gaining the golden harp, another artifact of the light, from guardians composed of representatives of the Light, the Dark, and High Magic.
Their escape is not wholly successful. Caradog Pritchard, a local farmer who unknowingly serves the dark through his hated and malice, shoots Cafall. He believes that Cafall was killing sheep; truly, the Grey King was served by grey foxes who could change their color to mimic that of dogs. In the wake of this tragedy, Bran pulls away from Will, blaming him for the cost that serving the Light had.
However, Will and Bran reunite when Bran comes to warn Will that Caradog is hunting for the dog of a friend, believing that that dog, too, was a sheepkiller. The Grey King’s magic pins the dog to the floor. Before Will can return with the harp, Bran awakens his High Magic and frees the dog. Will faces off with a possessed Caradog Pritchard, who acts as a proxy for the Grey King. Using the harp, Will awakens the Sleepers, vanquishing the Grey King and completing his own quest. Bran’s ancestry and powers are revealed more fully.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed this work. The pacing is a bit quicker than The Dark is Rising and the symbolism/descriptive passages less tedious. Although the ending is ambiguous, in the main, the “heroes” won. One of my favorite passages is where Tom and Will discuss the Light. Tom makes the observation that the Light is cold and fanatical, observing that it doesn’t care about any individual, only the larger battle. Will acknowledges this point, emphasizing that the battle against the Dark must be won at any cost; he also realizes that it was the Light who brought on his illness, rather than the Dark. The book deals sensitively with loss, showing how a variety of characters, chiefly Bran, his father, and Pritchard, all deal with different bereavements. Though based on the same set of mythology as the first book, this entry has a stronger Arthurian theme, which may draw in readers more effectively than the mythos of the first book.
I would recommend this to fans of fantasy and mythology, as well as to a more general audience. Strong characters and a cohesive plot make this a book which will engage most people. It’s not strictly necessary to read the prequels, but you may, at least, want to read The Dark is Rising to gain familiarity with Will’s character.