The Grey King, Susan Cooper (1975): Wales Readathon 2019

“It is because you are not properly human, but one of the Old Ones of the Light put here to hold back the terrible power of the Dark. You are the last of that circle to be born on earth. And I have been waiting for you.”

 

greykingOne of the bonuses of joining the book blogging community is participating in special months or readalongs that expose me to new authors. In this case, I can honestly say I would probably not have read Susan Cooper’s, The Grey King had the Wales reading event, The Dewithon 2019, not come along.

Though this book is number four in a series I have not read, this did not seem to affect my reading experience: I read it in two sittings wholly drawn in by the storytelling. And though I may have missed some elements by not having read the previous books, especially regarding the eleven year-old protagonist Will Stanton and how he realized he was an Old One on his first full quest to overcome the rising Dark, the book worked fine as a stand alone title for me. For a full summary of the book, I recommend the Kirkus Review.

I choose this book for two reasons: one, the Wales setting, of course; and two, I wanted something fantasy-related as I thought I needed a little “light” reading at the moment. Ha! Let’s just say quests to overcome the Dark are far from light and I should have known!

Will Stanton comes to his relatives in Wales to convalesce after a bout with hepatitis. During his illness he was plagued by a delirium that filled his head with words and images he didn’t understand and now that he is well, can’t let go of them or a feeling of foreboding and something he is supposed to do about it. Once in Wales he awakens to the meaning of these signs and realizes he is on a mission, the details of which are not always obvious until he is in danger.

What makes the novel compelling is how gradually it is revealed to Will that many of those in the family he is staying with and their friends also have a part to play against this rising Dark. Yet, they as well do not know the extent of their role until called upon. So, the reader is carried along with the story, not knowing who is who until the final pages.

The book is based on Welsh legends that the people of the village have grown up with and talked about all of their lives. From the hills and mountains to the lakes, rock outcroppings, to magical beasts and fabled people the story is steeped in the mythology of this distinct place. And as Will goes about gaining strength it is obvious that his presence with these particular relatives is no coincidence; that he had to be here, in this place, at this time.

Will’s memory is gradually activated to specific tasks, to words of ancient spells in the Old Language and to the people around him and to what they mean for the quest. He senses the power of the Grey King, the rising Dark and how to fight it, the identity of the three-robed Old Ones, to the evil neighbor Caradog Prichard, the kindness of John Rowland and his deep knowledge of all the legends and tales of the land and to the final revelation of his friend and ally, Bran, and his true identity.

And as far as this final revelation of the whole quest and success of it, I have only three words: What. An. Ending….

A spoiler, of course, so I won’t say. But as I sat reading the last pages surprised and shocked, I thought, “Of COURSE, King Arthur would have a place in this story…of course!

A final note on Susan Cooper’s writing—which at times is wonderfully poetic and lyrical—the narrative is so beautifully constructed due to her superb knowledge of the old legends and stories that make even the setting itself feel alive with its magic.

I am not sure if I will read the other books in this series, because I can’t imagine I would enjoy them as much as this one. But who knows, I may have to find out….

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My Edition
Title: The Grey King
Author: Susan Cooper
Publisher: Atheneum
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1977
Pages: 208

Challenges: Library Love, Dewithon19

March Magics – Dogsbody, Diana Wynne Jones (1975)

Do listen to this, Leo! It’s about the Dog Star.
Sirius, Alpha Canis Major, often called the Dog Star, is only some eight and a half light-years distant from our Solar System…its brightness and characteristic green color make it a notable object in our winter sky…It’s exactly right for you! Oh–and you’ve got a Companion that’s a white dwarf, about half the size of our sun.

 
dogsbodySirius is angry. In fact, he is so angry he is lit up green. He has been accused of murder and the mishandling of the Zoi, which was seen falling to Earth and he cannot convince the other luminaries of his innocence. However, they have suspended his sentence with the proviso that he be banished to Earth to find and return the Zoi. He will be put in the body of a native creature, in this case a dog, without the knowledge of his mission. If he succeeds, he will be reinstated to all his spheric dignities. If he fails he will die in a manner natural to the dog. His green eyes are the only indication he is different from other dogs.

He begins his life on Earth in a litter of unwanted puppies, who are taken to the river to be drowned. Two die, but 4 are rescued by people who find them barely clinging to life, including young Kathleen, who is Irish and living with her English relatives while her father serves out his jail sentence back in Ireland. Already begrudged by Mrs. Duffield, who hates the Irish and is not happy that her husband took her in, the dog just makes things worse: Kathleen has to promise to do all the cooking and cleaning in order for Leo, the name she gives the dog, not to be put down.

Mrs. Duffield and her two young boys, Basil and Robin, make life difficult for Leo by their aggressive behavior towards him. Mrs. Duffield is a potter with a shop inside the house which makes the ever growing Leo a hazard. So he is banished to the backyard every morning to be tied up until Kathleen comes home from school and can take him out. It is on a walk to the field where she picked him up that he begins to awaken to his mission, that he is something else besides a dog, that he was wrongly accused of murder, that someone let him down and while he understands that his goal on Earth is to find a Zoi and bring it back, at this point he does not know what it is.

As the days go by and Leo remembers more he develops the ability to understand human language, which Kathleen notices. A book lover, she reads to him at night and though these scenes are touching, they give Leo some of the most important information he needs for his quest. He also communicates with the 3 Duffield cats, who have come to trust him after he saves one of them, Tibbles, from a severe beating by Mrs. Duffield. Tibbles teaches him how to unlock the gate, which he does each day to go and search for the Zoi. He feels an even more immediate need to find it after he realizes Basil is a collector of rocks and fossils and fears he may come across the Zoi first.

As the rush to find the Zoi and clear his name heats up, Leo encounters help and hindrance from all kinds of magical, earthly and celestial beings: Sol and Moon, who communicate via sun and moon beams and Earth whose clues come from its body, the Companion sphere of Sirius and the New-Sirius who want to kill Leo so he can’t come back and kindly old Miss Smith who takes in Kathleen and Leo when life at the Duffield’s becomes too dangerous for both.

The ending is bittersweet. There is victory, there is letting go, there is grief. But ultimately for us, the stars are in alignment, our Earth is stabilized and Kathleen is safe.

While this is a wonderful children’s tale (although the treatment of Leo by the Duffields is hard to watch even for adults), Diana Wynne Jones fills this story with astronomical legends and mythical symbolism to keep adults satisfied. As the great orbs of our galaxy fight and war with each other, they are reminiscent of the stories of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses and the feuds between them that threaten all of humanity and the one brave warrior tasked to save us all.

And what of the Zoi? Is it life itself? Is this a spiritual quest Leo travels toward as much as it is material? After all he is trying to save his life, or is he trying to save the life of all humanity? Frankly, I didn’t realize the depth of questions I would have before I started this book.

On a Personal Note

About three years ago I wanted to identify some of the constellations in the night sky and to learn their legends and history. Since Orion is so obvious and full of and close to major stars and other constellations I started there. Each late fall and through the winter months as it make its way across the sky I think of what I have learned. Orion is the Hunter, who is in the lead, while Sirius the loyal Dog, follows. In reading Dogsbody now, both Orion and Canis Major are visible and I have loved adding this story to what I know already about these constellations.

This is my first Diana Wynne Jones and I am grateful to Lory at Emerald City Book Review where I discovered March Magics and to Kristen at We Be Reading for having created it, giving readers a chance to discuss or discover a new author.

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My Edition
Title: Dogsbody
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: Harper Trophy
Device: Paperback
Year: 1975
Pages: 261
Full plot summary

Challenges: Library Love