Mar 19, 2009

The Grey King by Susan Cooper - A Discussion with Kerry and Susan

When Susan, Kerry and I realized were all in the middle of reading Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising Sequence, we decided to read the last two books together, discuss them, and post the results.

In The Grey King, the penultimate book, we follow Will as he goes to Wales on a quest. His mission is to awake the sleepers, and gather aide that will be fundamental for the final battle between the forces of Darkness and Light. When the book opens, however, Will doesn't know that he has a mission. He has been ill for a very long time, and the illness took away his knowledge of the fact that he's more than an ordinary young boy. He is sent to a farm in Wales that belongs to friends of his mother to recover. There he meets Bran, a lonely boy who, like Will himself, has a secret or two.

Here's our (spoilers-free) discussion of the book:

What did you think of the book's sense of place?

Kerry: I am not a visual reader. I don't get an image in my head when I read (or in this case, listen), rather I get I kind of emotional connection to what I'm reading. I found myself feeling very grounded while reading "The Grey King". I've never been to Wales and have no real idea what that is like, but I had a real sense of the farm and the sheep and the mountains. I could almost picture woolly mountain sheep and sharp crags and the grazing pasture. My sense of the mountain and lake at the end wasn't quite as sharp, but it was certainly there. So despite the lack of pictures, I felt well-immersed in the book.

Me: It was one of my favourite things about it. Last year I spent a week in Wales, in the same area where the book is set, and reading The Grey King brought back so many memories. Susan Cooper’s descriptions are very beautiful and vivid, and I think that in addition to that she really captured what North Wales feels like. A feeling of ancientness and also of…confinement, perhaps. I don’t mean this negatively; the place really is stunningly beautiful. But the valleys and the mountains can feel haunting and a little entrapping. As that feeling is a big part of what’s at the heart of this story, the setting couldn’t have been more perfect. You can see some very nice pictures of Gwynedd here and here.

Susan: I agree with both Ana and Kerry - the sense of place was very strong in the book. I like how Kerry put that it made her feel grounded in Wales. I could see the hillside, and the lake, and the sheep. I haven't been to Wales, and yet like you Ana, I felt the sense of isolation that the mountains ringing the valleys gave, the remoteness from the rest of the world, that mountains give. I have lived in a mountain range, in the BC interior, and also on Vancouver Island, and I can say that mountains do give a very definite sense of space. Cooper really makes the scenery, the mountains, the landscape, part of the story. All of the important events take place outside, so it seems the battle of Light and Dark is for the earth itself. I really liked the sense of place in this book.

Share a favourite moment/scene from the book.

Kerry: Gosh, this turned into a surprisingly hard question. I'm not sure why, but it did. When looking back at the book, I keep finding myself thinking of the lake at the end - the lake in the pleasant place. For all the action and danger that happened there, I find myself with an image in my head of a beautiful, and indeed peacful place and so I'll choose Will's time by the lake as favourite moments, even though I know this is a vague and very indefinite answer.

Me: I loved the scene where Bran tries to teach Will to pronounce Welsh sounds, particularly the “ll” sound. It made me smile, and it brought back memories of my lovely hostess in Wales explaining some of the very same things to me. Especially the morning my boyfriend and I went to Llangollen. We had to find a bus that would take us there, and that involved asking bus drivers and attempting to pronounce the dreaded “ll” twice in a single world. I can’t say we did too well, but everyone was extremely helpful regardless.

Susan: "The bracken-brown slope lay still beneath the sunshine, with outcrops of white rock glimmering here and there. A car hummed past on the road below, invisible through trees; he was high above the farm now, looking out over the silver thread of the river to the mountains rising green and grey and brown behind, and at last fading blue into the distance. Further up the valley the mountainside on which he stood was clothed dark green with plantations of spruce trees, and beyond those he could see a great grey-black crag rising, a lone peak, lower than the mountains around it yet dominating all the surrounding land."

Cooper fills the books with a lot of description. What effect did this have on your reading, did it enhance it or make it falter? There are also a lot of Welsh words; did they cause you any trouble?

Kerry: As I said earlier, I'm not a visual reader, so Cooper's descriptions didn't draw pictures in my head. Instead, it was the power of the words in her descriptions that caught me. She uses metaphor and simile beautifully and they add greatly to the power of the book. I marked a few that particularly struck me as I was reading (and I also noted she used the sky and birds as part of her scene setting a lot).

"Birds whirred away from him; somewhere high above, a skylark was pouring out its rippling, throbbing song."

"The voice crawled like a slug over Will's skin."

"Will could sense the man's anger and malice whirling round his mind like a maddened bird caught in a room without exit."

As for the Welsh, here I think I had a huge advantage listening to the audio rather than reading the print book. All the Welsh words were pronounced correctly (or so I assume) for me and I didn't have to stumble over all those consonants on the page. The Welsh characters were also given Welsh accents which added to the sense of place I had for the book. It was an excellent recording and I really enjoyed listening to it. (And as an interesting aside, it was the only book of the five in the series that had a different narrator from all the others. I find myself wondering if the original narrator couldn't handle the Welsh and this book was given over to someone else. I shall be interested to continue listening to "Silver on the Tree" with the other narrator as, so far as I recall, parts of that take place in Wales too.)

Me: I loved her descriptions. I wonder if having been to Wales helped me visualize the landscapes more easily. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have imagined it all quite as vividly if I hadn’t been there, but then again, I haven’t been to Cornwall and she really brought it to life in Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch.

I also loved her inclusion of Welsh. It wouldn’t have felt quite as authentic without it, and plus I just love how the language sounds. It could be my imagination, of course, but I actually think that Welsh sounds old. On a side note, the number of Welsh speakers has increased in recent years, which makes me happy and relieved. Anyway, Kerry, I imagine that the audiobook really was an advantage for you. For me, as I’ve had some exposure to the language before, I could mostly hear the words in my mind. I probably didn’t always imagine the sounds correctly, but Bran’s explanations really helped.

Susan:The description brought Wales to life before my eyes. While I can't speak Welsh, I want to learn it, and I enjoyed seeing it used in the speech and names and places of Wales. It adds to the exotic feel of the setting, and enhances the myth being told. I really enjoyed learning a bit about speaking Welsh, although I think it will be long and a trifle difficult!

John Rowlands speaks of a coldness at the heart of the Light. What do you think about this?

Kerry: This particularly struck me (which is why I asked the question). We like to think of the good guys as being, well, the good guys. They do the right things for the right reasons and don't hurt anyone or anything. But doing the right thing can be hard and it can be painful - and sometimes the decision has to be made that it will be hard and painful for others, which seems far more arrogant that deciding such a result for one's self. Will is there to fight for humanity's future, but that doesn't mean it's going to be easy or kind or merciful. He's there to do what has to be done and there's a possibility he might need to sacrifice some of his own humanity to do it, which doesn't feel like it's the right answer. It's what an Old One is called to do and perhaps not something we mortals could manage. It leaves me feeling uncomfortable, just as John Rowlands words left Will feeling uncomfortable.

Me: I’m so glad you asked this question, Kerry. It touches on one of my favourite things about this series, and I probably wouldn’t have remembered to bring it up otherwise. The Dark is Rising Sequence tells the story of an epic battle between the forces of Darkness and the forces of Light. If I were told this and only this about the series, my reaction would probably be “meh”. See, I’m not much of a fan of moral absolutes, and taken out of context, that seems to be what this is about.

But the brilliant thing is that Susan Cooper uses this premise to tell a story about shades of grey and complex choices and humankind’s potential for cruelty, kindness, and everything in-between. For me, the coldness at the heart of the Light John Rowlands brings up is self-righteousness, judgement and mercilessness; the demand for perfection without taking into account that humans make mistakes, and that to make a mistake doesn’t automatically makes you a horrible person. That is indeed a dangerous thing.

And that’s part of what makes Will such an interesting character. He’s an Old One, yes, but he’s also a young boy. And that makes him humble and kind, which is why he plays such a crucial role.

Susan: I think it is appropriate - how many times have we read where wizards, or magic users, or others who have access to memory or knowledge beyond their time, who act in ways the characters think is cold, only to find it had the best result? However, I've never thought of it as cold, because there is a difference between the heart of the Light and the Dark, and what happens to the characters shows that difference. I'd probably turn to John Rowlands and ask him how he thought warmth at the heart of the Light would be like!

Do you think The Grey King deserves the Newbery Medal? Why?

Kerry: Here I admit to my ignorance of things American. I knew the Newberry Medal went to children's books, but that was about all, so I had to go and look the details up on Wikipedia. It tells me the award goes to the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children. Being neither American nor aware of what other books were published for children in the USA back in 1976 when it won, makes it rather hard for me to answer this question. However, I think it is an excellent book that not only tells a good story, but introduces its reader to beautiful and haunting writing, difficult moral dilemmas, pain and heartbreak and success. It brings old legends to new life and encourages the reader to find out more about them and draws us in to the age old struggle between the Light and the Dark. For those reasons I think it is a book that deserves to be well known and well read, but I still find it interesting that such a very British book should win a US award (I see - from Wikipedia again - that Cooper married an American, which I guess is what made her eligible). Sorry, I haven't really answered the question, have I?

Me: I, too, have to admit my ignorance when it comes to book awards in general. It’s hard for me to come up with an answer that is more elaborate than “yes, because it’s a great book”. Awards like the Newbery are great because they bring books to people’s attention, and that’s always a good thing. But I’m someone who believes that ultimately, they don’t mean much more than that the people responsible for choosing the winner liked the book. I don’t mean this dismissively – the Newbery winners are chosen by librarians, and librarians are generally sensible and well-read and awesome in all sorts of ways. So I care about their opinion, and I want to know what their favourite book of the year is. But still, I don’t think any award should be looked at as the ultimate definition of what quality is, even one as cool as the Newbery. So I’m not sure about deserving, but it’s an intelligent, beautifully written and complex book, and I’m happy it won.

Susan: Yes is the quick answer. Yes, The Grey King deserves the Newbery Award. Why? Because it takes myth and legend, and shows that they are rooted in real things, and that above all, faith, and love, show the way. There is such a strong sense of place here, that children can really picture it - the mountains, the lakes, the farms. There are places in this story where the characters could choose to go to the Dark, and by showing this, Cooper makes the characters fallible and real. Children reading this book can see that being good or bad is a choice, a state of mind. But it's not dull or a treatise, it's an adventure story, and it's well-done.

Did the riddles Bran and Will have to answer make you want to go find Welsh myths and folktales? What did you think of the answers?

Kerry: This is a reread for me. Although I suspect that on my first reading it did send me out to find out more about the myths and tales. I don't remember. I've certainly been through my Celtic and Arthurian mythology phase before now and accumulated a good collection of books and information on the subject. I'll always be a bit of a sucker for a good incorporation of Arthurian legend in the modern day (which I think Cooper does brilliantly in this series) and I'm sure that remains part of why I still love it to this day. On this read, I could see the parallels building and enjoyed recognising at least some of the things Cooper was using in the story, but I didn't feel the need to go researching. Been there, done that, loved it.

Me: Yes! Yes they did. I think 2009 will be the year when I finally read The Mabinogion. It’s really about time. I felt that there was a lot I missed about the riddles. I mean, I trusted Will and Bran to be doing things right, and my ignorance never actually pulled me out of the story. But I’m sure I’ll appreciate the inner logic of the whole thing a lot more on a second read. Kerry mentioned the incorporation of Arthurian myth, and I have to agree. We can’t say much about this without giving too much away, but it’s done brilliantly.

Susan: One of my favorite scenes is the riddle scene. I love how Cafall helps Bran, and I really love the answers. I also like this fantasy tradition, where the hero has to answer a riddle. This is part of Welsh bardic training, where knowledge is passed through riddles. The whole setting of the riddles is fantastic, and the answers made me want to run and read all the myths and legends, and Evangeline Walton's series, and the Mabiniogon, The White Goddess which I have started twice now, everything I can find so I can find those answers to the riddles. Part of my heritage is Welsh, and I feel like I've been given a key to it with these riddles.

Thank you so much, Susan and Kerry. I had a lot of fun doing this.

Favourite passages:
Will felt that he was in a part of Britain like none he had ever known before: a secret, enclosed place, with powers hidden in shrouded centuries at which he could not begin to guess.

'But when the battles between you and your adversaries are done, Will Stanton, in the end the fate of all the world will depend on just those people, and 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.'
Other Opinions:
..epiphany..
Working Title
dreaming out loud

(Let me know if I missed yours.)

21 comments:

  1. Oh my goodness you all, this was wonderful, wonderful, wonderful to read! I can't tell you how much I enjoyed it! And though I'd planned to read this series "someday," you all have really made me want "someday" to be today!

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  2. I agree with Debi. It is so neat that you all were able to do this together. I loved reading all your questions and responses. I'm checking this series out - I had never heard of it before today.

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  3. I was just saying at Susan's blog that I really need to read the rest of this series! I am only finished book one, I think.

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  4. This was awesome. I need to harass my friends into reading the same books as me more often so we can do this.

    It's been so long since I read The Grey King; I remember liking it a lot, much better than The Dark is Rising and being amused that Cooper wrapped the myth she did up in this huge, sprawling series. I was pretty surprised, but I guess that's the point, when you figure out the truth about Will's mentor.

    To be quite honest (sadly so) I mostly stuck with this series, which I think is written in a pretty clunky manner, just for Will and Bran and the really talented fandom writers. Although I think Greenwitch and The Grey King were my favorites back when I read them.

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  5. Thank you so much for doing this too, Nymeth! You were the only one who did a recap,which I didn't even think to do, bad reviewer that I am! so at least on your blog they can find out what happens in this book, in the series. I'm blaming the extra-strength advil I'm on for my back for fogging my brain a little today! It was fun, wasn't it? I look forward to the final book when Kerry is ready :-D I already have one question lined up!!

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  6. I'm so glad you guys thought of discussing the book this way. It was so wonderful to read all your answers together. I discovered Cooper as an adult and was thrilled with the quality and depth of her writing. You've brought that all back for me. I can't wait to read what you guys think of the next one! (and I've got to write some reviews on these, myself).

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  7. Very enjoyable.
    I haven't read The Dark is Rising since I was about 12 or 13 but I have the series, and you all have put me in the mood for it, I think.
    Also, Nymeth, I emailed you. ;)

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  8. why the tears over at my blog? :-)

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  9. Debi: I'm glad you enjoyed the post! Yep, you need to read them, and I happen to know you only have to go as far as Annie's shelves :P

    Nely, thanks! I hope you enjoy the books.

    Kailana: I've read them all now, and the first one was my least favourite by far! I mean, I still enjoyed it, but I liked the rest of them much better.

    Renay, thanks! It was really fun to do. I need to harass people so I can do it more often too :P I finished them all now, and The Grey King is definitely my favourite. Bran and Will fanfiction! Finishing the series gave me that "gah, I NEED to keep on following these characters as they grow up" feeling, and I hadn't felt it this strongly in a while. Confession: I'm scared of reading fanction in the same way I'm scared of reading manga. It's a huge world, probably full of things I'd really enjoy, but I could get lost in it.

    Susan: You are NOT a bad reviewer! I actually like how the three of us organized/formatted our posts differently. It was a lot of fun! I hope you feel better soon, and I look forward to discussing Silver on the Tree. I think I know what to ask too!

    Jeane: Glad you liked it! And yes, you should review them! I'd love to hear your thoughts on them.

    Maree: Got it! I think this series would be even more enjoyable on a re-read.

    Marie: Because I loved The Time Traveler's Wife, and what you said about it broke my heart a little :( Especially about the writing, sniff. But as they say, to each their own, and a little bit of heartbreak is part of the fun of this week's BTT theme :P

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  10. Much like book blogging, there are tons of reccers in fandom that promote the stuff they like and it usually tends to me pretty good. If you're ever interested I can point you to some. Also, the website I linked you to is Yuletide, is the rare-fandom fic exchange that happens every year and has a lot of choices for a lot of different fandoms and is the best bet for book fic (unless you're talking Harry Potter, and boy, we'd BOTH get lost).

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  11. Reading your blog is hazardous to my reading health. This was a really great way to talk about this book. You all made it come to life for me and I will definitely be coming back to this post as I read this book.

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  12. Nymeth: I did also, enjoy how we all did it a little bit differently. I just completely forgot, other than mentioning it was book 4 in the series, to give any kind of outline at all, and usually I do a little!!! I did have so much fun, too :-D

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  13. I adore Wales, having lived there sadly for a mere 4 years, and I really hope to move back in the future. Wales is still quite wild, so at times it can appear creepy and haunting, but so so beautiful! I think this book will really appeal to me, so thanks very much for the great reviews. Interesting format, I like the group discussion! More please... :)

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  14. I've heard a lot about this series and this author but I haven't read any of these books. The movie looks really cool too :)

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  15. Thank you so much for letting me play along. It was wonderful fun and I'm making my way through Silver on the Tree so that we can do it all over again.

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  16. Great book discussion! I haven't read anything by this author but it sure sounds good... :)

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  17. Renay: Ah, the huge world of Harry Potter fan fiction...I used to hang out at the Fiction Alley forums back in the day. I remember getting lots of great book recommendations from their Reading Room.

    Staci: lol :P I'm very glad you enjoyed the format! You know, it'd be awesome if other bloggers reading the books used the question format too!

    Susan: Don't feel bad, though, we all forget stuff sometimes :P

    Mariel: How great that you lived in Wales! The fact that it's still wild is part of what I love so much about it. Same goes for Scotland.

    Ladytink: From what I hear, the movie is best enjoyed by people who aren't expecting it to be faithful to the books :P

    Kerry: Thank you for playing along! Take your time with Silver on the Tree :)

    Naida, thanks!

    Alice: Well, here's another series to get hooked on when you're done with Earthsea :P

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  18. Great post, Nymeth! I enjoyed reading these interviews! :)

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  19. It's cool that you three realised you were all reading the same series at the same time! I have a hardback copy of the series as a whole which I hope to read soonish. You have all inspired me to put it nearer the top of ever expanding list.

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  20. Melody, glad you enjoyed it!

    Rhinoa: The blue and golden one? That's the one I have too. I hope you enjoy the series as much as I did!

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.