- the writing on the Grail which leads Will to Wales for the next stage of his quest
Greenwitch ended with Merriman and Will finally interpreting the writing on the Grail (the one originally found in Over Sea, Under Stone, and then re-found in Greenwitch) and getting clear instructions that Will’s next task will be retrieving a Golden Harp in Wales and using it to wake the Sleepers, whoever they may be. So, The Grey King moves the action over to Wales, with a story that more explicitly draws on the Welsh tradition of the Arthurian legend, although this does not become totally clear until the final chapters.
Will finally has to face the Dark on his own this time, without the support of Merriman, so this story is more his than the previous books have been. But he does have to share the limelight with a second main character, Bran. Bran turns out to have a power equal to but very different from Will’s power as an Old One. Bran’s main role in this book is discovering his origins and coming into his power, whereas Will’s role is similar to the role he had in previous books: to find the next object of power that the Light needs to defeat the Dark. He is initially hampered in this quest by being incredibly sick in the opening section of the book and forgetting that he has a quest; forgetting even that he is an Old One. This illness could be seen as somewhat convenient for the plot, as he is sent to stay with family on a farm in Wales to convalesce, and this turns out to be exactly where he needs to be for his quest. Except that his illness isn’t as coincidental as we might expect. Because Will finally understands the ruthlessness of his fellow Old Ones in their quest to defeat the Dark at the end of this book when he realises that his life threatening illness was deliberately caused by an Old One (probably Merriman) to provide a reason for him to be in Wales.
The Dark this time is represented by the Brenin Llwyd, the Grey King of Welsh mythology. He is the most singly powerful of all Great Lords of the Dark, but as he has chosen to stay in the Welsh mountains from the beginning of time, neither Will nor any other Old One have ever encountered him and have no knowledge of the extent of his powers, or just how dangerous he is as an opponent. He turns out to be much more menacing an opponent than any Will has previously faced, which also makes the peril experienced by Will and Bran much greater than that faced by any of the children in the previous three volumes.
Will and Bran form a deep bond over this book, which provides a contrast to Will’s interaction with the Drew children. This might just be because the Drews have each other as companions, and Bran has no siblings or even friends, so is always alone. A boy close to his own age is undoubtedly something to be welcomed. Or possibly the almost immediate connection between them comes from Bran: despite not knowing the power he has, he seems to intrinsically understands what Will is and why it is important to work with him.
The Brenin Llwyd stays behind the scenes in the earlier parts of the book, sending out agents to work against Will instead of directly confronting him. These agents are a neighbouring farmer, Caradog Prichard, and the Milgwn, a group of large foxes who can change shape to appear as dogs. But when Will finally finds the Golden Harp at the end of the first part of the book, he is confronted directly by the Brenin Llwyd who threatens to destroy Will if he attempts to find the Sleepers. From this moment on, Will feels the menacing presence of the Brenin Llwyd constantly, and it takes all of his wits and determination to finish his quest.
This book won the inaugural Tir na n-Og award from the Welsh Book Council, for an English language children’s book with an “authentic Welsh background”. The landscape of Wales plays an important part in the book, with Cooper’s descriptions of the mountains and lakes, and the mists rolling over the land beautifully, creating a suitably creepy atmosphere for the story. To add to the “Welshness” of this story, Bran gives Will a quick lesson in how to pronoun Welsh words in one scene. I tried to follow the lesson but had to give up. I just couldn’t remember all the rules. Welsh is hard!
Only one book to go now, to find out how this story will end. Silver on the Tree will be my next read, because I am now heavily invested in the world Cooper has created and I really want to know what happens in the final battle between the Dark and the Light.