Thursday, 19 March 2009

The Grey King - Susan Cooper - or, playing with Kerry and Nymeth

One of the great things about the web is how it is able to bring people from various countries together to talk about things they love. In my case, it is of course, books. Today, for your reading pleasure, I am going to present The Grey King Discussion, with myself, Nymeth at Things Mean Alot, and Kerry at Saving My Sanity. We each asked 2 questions about the book, and are presenting the answers on each of our blogs. It was great fun emailing back and forth, and setting up the format, and thinking of things that wouldn't give the plot away. I'd also like to point out that the web truly is world-bridging, since we three cover the world - Nyemth is in Portugal, Kerry in New Zealand, and I am in Canada. Isn't that just a little bit awesome?

The Grey King - Susan Cooper - #4 in The Dark is Rising series

1. Nymeth asked: What did you think of the book's sense of place?

Kerry's Answer:
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
despite the lack of pictures, I felt well-emmersed in the book.

Nymeth's Answer: 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.

My answer
: 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.

2. Nymeth asked: Share a favorite moment or scene in this book.

Kerry's answer: 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.

Nymeth's answer:
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.

My answer:
"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."

3. I asked: Do you think The Grey King deserves the Newbery Medal? Why?

Kerry's Answer:
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 anAmerican, which I guess is what made her eligible). Sorry, I haven't really answered the question, have I?

Nymeth's Answer:
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.

My Answer:
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.

4. I asked: 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's Answer:
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.

Nymeth's Answer:
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.

My Answer:
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 Mabinogion, 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.

5. Kerry asked: 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's Answer:
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.)

Nymeth's answer:
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.

My answer
: 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!

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

Kerry's answer:
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.

Nymeth's Answer:
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.

My answer:
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!

As you can see, we had great fun thinking of the questions to ask one another. We hope you enjoyed our discussion and answers. We are following with Silver on the Tree when Kerry is ready. I for one am delighted to review a book this way, and it was lovely to see how we thought of sometimes similar, sometimes different, answers. I'd like to say I had fun playing with Nymeth and Kerry, too!


Kailana said...

I really need to read the rest of the books in this series! I think I have only read the first one... I seriously have too many series on the go!

Susan said...

Kailana: I know you do, I'm following with fascination all the series you are reading this year! lol I am so glad to get this one finally read, after all these years of wanting to read it. It was worth it. I have to save the rest for our final post!

Jeane said...

What a fabulous way to review a book. I haven't read this in a few years, but all your well-thought out answers reminded me of why I love the series so much- and put it into better words than I could.

Nymeth said...

Once again, thank you, Susan! I had a ton of fun, and I'm really looking forward to discussing Silver on the Tree.

Debi said...

"Isn't that just a little bit awesome?"...Actually, I think that qualifies as a whole lot of awesome. :)

I already said it over at Nymeth's, but I just have to say it was so fun reading you all's "discussion"! I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Susan said...

jeane: thank you! we had so much fun doing it. It helps that we all enjoy the series so much also. I forgot to do a plot synopsis, Nymeth was the only one who did remember to!

Nymeth: me too!!! :-D

Debi: thank you! I'm so glad so many people enjoyed it, that was part of the fun for me too, was imagining other people could read along and imagine their answers to the questions (if they remembered the book) too.

mariel said...

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... :)

Susan said...

mariel: Nymeth got the idea from Dewey, so it's another great idea from our sadly missed blogging companion. It worked amazingly well, and I really enjoyed it also. We're doing another one for Silver on the Tree, so stay tuned... :-D

I really hope to visit Wales. My family emigrated from Glamorganshire on the south coast, and possibly from Pembrokeshire too. Any pictures I've seen - I found some online - I fell in love with. Where did you live there?

Kerry said...

Thanks so much for letting me play. I had so much fun. I'll keep on going with Silver on the Tree so we can do it all over again.

mariel said...

I lived in Aberystwyth on the mid-Wales coast, then in Bangor up in the North-west. I loved living in Aber more, the landscape was lovely and it was a small friendly town, but Bangor had Snowdonia on its doorstep, and the Isle of Anglesey across the Menai Strait, home of many a legend! You should definitely visit next time you are over in the UK!

Susan said...

Kerry: Oh, I loved having you join us, and so did Nymeth! Just let us know when you're ready for Silver on the Tree :-D

Mariel: wow, names out of books! you lived in two wonderful places. I will visit Wales one day. Oh yes!