Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper: 'reviewed' by Sue Purkiss

So - knowing I had a review slot coming up, I went into our local Waterstones to see what I could find. There were lots of beautiful and interesting books - but no single one that stood out and demanded to be bought (apart from more pirate books for my grandson for Christmas). I know, I know - there must have been stacks, but it was just that kind of a day - grey, rainy, dismal, dull.

A few days later I was looking for a book to take away with me for the weekend. It needed to be  fat one, and it needed to be a good one: I felt the need to be engrossed. Christmas is getting near, and I was going to the Chilterns. The solution was obvious, and I reached for The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper. It's set in the Chilterns, in Cornwall, and in Wales.

Many of you will have read it - it's a classic, and it actually feels presumptuous to talk of reviewing it. But there may be some of you who haven't - so this is for you.

But it's also for me. There are very few books that I read even twice, yet this sequence of five is one I come back to over and over again - usually around Christmas time. Only one of the books is set at Christmas - the second one, which gives the sequence its title, yet somehow it seems the appropriate time - This is the time, and this is the reader, to paraphrase from, I think, the third book, Greenwitch. I'm interested to explore why I like it so much.

The story follows a classic fantasy arc: the forces of good - the Light - are fighting against the forces of evil - the Dark: and for the most part, the defenders of the Light - and of the whole world - are a group of children, headed by Will Stanton, who is not only a boy, but also one of the Old Ones, figures of immense power who have protected human beings through the ages. The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, written in 1965, does not feature Will - and the story gains much more power when he does make his appearance, in the second book, The Dark Is Rising - but it does introduce the Drew children, Simon, Jane, and Barney - and Merriman Lyon, also known (to the children) as Gumerry, and as Merlion. Merriman is tall with white hair and deep-set eyes, and he's a dewin, a wizard - so you can guess which mythical figure he derives from. The Arthurian echoes are strong - in fact, in a sense, the sequence is a reworking of the story of Arthur. But it doesn't feel like that. It feels as if this is a story about the very recent past - the 1970s - and about some apparently ordinary children whose world, for a time, collided with an equally real but usually hidden world of myth and magic. So when you read it, you too can enter that world... and in the dark days of a grey winter, who wouldn't want to go there?

Susan Cooper writes beautifully. She manages to make the dialogue between the children sound natural (though it may seem a little dated to modern children... would it bother them, that Will and the Drews are from the sixties and seventies, that there are no mobile phones or computers? At what point does something stop being dated and become simply historic? A question for another post, perhaps) and she also manages effectively the switches to the more formal speech of the Old Ones. Her descriptions of magic are, simply, magical: here, Will's older brother, Stephen, has just seen something which Will knows will be too much for his mind to cope with. So he casts a spell, to make him forget.

'Stay still,' Will said softly. 'Don't hurt them. Stay still.'
Stephen paused, one arm raised apprehensively before his face. Over and around him the tiny moths flurried, round and around, wheeling, floating, never settling, drifting down. They were like infinitely small birds fashioned of snowflakes; silent, ghostly, each tiny wing a filigree of five delicate feathers, all white...

If you go to her website, The Lost Land of Susan Cooper, and read her biography, you will see that the books, particularly the last four, arise out of a tremendous homesickness she felt for England and Wales after she moved to America. Perhaps that's where the power arises: out of a longing for something which is lost. That sense of longing reappears again and again: Will's longing for Merriman and the Lady, Owen Davies's longing for Gwen, Arthur's longing for his son, Gwion's longing for his old friend, and for the return to himself of his king. Susan Cooper writes also of how as a child she was aware of the Battle of Britain raging overhead, as she read everything she could get hold of. She developed, she says, 'a very strong sense of us and them, of good and evil, of Light and the Dark.'

I've only touched the surface of what makes these books work so well: there's so much more that could be said. But that's enough for now: I'd love to know what other readers think. And if you haven't read them yet, you have a treat in store!



Gillian Philip said...

I'm ashamed to say I haven't read these yet, Sue! But I have just bought Folio Soc copies of the first two, and I will now *definitely* read them. They sound perfect, and I can hardly believe I didn't read them as a child, what with my Alan Garner addiction. They just weren't on my radar, for some crazy reason.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful review. This has been one of my absolute favourite series for years and I think you make some good points about what makes it special. For me it's the way the world of myth and magic sits so neatly alongside the everyday world - eg. in the Dark is Rising itself the spectacular magic of the Light is echoed by the everyday magic of a family Christmas, and the fantasy evil of the Rider underlined by the very human evil of the local racist.
I'm planning to read this again over Christmas - few books give such a wonderful sense of the season as this one.

Lily said...

This book TERRIFIED me as a kid when I first read it- the bit about the cold coming in and freezing everyone, and the dark rider.

I loved it though, the whole series. I wanted to have a huge family like Will's (and be special like Will, obviously).

As an adult I now think Greenwitch is the best one of the series...

Sue Purkiss said...

Georgiana - I agree about the way the world of magic sits alongside the everyday world - and I think that's one reason why I liked the Alan Garner books so much too, Gillian. You just feel maybe that other world really is there, it's just a question of tapping into it. And Lily, yes - what a great family the Stantons are!

Nick Green said...

The stories have an effortless authority, I think, in the way that Tolkien's do. You don't get any sense of the author trying to persuade you that X or Y is true; she writes it, and it IS true, no arguments.

What's also remarkable is that for all the roaring and raging evil of the dark, nothing really bad happens - nothing cheaply or obviously bad, at any rate. No-one dies horrible deaths or anything like that. It's all about suggestion and insinuation, which is ultimately far more terrifying.

I still get shivers remembering the skeletal horse in the final book. Nightmarish brilliance.

madwippitt said...

I love these books and was really excited to give a set to my godson, now finally old enough to read them. Of them all, TDIR is my favourite though, and invariably gets re-read at Christmas. It could so easily have been yet another straightforward treasurehunt/quest, yet it is so much more than that.

Anonymous said...

One of my favourites, too. Oddly, till I read your review, I’d always considered The Dark is Rising as no3 in the sequence, I think because I read it first, then The Grey King (also excellent) before going back to the two Cornish books, which form a pair anyway. It took me ages to find the final book, The Silver on the Tree. I do think the Will Stanton books much stronger than the Drew children ones, which hark back to an earlier kind of children’s story, whereas the Will Stanton ones seem much more modern.

One thing I particularly liked about TDIR is the relationship between Merriman Lyon and Hawkin, his liege man, which has a tragic quality that lends real depth to the story. It also shows Lyon to be rather more ruthless than he appears as amiable Uncle Gumerry. I read somewhere that Susan Cooper said that the clear-cut Light v Dark distinction was born of her childhood experience of WW2. I wonder if that is also the source of another striking feature of her stories, the affable, homely traitor? There’s one in TDIR (Will’s brother’s girl, I think) and another in The Silver on the Tree; there may be others.

TDIR had a direct influence on my book The Comet’s Child, which was conceived from the idea of a ‘Destined Child’ character (like Will Stanton) who instead rejects the destiny he has been allotted.

An excellent read, which I’d commend to anyone - more than I could say of the film, which is abysmal - a sorry, incomprehensible mess, a real wasted opportunity. I think the books would make a good TV serial, though - anyone?

Sue Purkiss said...

Yes, the film was a travesty - just ridiculous. And i do agree about the relationship between Hawkin and Merriman - beautifully done. Was glad to see Hawkin briefly at the end with the twinkle back in his eye!

Anonymous said...

Oops! Just realised that where I first read Susan Cooper's comment about her wartime childhood and light and dark was on her website, and where I should have read it second was at the end of your piece, before I hastened into print... that's me well found out! My sincere (and abject) apologies.

Ann Victoria Roberts said...

Where have I been? Never heard of these stories, but your review has intrigued me - I must look further! I enjoyed the Mary Stewart series years ago about Merlin and Arthur, so maybe I'll enjoy Susan Cooper too. Thank you!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Lovely post, Sue. I was looking for winter solstice themed books for a post on my own blog - it's winter solstice here in Australia, six months after this post - and stumbled on this(and of course, know your name from The History Girls). I loved this series and have read and reread. I personally like this one best, but as a series it has power. We were all following it at my first school back in the seventies, staff and students alike. Susan Cooper is a lovely, lyrical writer and certainly influenced me.

Anonymous said...

Lovely books, recently re-read them having not done so since I was 12 (30 years ago) - they're really powerful. My favourite is still TDIR, but TGK and Greenwich are also terrific. I like that they're not perfect - OSUS is really written for a younger audience than the other books; SOTT is a bit disjointed, although there are good bits to it (Blodwin Rowlands betrayal!).

Cooper writes very well for children but she also manages to weave into the stories really adult material. The aforementioned Merriman/Hawkin relationship, and also what about Bran, Owen Davis, Carradog Prichard and Guinivere! Adultery, attempted rape, unclear paternity etc.

Anonymous said...

Forgot to comment on the cover you've shown, which was from the series used on my books (that I still have). Some of the more recent covers are not very good. But Isn't that one fantastic! Such an eerie illustration!

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