Jun 9 2011 11:59am

Adventures on Magic’s Edge: Over Sea, Under Stone

Cover image for Over Sea, Under StoneOver Sea, Under Stone, the first book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, opens slowly, almost leisurely, with no hint of magic at all. Rather, it tells the story of three children, Simon, Jane and Barney, who arrive at a mysterious house (complete with one of those marvelous housekeepers who only seem to exist in English literature). Naturally, they begin exploring, and equally naturally, they soon find a mysterious room and a mysterious treasure map that takes some time to decode. And they begin to suspect that not all is quite normal with their supposed Great Uncle Merry (often called Gumerry), not to mention the overly friendly neighbors offering boat rides and that housekeeper with her marvelous food.

With its hunt for mysterious treasure, grizzled, quaint and friendly townsfolk, friendly housekeepers who insist on loading up children with far too much picnic food, a surly and unhelpful local boy, and even a cute dog, it initially comes off rather like a Famous Five novel (a popular children’s adventure British book series), only better written. But midway through, the novel begins to switch to something else, offering hints of magic and fantasy, and very real danger. (And also a very, very bad example of WHAT NOT TO DO when the tide on a rocky coastline goes out. Kids, don’t do this. I was frankly expecting more injuries from the ocean than from the bad guys. But moving on.)

As the kids discover, the treasure they are seeking is actually the Holy Grail. Not the Monty Python version, but an object of power, carried away and hidden by an old knight, who for some reason then felt compelled to leave detailed instructions on how to find it, assuming, of course, that the seeker is standing in just the right place with just the right time with a nice cooperative tide. (Again, kids, don’t do this.) And it is this discovery which slowly changes their adventure from light hearted fun to something far more important, and far more real—and unreal. For, as it turns out, Great Uncle Merry is a bit more than he seems, and those two seemingly friendly visitors and that excellent cook and housekeeper have not exactly been fully forthcoming either.

Cooper doesn’t bother to give the three kids particularly distinct personalities, making them slightly difficult to distinguish in the beginning of the book, until some dialogue slowly establishes that Simon is the eldest, with a tendency to be a bit bossy and brag about his Latin, Jane is a girl, and Barney likes to read, but is still young enough to play cute and innocent with adults. Otherwise, all are pretty much perky and brave, although Jane, sigh, breaks down a bit more than the boys, even though she’s older than her brothers. And, of course, she’s the one to carry a clean handkerchief and keep her pockets clean. But she does eventually lose her hair ribbon, so, plus, and she does help solve the mystery—she is the one to realize how they have to interpret the images on the map. If she’s also the person who helps let the bad guys know what’s going on—well, she isn’t the only one. And at that, she’s an improvement from her female counterparts in the Famous Five novels.

Cooper also cheats a little by having her wise, mentor Merlin figure actually turn out to be Merlin, which, okay, nice touch, and which also allows her to bypass any claims that she hasn’t exactly created a new take on the old sorcerer-mentor figure here. Not that the character does that much magic in this book—just enough, with his name, to clue alert readers into his real identity.

But characterization aside, this is a fun, quick read, with a mystery to investigate and an adventure to follow. And although Cooper hints at more things to come in the last few pages, the novel stands fine on its own—you can end the series easily enough here, although doing so also means you’ll miss the main point—and the later highlights —of the series.

Nonetheless, although I generally recommend starting at the beginnings of series, I’m not sure I can do so here. Mostly because this is very different from the rest of the series—somewhat, I suppose, like reading The Hobbit and then immediately moving onto The Return of the King, without all the comforting hobbit stuff at the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring to help you with the transition. It might be better read alone as a standalone book, or read after the rest of the series, when you are wondering just how Simon, Jane, and Barney got involved in all of this in the first place. Otherwise, you can easily start with The Dark Is Rising (the second book of the series) and encounter Simon, Jane and Barney in the third book, Greenwitch.

Mari Ness likes to watch tides go in and out. She lives in central Florida.

1. AgingComputer
Glad to see someone blogging about these books. They were a favorite series when I was small.

Perhaps I'm prejudiced by nostalgia (and by the fact that I hadn't read anything like _Over Sea, Under Stone_ when I first read it) but I always felt that this was the best book in the series. The danger that the kids are facing is the final act of the book I remember was terribly palpable to my 9 or 10-year old self. I think it is built upon the fact that they, unlike Will or Bran in the later books, have really no idea what is going on or why, exactly, they are supposed to find the grail.

In any case, this and _The Grey King_ are the two best in my opinion. _The Dark is Rising_ and _Silver on the Tree_ especially were a little too trippy for my younger self. Perhaps they're due for a re-read.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
I thought it wasn't _the_ Grail, but a later creation? At least, that's what my notes from the last time I read it was. Also someone suggested to me that the Drews may come off poorly if you meet them for the first time in _Greenwitch_, though I don't know that I ever came to a conclusion on it.

Sarah Monette had some super-interesting things to say about the series several years ago.

This is a very peculiar series in a lot of ways, but with lots of good bits, and is always interesting fodder for discussion.
Scott Sherris
3. ssherris
I read Dark Is Rising first when I was a kid. I don't remember at what point I read this one. I'm not sure I actually *have* a recommendation about when to read it - it's almost too different from the rest of the story.
James Felling
4. Maltheos
I loved those books. For some reason I thought that dark is rising was the first one. This was always my least favorite, but it was still a favorite.
Matthew B
5. MatthewB
"making them slightly difficult to distinguish...Simon is the eldest...Jane... older than her brothers."

Good demonstration of how hard it is to distinguish them from each other.
6. Kvon
I remember starting with The Greenwitch, and I liked it enough to go back for the rest (Jane in particular got to stand out for me). I can't remember which one I read second, but probably The Dark is Rising.
Pamela Adams
7. PamAdams
I'm wondering if Gumerry is any relation to G.U.M. (Great-Uncle Matthew) from Ballet Shoes.

I haven't read these, but they appear to be available at my university library, so off I go. (Hooray for finals week!)
8. Melanie S.
This is the series that turned me from an indiscriminate reader (in terms of genre, anyway) into a specifically sf-oriented one. Excited to see someone else taking it on for commentary, as I'm far too close to it for a good critical reading!

(Also, thanks @katenepveu, I read those blog entries years and years ago and have been looking for them ever since...)
9. scarlett_bat
Shocked, SHOCKED to learn that The Dark is Rising wasn't the first in the series. It seems like such a natural starting place, or at least, it did to me when I first read the series.
Sean Arthur
10. wsean
I love these books so much, but I can never bring myself to reread them, so strong is my hate for the ending. :/

I just read Alcatraz vs the Evil Librarians, and Brandon Sanderson is my hero for making fun of that kind of ending.
Mari Ness
11. MariCats
@Aging_Computer - I honestly find it difficult to compare this book to the rest of the series; sure, the characters from this book reappear in the later books, but otherwise, it's so different in tone that I hesitate to call it the best or the worst or the middle of the series.

@Kate_Nepveu - And here we have a demonstration of just why I should not return the books to the library BEFORE the post goes live. I'm not sure. My impression was that it was the real Grail.

I initially read this series completely out of order, and didn't read this one first, which might help explain why I felt that I was reading about entirely different people. Greenwitch definitely belongs in the rest of the series; this one doesn't really have that feel.

And thanks to the links to Sarah Monette's comments! I see that she and I had similar reactions to the last book, at least.

@ssherris - I have to agree; people reading this first may not be prepared for the very different tone of the next four books and vice versa.

@Maltheos - This book is first, but has a very stand alone to feel with it. The Dark Is Rising, on the other hand, definitely has the feel that more books are coming.

@Mrburack -- :: head thunk :: You are quite right, of course. This is also a related demonstration of the importance of only posting Tor posts AFTER the sufficient drinking of coffee. Jane is the middle kid, but clearly I had problems remembering that. Not sure if coffee would have helped that much, to be fair, but it couldn't have hurt.

@Kvon -- I did try to read the books in order for this reread, and the tonal change is really jarring. I think it would be equally jarring to go from this book to Greenwitch.

@Pam Adams - Maybe. I thought the main point was to put an easy to solve mystery in the books for alert young readers, but Cooper may have had Ballet Shoes in mind as well.
Mari Ness
12. MariCats
@Melanie S - I'll have a lot more to say about the later books; it's difficult to say much about a generally lighthearted adventure story like this one except for, "Hey, fun!" I will certainly have a lot to say about the last book.

@Scarlett-bat - In many ways, The Dark Is Rising IS the real introduction to the story. This book gives very little hint of what's to come, and seems to be introducing a series of magical mystery adventure books, which as it turns out...not really.

@wsean - Oh, I'll be talking about the ending. I had the same reaction; it's why I didn't take another look at these books for years.
13. Lsana
Interesting that you found Jane "break down more than her brothers." Maybe it's partially because I read Greenwitch pretty shortly after this, but I always found Jane the most comptetent of the three. I remeber that there was at least one, and I feel more than one, clue that she was the only one who could figure out.


I feel the same way. I thought the books were better when they left those like Merry as just mysterious forces of good and evil without trying to go too much into the whole, "The Old Ones who live outside time" bit.


I felt the exact same way about the end. My first ever attempt at fanfiction was an attempt to fix it; this was when I was so young I didn't know that there was such a thing as fanfiction, and I felt I was doing something wrong by writing in another author's world, but I hated the end so much I did it anyway.
John Richards
14. wanderingoutlaw
I remember checking out these books from the school library (probably middle school), reading them, and loving them. I finally re-read them last year (over twenty-five years later) and still enjoyed them (except for the ending).
15. C.S.E. Cooney
I remember that The Grey King was the first of these I read, and the one I loved best. After that, The Dark Is Rising came next. I never reread all the other ones, but those two I did.
JOhn Johnson
16. smileyman
I've always regarded Over Sea, Under Stone, as a sort of prequel to the rest of the books in the series, not unlike The Hobbit compared to The Lord of the Rings.

Those who are interested might want to check out the movie adaptation of The Dark is Rising. It's a decent enough take on it, but the real compelling reason to see it is to see Christopher Eccleston's brilliant job as The Rider, which is a nice counterpoint to his turn as the Doctor.
17. Rymenhild
Those who are interested might want to check out the movie adaptation of The Dark is Rising.

Oh, lord, don't. *shudder* It takes a protagonist who grows up in and belongs to English folklore and turns him into a useless kid from California with no connection to folk wisdom at all. And that's the least of its insults to Susan Cooper's work.
Mari Ness, I'm so pleased you're doing a Dark is Rising readthrough! I agree with your points (with the small nitpicks others have pointed out), and I look forward to your thoughts on later books. (I always tell people to start with tDiR, and I'm pretty sure I did myself. That was twenty years ago, though.)
Fade Manley
18. fadeaccompli
Huh! It's fascinating to see that I'm far from the only one who didn't start reading the series with this book. In fact, I read all the other books in the series before I ever got to this one, some years later. (The library didn't have the first one, I think? Or maybe I just didn't realize it was part of the same series.) After all, The Dark Is Rising stands alone as a beginning perfectly well.

This did have the rather unfortunate side-effect that when I reached later books in the series and the three siblings showed up again, I was annoyed by them right off the bat for being some sort of random set of Other Kids trying to take the spotlight away from the "real" protagonist. Who were these children, and why was Merlin treating them like they were actually relevant? It felt, in some ways, like a betrayal of the storyline I'd been promised in TDIR.

...which only goes to show, I suppose, that children can get extremely indignant about very odd things in their books.
19. Loopdilou
Ahh! Good to see a review of this book and I hope you plan on doing this rest. I reread this series from time to time and I have to say that it holds up incredibly well from when I first read it as a child. I do like Over Sea, Under Stone as a starting point similar to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe as a starting point for the Narnia series. They're the lightest books in the series and easiest to plunge into. When you're recommending fantasy series to kids, these are the books you want them to start with. They'll miss the children from Over Sea, Under Stone when they read The Dark is Rising, but they'll love picking up the clues between the two books.
Kevin Maroney
20. womzilla
I'm fairly sure that Over Sea, Under Stone was not published or packaged as part of the series until fairly recently (i.e., within the last 20 years). In the US, it might even have been owned by a different publisher when I was young.

I came to the series as an adult and wasn't knocked out (the plotting is, to my taste, simply terrible in all of the volumes), but Jo Walton on rasff correctly pegged what makes them stand out: they absolutely overflow with atmosphere. Each story more or less resolves itself while the protagonists look on, but man, they are just bulging at the seams with a sense of pure dark evil.
Mari Ness
21. MariCats
@Lsana - Jane is far more competent in Greenwitch and the last book than she is in this one. It's yet another tonal switch. She's also a more major character in those two books.

@wanderingoutlaw - I sense we're all going to be in some agreement about the ending!

@C.S.E. Cooney - The Grey King might not be a bad place to start the series - I think it and this book are the two books of the series that most easily stand alone.

@Smileyman - That's not a bad comparison, except that Bilbo and the dwarves only return as supporting characters or in brief cameos later on....but Gandalf does return as a major character, so that works.

I do think that Cooper, like Tolkien, changed greatly as a writer over time, becoming considerably more thoughtful, and this shows.

@Smileyman and Rymenhild - I see we have some disagreement about the movie! I haven't seen it, so can't comment.

@Fadeaccompli - Well, Will tends to treat Simon, Jane and Barney as a random set of Other Kids who are sorta getting in his way, so your reaction is understandable. And frankly in the last book Simon and Barney do feel a bit unnecessary, but I anticipate.

@Loopdilou - Yes, I'll be doing the rest of the series. I'm not sure that I'd agree that The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe is the lightest of the Narnia books - that would seem to be The Horse and His Boy - but I agree that Over Sea, Over Stone can be a good introduction to the series. My only objection with reading it first is that it really doesn't give a good indication of where the series is going at all, unlike most first books in a series.
Mari Ness
22. MariCats
@womzilla - That might explain why I didn't read them in order. I know I read one of them in Italy (the only one of the series available in either tiny library there), which would have been a British publication, and then another when we were in Illinois, and finally tracked down the rest much later. I don't think they were marketed to libraries very well as a set.
Fade Manley
23. fadeaccompli
@MariCats - See, now I find it fascinating that you identify The Horse and His Boy as the lightest of the Narnia books, because for me it seemed quite the other way around. Aside from the last book--which I generally try not to think about--I always found that one the most gripping as having a sense of real danger and darkness to it. On reflection, I think it's because it's the only one out of the first six where the viewpoint character is a local. Removing the assumption that of course everyone would go back to the Real World afterward, and thus certainly couldn't die or be seriously harmed, made it all feel much more pressing.

Visiting children could treat things seriously or not, but it was ultimately a vacation for them. For Shasta, the world he grew up in, with an abusive parent and slavery and war and being randomly cuffed by a gate guard (which quite horrified me when I first read it: imagine a random adult being violent to a child! and getting away with it!), was the world he was going to stay in, no matter what. It's the one book of the series that I still reread regularly, because it felt so much more grounded than the rest that way.
24. seth e.
Wow, you're hitting all the highlights of my childhood reading, almost in order. I didn't realize the connections were as obvious as they apparently are. If you ever do the Freddy the Pig books, I may die of elation.

I too didn't read Over Sea, Under Stone until after the rest of the series, and to me it reads like an optional extra, like some other author's interpretation of the same basic situation. In retrospect, reading it changed the meaning of the rest of the series in interesting ways, like, I don't know, reading Little Riding Hood after "The Company of Wolves." But in and of itself it's a much more generic story.

P.S. You probably shouldn't do the Freddy books, there are twenty-five of them. But if you haven't read them, you should; it's a very different, American kind of tall-tale fantasy.

P.P.S., since fadeaccompli posted as I was writing this: my favorite Narnia books were always The Horse and His Boy, for the reasons fadeaccompli describes, and--I'm not prepared to defend this at this moment--The Last Battle. I know why everyone else dislikes it, and I don't disagree, but I actually liked the pervasive sadness of most of the book. It made the heroism seem much more affecting.
Mari Ness
25. MariCats
@Fadeaccompli - Not to get too off topic, but see, I didn't realize when I first read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that the kids would make it back to England at all, especially after they became kings and queens. (Of course, I learned better just a couple of pages after that.) So Edmund's betrayal and fear and terror seemed very real, as did Susan's nearly getting eaten by a wolf and Peter having to kill something and the very real terror of a witch willing to sacrifice a talking lion just to keep a land buried in winter. Some very rich and deep stuff is happening in that book. In contrast, even with the slavery and beatings, The Horse and His Boy just seems lighter, although it's certainly one of my favorites of the series now, for different reasons.

@seth e - I missed the Freddy and the Pig books; they didn't have them in Italy and I'm not sure if they had them in Illinois; by the time we reached Connecticut I think I was beyond them.

But, in checking, I see that the marvelous Orange County Library does have eight of them, so it's entirely possible that I can add them to the reread eventually, after a few other rereads.
26. Finny
And now we start my favourite series of all time, by my favourite author of all time. Admittedly OSUS is my least favourite of the books (I read it last, as I read them all out of order, starting with The Grey King, as it was the only one of the five my elementary library had), but it still starts the series, even if I don't reread it anywhere near as often as the other four. I'm delighted to find you writing about them!
27. Lil Shepherd
I seem to have been the only person who read these in order at the time of publication. I didn't really like Over Sea, Under Stone which I thought was very ordinary. I suppose I was comparing it with The Moon of Gomrath which was my favourite book as a child.

The point is really that Over Sea, Under Stone was published in 1965, over ten years before the series continued with The Dark is Rising in 1973. During that time Cooper had married and moved to the States and her writing had matured. Also, writing as an exile, the Englishness of her work becomes intensified and dreamlike.

Personally, I don't re-read Over Sea, Under Stone, though I own it, and think the other books in which the Drews appear are not exactly the highlights of the series...
28. Lil Shepherd

should be "nearly ten years" or "eight years" obviously.

*fails simple Math*
29. The_Duck_Is_Rising
IIRC, The Dark Is Rising was the first of the series that I read, and I loved the sense of menace met and contained. I can't remember when I read Over Sea Under Stone, but I would agree - it's like The Hobbit compared to The Lord of the Rings - starting off in light-hearted mode, then getting progressively darker as it goes along, and not really part of the later series.
Brian R
30. Mayhem
Heh, I first encountered this series as an excerpt* from The Grey King in a collection of different short stories for children. Talk about a moody introduction. But tracking down the series meant I started with OSUS and never looked back. It also meant I was really looking forward to finding out exactly who Will and Merriman were, they seems so mysterious.

*For reference, it was the bit where Bran & Will go into the mountain and have to face the three challenges.
Birgit F
31. birgit
I often reread The Dark Is Rising, but didn't realize it was part of a series until the bad movie came out. The movie doesn't really have much to do with the book. They removed all referenced to mythology and changed the story. The Wanderer doesn't appear at all, and the dead baby that is only mentioned in the book because it makes Will the seventh son becomes central to the plot.
Sorcha O
32. sushisushi
Oh, I absolutely lovelovelove The Dark is Rising Series. I do agree that 'Over Sea, Under Stone' is not as hugely engaging as the other books, although I did read it first as a ten year old and it was intriguing enough that I worked my way through the rest of the books. It's a rather gentle introduction, in that it starts off very much in a specific genre of British children's summer adventure stories, but ends up in a place with much more Arthurian overtones. I was enthralled by the slow development of hints about Gumerry and the Grail, thinking myself terribly good for figuring out what was *really* going on. The National Museum of Ireland opened an exhibition of prehistoric gold sometime around the point when I read it first and I was so impressed by the scene at the end where the Drews are thanked for donating the grail to the museum, as I could really visualise the scene. Particularly because I was so impressed by Gumerry's strategy of hiding the grail in plain sight (as I said, I was about maybe ten, and not exactly genre savvy :)
33. helbel
@womzilla - My copy of The Dark Is Rising Sequence was published as 5 books in 1 in 1984.

So only 27 years ago.
Mari Ness
34. MariCats
@Finny - Oh dear. I should warn you that I'm not as enthusiastic about the rest of the series as you are, although that's probably because my reaction has been so strongly colored by the last book. But I look forward to hearing your counter opinions!

@Lil Shepherd - I don't think it was just the move to the U.S. that altered Cooper's writing; she also seems to have done a lot more thinking about the meaning of magic, the fight between Light and Dark, and the role of women.

I agree, though, that the books with the Drews tend to be the weaker books of the series - again, probably because Cooper put considerably more thought into her characterization of Will and Bran than into the Drews.

@The_Duck_Is_Rising -- I just have to applaud your user name here :)

@birgit - The movie came out when I was superbusy with about three zillion other things. Various people who had not read the books, but did see the movie, said it was just terrible, so I stayed with doing the three zillion other things and never got around to seeing the film.

If I can find it at the library for free, I might see it, but the comments about the film here are not exactly encouraging me to search it out.

@sushisushi - I loved that bit too, but mostly because I'm a major fan of museums.
35. Lesley A
I first became aware of Over Sea, Under Stone when it was read out on Jackanory, with still photos of the action. Jackanory took a book a week, with a different narrator each week, illustrated by drawings or photos usually, and brought some of the best of children's fiction to a wider audience. It was a sad loss for British children's literacy when it was cancelled (Power Rangers finished it off).
It is much more of an 'ordinary' children's story than the others - I loved Will and Bran enough to attempt fan fiction before I even knew what it was called. And Susan Cooper started off, along with Alan Garner, a life long interest in the myths of Britain.
The title actually echoes Welsh poetry, where the traditional poets would use phrases like "under sea, over sea", or "over stone, under stone", but they never mixed them together.
36. Jaquandor
I first read these books when I read them aloud to my daughter. I enjoyed the language immensely, but there were things that kept bothering me throughout the series, such as the hero kids always being told that the Dark would not win in the end; I kept thinking, "If it's a done deal and the Dark cannot win, then what's the point?"

But that final ending? OMG. As noted, I was reading aloud when I got to the ending, and it took a Herculean effort on my part not to bark out, with my seven-year-old kid in the room, "You have GOT to be F***ING kidding me!" That ending blows. It wasn't just a let-down; the ending actually pissed me off. I very much doubt I'll ever bother re-reading these.
Kevin Maroney
37. womzilla
Helbel @ 33: Huh, that's definitely earlier than I remember, and I was working in a science fiction bookshop in 1984. Was that a book club omnibus?

I do distinctly remember a four-volume slipcased (paperback) edition--publishers used to slipcase books a lot more often, 30+ years ago, than they do now--which contained only the last four books of the series. It's possible that was from the 1970s rather than the 1980s. I didn't actually read the books myself until the late 1990s, so I'm sure my grasp of the details isn't as strong as it could be.
Brook Freeman
38. longstrider
As of this cover they were being marked and sold in the US together. I know I had them all when I was fairly young, so mid to late 80s.

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