The Dark is Rising is the second volume of Susan Cooper’s series of the same title, but it stands completely alone and is a much better place for an adult reader to start than the first, Over Sea, Under Stone. These are children’s books, not YA written with half an eye on adults, but old fashioned children’s books written in the seventies. Let’s be specific, they were written when I was a child, and I first read them when I was a child, not that I’d have admitted that at the time. I was twelve. The last one, Silver on the Tree, was the first book I ever had to wait for. It’s hard to properly evaluate beloved children’s books. It’s always hard to leave behind earlier readings of any book, memories and contexts colour reactions, and I don’t know what I’d think of The Dark is Rising if somebody handed it to me now as a new book. I know exactly where I was when I first read it, on the stony beach at Hastings, reading it guiltily and quickly because I felt that reading children’s books confirmed me in a childishness I wanted urgently to escape. I’d read Tolkien, I was reading Le Guin and Delany, what did children’s books have for me? The only thing that let me read it at all was my memory of the dedication to The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. If C.S. Lewis thought people could grow into children’s books again, that would do. These days I have no faintest embarrassment about reading children’s books—because Lewis may have been wrongheaded about a lot of things but dead on right about that one.
I often re-read The Dark is Rising around Christmas. It’s set at this time of year, between the winter solstice and Twelfth Night. It has a very specific evocation of time and place and British family Christmas and the way that connects to an older darker more magical world. It’s the story of Will Stanton, a boy who discovers, on his eleventh birthday, that he isn’t an ordinary boy at all but the last of the Old Ones. What it had for me when I was twelve was that story most miserable adolescents like best of all—the story of being special, not belonging to this world but a wider one. The Dark is Rising is a fairly simple collect-the-plot-coupons quest fantasy but it works because it tells that story of being special very well. Will is constantly poised between his worlds, being both eleven and ageless, a child to his family, responsible for saving the world. The thing is as much burden as gift to Will, and the Dark is about as dark as you can get in a children’s book. The the background is also very well done. The main plot is almost laughably straightforward, but the all characterisation is very good, and there’s one complex character that draws the whole thing deeper.
I shall always be grateful to Susan Cooper for teaching so many of my American friends how to make a reasonable fist of pronouncing Welsh names. One of the best things about these books is how specific they are about places—you can go to the places in the books and walk around, and they are just the way she describes them. Over Sea Under Stone and Greenwitch are set in Cornwall, The Grey King and Silver on the Tree are set in North Wales, and The Dark is Rising is set in the south of England near Windsor. She evokes them very precisely—and she’s also good at describing magic and emotions.
The books concern the great battle of the Light ranged against the Dark. Where this battle really works is where Cooper shows that the Light are not necessarily all that nice—especially in The Grey King, probably the best book in the series. The best characters in all the books are those who are on the edges, torn between the cold necessities of the Light and the seductive possibilities of the Dark, while themselves being human and fallible.
This Zoroastrian dualism of Light vs Dark is mixed with a sprinkling of the imagery of Celtic mythology and modern bastardisations of Celtic mythology—Herne the Hunter and the hunting of the wren, Cartref Gwaelod and King Arthur and the Old Ones who are born to their task and can move through time. Cooper treats this mishmash entirely seriously and largely pulls it off—one of the things you have to do when you write fantasy is work out how the universe works with magic in it, and then stick to that. Cooper has no problem with this. Fortunately for me, I read them before I developed a distaste for this kind of mixing-in of disparate elements.
Spoilers for The Dark is Rising volume only.
The Dark is Rising rests entirely on Will. The other volumes have other protagonists, or alternate between Will and others, but here it’s all Will and his unusual and interesting condition. There’s a poem (a rather bad poem that I prefer to think of as a clunky translation from the original Welsh) which provides the spine and structure of the quest and of the plot—Will is the Sign Seeker, and time and again he finds a sign because the Dark have tried to stop him, rather than despite. I think the virtues of this book are best appreciated if you just accept that this is the structure and what’s interesting is the way everything else interacts with that. “Everything” in this case is Will being special and Will growing up. Cooper, unlike Lewis and many other writers for children, does not assume adulthood is a bad thing.
The most interestingly ambiguous person in The Dark is Rising is the complex character of Hawkin, who was born in the thirteenth century, raised by Merriman Lyon, an Old One, and who betrayed the Light because Merriman cared more about magic and Will than he did about him. Merriman uses Hawkin, and so Hawkin betrays him. Hawkin’s story, how he betrayed the Light twice, how he got the long life he longed for and didn’t like it at all, is threaded through the novel as it is threaded through time—born in the thirteen century, his betrayal happened on a trip to the nineteenth, and he was then condemned to live every day from the thirteenth until the twentieth. This isn’t The Anubis Gates, but it’s a level of complexity of both time and ethics that’s a lot deeper than you’d expect. The whole pattern of Merriman and Hawkin, Will and Hawkin, Hawkin and the Light and the Dark is much more complex and interesting than the actual sign-collecting plot.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.