The loss of magic and memory: The Silver on the Tree

The Silver on the Tree, the last book of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, begins on several ominous notes, as Will begins to see people and images from the past, removes his oldest brother’s memories and then almost immediately witnesses a despicable racist act.

This is the first time racism of any type has made an appearance in the series, and Will and his siblings are all horrified. It also adds to the general sense that evil is growing in the real world, not just in the hidden magic behind that: first sheep killing, now racism and outright cruelty to kids. Not surprisingly, the racists turn out to be oblivious agents of the Dark, which uses racism to seep into people’s minds and turn them into tools for evil. Chilling.

After this initial interlude, Will finds that he’s been invited back to Wales and the landscape that gave the previous book such power. By what is probably not a coincidence, he and Bran run into Simon, Jane and Barney—the three kids from the first and third books. Everyone feels the shivering hand of doom, but none of the five know where to search next, or exactly what they will be doing. And at least at first, the five do not get along all that well, partly because Simon, Jane and Barney resent the unexplained inclusion of Bran, partly because Bran resents their assumption that he is less educated than they because he is Welsh and lives on a farm. And Jane, at least, can tell that once again Will is initially hiding something from her—and as I’ve noted before, in this series, hiding stuff just does not go well.

Perhaps fortunately, they do not spend the entire book travelling together. Simon, Jane and Barney experience dizzying time shifts with John Rowlands, another character from the fourth book, and Will and Bran take a considerably more interesting and lyrical journey to the Lost Lands. Their quest is perhaps the highlight of the book, which becomes somewhat less interesting—if still beautifully and lyrically written—when Will and Bran return for the final battle against evil.

But for all its beauty and fear, I find this a less satisfying, and occasionally more irritating, book than its predecessors. For one, Cooper more than once uses a damsel in distress motif, with various characters needing to save Jane from monsters. Given that Jane was perfectly able to rescue herself in previous books—and at least some of these monsters are attacking her mentally, not physically, this is irritating. And yes, Simon and Barney also need rescuing—but Simon needs rescuing only after he goes on the attack, and Barney is never in real danger. Jane needs rescuing just because she has wandered off. About the only thing this does is add to the small hints of a possible romance between Bran and Jane, which, since this book does not have time for romance and has no sequel, never really goes anywhere, and ends up vaguely dissatisfying as well.

But the book has a larger problem. At the end of the book, Cooper once again has almost all of her characters completely forget almost everything that has happened, except in dreams. The one exception is Will, who gets to remember because, well, he’s an Old One, and he’s special.

Quite apart from the cruel isolating effect this has on Will, I also find it aggravating in other respects. Partly because I’m wondering just exactly how Simon, Jane and Barney are supposed to carry out the command of remaining vigilant against evil and darkness if they can’t remember the command or why it’s important. Partly because, although I understand why the Light feels that erasing John Rowlands’ memories is kinder, I think it would be wiser for Rowlands to remember how he was tricked, however bitter that memory might be.

But mostly because, with the possible exception of the “be kind to John Rowlands” amnesia, most of this memory wiping is done out of a sense of elitism, a sense that the mortal characters just aren’t good enough to know about magic—even though several earlier scenes in this series and even in this book have shown just how dangerous this “tell no one” attitude is. And, of course, it seems to render the first four books completely pointless for four of the five kids.

Cooper tries to structure this as part of the rules, the way life just is, and even has an adult mortal character claim that it’s not proper for these supporting characters to know, because they are not of “their kind”—their kind referring to the Old Ones. The problem is, he makes this statement in the same book that begins by saying that racism and assuming those unlike you are lesser beings is wrong. Yes, I realize the counter argument here—the Old Ones, unlike normal humans, can do magic and can see the other world hidden behind reality. But the Old Ones—even those defending the Light—are constantly putting these supposed inferiors into danger and then saying that mere humans aren’t good enough to understand anyway.

I hate that Simon, Jane, Barney and Bran all risked their lives, and in Bran’s case, led a rather miserable and isolated existence for years, for something they will not even be allowed to remember. And bear in mind: this isn’t something small that they are forced to forget. They are forced to forget that magic is real, that other worlds interact with our own, and that, yes, King Arthur really existed.

And I hate, in a book that speaks about choices and about free will, whose climax depends on just this very thought, fails, in the end, to give its characters that choice.

This leads to a related problem: I am honestly not certain why Simon, Jane and Barney need to be in this book at all, except, of course, that they were in the first and third books, and might as well show up in the end. But for the most part, they are distractions: the real story here is Will, fighting against the forces of the Dark, and Bran, demanding his rightful heritage, and getting an invitation to, er, live at the back of the North Wind. Yes, Cooper wanted to bring back her first characters, I suppose, and yes, it’s useful to have several people able to hold up signs, but their presence makes this book more diffuse, without the tight suspense and plotting of the second and fourth books of the series.

Silver on the Tree does provide a solid ending for the series, and it’s certainly not the weakest of the books. But still, it left me unsatisfied, and rather wishing I’d stopped with the fourth book.


Housekeeping note: Next week, I’ll be blogging about Seaward, and then after that, it’s off for the delightful charms of the Edith Nesbit books– where whatever the flaws of the books, the characters get to remember everything.


Mari Ness wants to remember magic and mystery, no matter what the rules might say. She lives in central Florida.

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