The intrepid Booksmugglers have been reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising books over the past while, reviewing them each in turn, and reading their take on the books finally gave me the impetus to dust off my omnibus edition and read the whole sequence, start to finish. It’s something I’ve been meaning to do for a while, and so for several weeks now I’ve been cooking dinners with this book in one hand, or taking a morning cup of tea while reading a chapter or two, and slowly but surely I’ve worked my way through it.
It’s been a bittersweet experience, weirdly enough.
One of the reasons the Booksmugglers’ posts made me yearn to read the books again was that, well, their mini-reviews weren’t entirely positive. Some of them spoke of vague plots and wishy-washy worldbuilding, and suchlike, and I immediately sprang to the defence of my beloved books. ‘You’ll not talk about one of my favourite series that way,’ I thought. ‘I’ll show you!’
But. Well. Actually, the Booksmugglers have a point.
I read these books years ago, and I think time might have gilded them slightly with an air of perfection that they don’t, strictly speaking, really have. They’re still marvellous books – and they’re still up there in my pantheon of ‘best of all time’ – but there are things about them that I notice now, on my re-read, that I didn’t pick up on before. Perhaps that’s because when I read them first, I was only beginning to immerse myself in the fabulous world that is children’s fantasy fiction and I wasn’t as familiar with the genre as I am now. It might also have something to do with the fact that the first book in the series – Over Sea, Under Stone – was originally written in the 1960s, with the sequels following throughout the 70s. One of the first things I’ll say about the story here is that we don’t really get a feel for what, exactly, the heroes are fighting for until the very very end – and, in my edition, that means you need to read over 700 pages to get to that point. All the story up to then is amazingly rich in language and folklore and dialogue and characterisation, of course, but sometimes the proceedings can feel a bit lacking in tension, or drama, or danger. This, I think, is a bit of a problem.
The first book introduces us to the three Drew siblings (Jane, Simon and Barney) who are irrepressibly energetic, and have a wonderful dynamic. They’re drawn so well, and their interactions are so true to life, that the characters make the story a joy to read. They are on holiday in Cornwall with their parents, staying in a rented house with their ‘Great Uncle’ Merry, a man who is a friend of their mother’s family and has been in their lives as long as they can remember. They know he’s not really related to them, but they refer to him throughout as ‘Great Uncle’, or as ‘Gumerry’, a childhood shortening of the name. Tall and grey-haired, Merry is (in my mind) always going to look and sound like Sir Ian McKellen, possibly due to the fact that he’s slightly mysterious, comes and goes as he pleases, and talks in riddles a lot of the time, rather like another famous character played on-screen by that venerable actor. In any case, the first book is an adventure to find the first of several Objects of Power which will help the Light hold out against the Dark, which is (apparently) rising. So far, so good.
Book Two, The Dark is Rising, is where we first meet Will Stanton and his massive family. Will is the youngest of nine children (though he later finds out he had a brother, Tom, who died in infancy), and one of the most charming aspects of the Stantons is the way in which Cooper portrays them. Every scene in which they appear is filled with life, and bustle, and noise, and chatter – just as a real oversized family would be. Will turns eleven at the beginning of The Dark is Rising, and this momentous birthday heralds a huge change in his life. He realises he is not only a small boy, but also the last in a long line of Old Ones – beings of huge power, sent to stand against the Dark. He has a quest, to find the six Signs which will give the Light power to hold off the Dark when it rises, and they sort of fall into his lap as he goes about his quest. And so, on we go.
Then, we’re back to the Drews, in Cornwall, for Greenwitch, in which another Object of Power has fallen into the wrong hands, and the children need to get it back. This, I think, is my favourite of the books; I adore the Greenwitch, and the mythology surrounding her, and the fact that Jane plays a vital role in this story. But, again, we’re constantly reminded of the fact that the children are never in any real danger. ‘I will not let you come to harm,’ Merry tells them, over and over; this dilutes the power of the tale, in my eyes.
For The Grey King, we’re in Wales, where we meet Bran Davies, a young boy with white hair, tawny eyes and mysterious origins. He and Will are thrown together on another quest, to find the source of (and neutralise) the power of the Grey King, a major Lord of the Dark, and retrieve another Object of Power from him. Bran is an awesome character, and I love the Welsh language which is used so liberally and effectively throughout this book and the next, and I really loved Bran’s backstory. When we find out the truth of who he is and where he comes from, it’s a moment of huge emotion.
And then, finally, we come to Silver on the Tree. The Dark is finally rising. The showdown takes place. Another quest – with Will and Bran at the heart of it – has to take place, to find another Object of Power, the most important one of all. Then, the boys, along with Merry and the Drews and a few brave mortals, stand against the mighty powers of the Dark at a pivotal point in Time and space. It’s beautiful, and wonderfully written, and evocatively described. But it takes ages.
These books are complex, and layered, and full of mythology, folklore, Arthuriana, and natural knowledge about seasons, flowers, landscapes, and farming that give them such a whole, rounded richness – that beauty is what I remembered so well. Cooper’s language is stunning, and the descriptions can be breathtaking. But for all that, there is a lack of development of the world (or worlds), there’s very little logic, sometimes, in the quests (the children are told to do things ‘just because this is how it has to be’), and there’s ambiguity the whole way along about why, exactly, the Light is seen as the ‘good’ side and the Dark the ‘bad’. The Light seems to do terrible things, at times, to achieve its ends, and the Dark doesn’t seem to do much besides get thwarted and make threats, up until the end. I did love the way Cooper links the rise of the Dark to the waves of invaders to the British Isles, and ties it in to British history, and I loved all the characters, particularly the noble and courageous John Rowlands, who makes a choice at the end of the sequence that seems beyond the power of any mortal man – but he does it to save the others, and because he always does what is right.
So. I love these books. I loved them first time, and I love them still. But it’s true; they’re a bit woolly at points, and rather vague, and if you’re looking for solid worldbuilding, you won’t find it here. But they’re amazing stories all the same, featuring some of the best writing – for children, or for anyone – that I’ve ever read. I’m so glad I finally took the plunge and read them again.