Some Books: Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence

Since 2014, when I went in search of books I had once read and re-read enthusiastically from Didsbury, I began an occasional series about re-discovering such books after something like thirty years. I am curious about whether I still find them appealing, and if this is for more than nostalgia for the times I associate them with.
The latest of these is Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, as it’s commonly known and is indeed titles on the paperback omnibus I obtained through eBay for the purpose. At the time, I borrowed it in individual volumes, never more than one at a time, which suggests to me that either they were sufficiently popular that it was hard to get each succeeding book when I’d finished with its predecessor, or else that I wasn’t that into them that I had to read the full story.
The Sequence has been praised, and by people whose opinions to tend to alert mine, such as Neil Gaiman. There is, however, criticism that the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, doesn’t live up to the rest of the series, being a far too obvious children’s story, almost unrelated to the later, greater sequence.
I’d say that’s fair comment. Before starting my re-read, I checked the publication dates, which show Over Sea, Under Stone appearing in 1965, and the other four books appearing over a five year period that doesn’t start until 1973. And though Cooper does start with the idea of a longer, background story, in which the Drew children, Simon, Jane and Barney, play a significant role, none of the deeper matters impinge on the tale, which is a simple Treasure Hunt, with the Drews, under the direction of their (honorary) Great-Uncle Merriman Lyons, find a golden chalice that is identified as being the Holy Grail, and which ends up in a glass case in a Museum, from which it has to be stolen in book three in order to be recovered in time to use.
The opening book, and its simplistic nature, has the look and feel of an altogether lighter story, without long-term consequence, and the eight year gap before its sequel appeared – a sequel in which the Drews are absent and whose central character, eleven year old Will Stanton, is a direct and more than human participant in the overall struggle – suggests to me a later development of the major story, creating a Hobbit/Lord of the Rings clash of tones, albeit not so severe.
That sequel, which gives its name to the sequence, introduces Will and moves the action lock, stock and barrel from Cornwall to Buckinghamshire. Again, it’s something of a Treasure Hunt theme, but this is different. Instead of being a game for three normal children, fun but with dangerous edges, it’s a life and death matter from the outset, and Will, who learns on his eleventh birthday that he is actually the last of the Old Ones, participates as an equal with closer to full knowledge of what is involved.
Though this was explained by Merriman in Over Sea, Under Stone, it’s not until The Dark is Rising that Cooper starts to give us a greater feel for the longer story. This is of the opposition, since the world began, between the Dark and the Light. The Dark is everything mean, dirty and offensive. It is control and power, forever seeking the means of ordering everything according to its lights. In contrast, the Light, which is represented in the Old Ones, seeks nothing for itself but the freedom of those it protects to live their lives as they choose. The Dark is rising, to one final, fatal push, which will either win they total control, unendingly, or else their own dissolution forever.
What Will has to do in this book is to collect and bring together six signs, each a circle, quartered by a cross, each of a different substance, to create a weapon essential to the Light’s ultimate aim.
It’s a much stronger book because, notwithstanding Will’s pre-adolescent age, he has to be, and indeed is, adult in all but years.
Greenwitch, a surprisingly short, and overly simple book, takes everything back to Trewissick, and brings the Drews back into things. The Grail has been stolen and has to be recovered which, despite Will’s powers – which he hides from the children until it’s almost too late – it’s Jane, the only female leading character in the series, who makes victory possible, and that is due to her innately feminine niceness.
The Greenwitch is a wicker woman, constructed by the women of Trewissick and given to the sea, as an ancient rite born in the desire to seek protection for the fishermen. By chance, the Grail, stolen by a minor figure of the Dark, hoping to rise in their ranks, is hidden in the Greenwitch, who refuses to release it. If it is taken into the realm of Tethys, queen of the sea, it will pass into the hands of the High Magic, and cease to be available to Dark or Light. It is Jane’s kindness, making a wish on the Greenwitch not for herself but for the being created from the woven wicker to be happy that persuades the latter to release her treasure to the only girl in the game.
The Grey King returns to Will, sending him into Wales whilst recovering from a life-threatening bout of hepatitis. Will has memorised three verses of ancient property that have now gone out of his head (but not permanently, of course), but the rags he can recall indicate that the next stage is a confrontation with the Grey King, translated as Cader Idris.
Cooper shows herself very adept at conjuring up the feel of Wales, relying not on phonetic dialogue as with the Cornishmen, as on the rhythm of Welsh speech and the use of unexplained Welsh terms. And whilst much of her mythology already rests on Celtic concerns and an underlying touch of Arthur, both are greatly enhanced here as Will makes friends with, and more importantly brings to the Light’s side, the initially strange albino Welsh boy, Bran (pronounced Braan) Davies.
For Bran, with his mysterious, greatly obscured parentage, proves to be the son of Arthur himself, brought by Guinevere and Merriman forward in time, and he and Will are key to first finding the golden harp that is the next thing of power required by the Light, but also in waking the Six Sleepers, held under the Grey King’s power in the bearded lake, Tal-y-Llyn.
This sets up the final confrontation, in Silver on the Tree, in which the Drews return, but the major part of which concerns Will and Bran’s journey into the Lost Land, to persuade the doubting King Gwynnndo to give to Bran the sword made for Arthur. This leads to a frantic race to the Chilterns, where a bud is to be cut from a certain tree.
En route, there is a clever, and moving twist, as the Dark, in what might be seen as an oddly pedantic appeal to Rules and Regulations, seek to have Bran disqualified from taking part. In a way, it reminded me of the old distinctions of County Cricket, held onto longest by Yorkshire, that permitted only players born within the county boundaries to represent their county (this was used in a DC Thomson ‘It’s Runs that Count!’ series, in which a mystery player for Rob Higson’s Highshire was claimed by their unscrupulous neighbours to be only qualified to play for Broadshire).
Despite this bureaucratic approach, Cooper turns the scene to great advantage, for the decision is placed in the hands of an ordinary man, a man who considers himself betrayed by all that has happened, and especially by the Light that has destroyed the life of contented love he once had. And this man reaches deeply through his pain and regret to give a fair, composed, and deeply thought-out verdict that refutes the Dark’s challenge, and permits Bran the part he is destined to play, to turn back the Dark, from this, its greatest Rising.
And defeated thus, the Dark is not merely diminished but is defeated forever. And the Light withdraws with it, no longer needed. Earth and humanity now has control of its destiny, and will forge its future from now on. Merriman, oldest of the Old Ones, can now move on, never to be seen again, though Will, youngest, will remain, the only one to remember what has happened. The Drews will not, nor will Bran, who chooses to remain with the father who adopted him and showed him nothing but love, rather than Arthur, in idyllic and mythic retreat.
Overall, despite its shaky beginning, the Sequence is a very good, well-thought out and knowledgeable fantasy, far better than many I have read, whether for children or adults. The problem with it is that, underneath everything, it is always and ineluctably a children’s story. As such, it consciously limits itself to a certain depth, below which it will not allow itself to sink. The worst that the Dark can perpetrate is horrible violence against animals (usually by other animals), the perverting of vulnerable humans to betrayals, and some overt racism in Silver on the Tree to demonstrate the kind of thing that’s going to be in store for us if the Dark wins.
It’s not much, it’s far from graphic, and it shrinks the series’ horizons to things shaped to a young audience.
What I was hoping for is something of the strength, the deep-lying conviction, that comes out in Alan Garner. Though they mostly remain even further from the surface than Cooper’s Dark, Garner’s horrors are terrifying. They are vivid and real, even though they take their substance from what Garner doesn’t write but instead effortlessly draws from us.
But there is only one Alan Garner, and even if he writes no more, as Boneland seemed to predict, I dread the day of losing him. Cooper can’t do that. She can write a good story, full of symbols and myths and evocations of things other than we can see, but she can’t draw me into them in the way that cries out to be drawn. My younger self – I say younger but we’re looking at my early twenties at the very best – was clearly not sufficiently interested in the books then. Though she has written other, later fiction, I don’t think I’ll be spreading my net wider. A shame: I had hoped for better. But like most of the books in this series, this will be going back on eBay, in the hope it finds a more appreciative reader than I.


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