Susan Cooper Over Sea, Under Stone
Illustrated by Margery Gill
Puffin Books 1968 (1965)
Simon, Jane and Barney Drew go to the attractive Cornish fishing village of Trewissick for the summer holidays, where their Great Uncle Merry has secured a holiday home for them and their parents. Attractions include a busy harbour, beaches, walks and a carnival featuring Trewissick’s famous Floral Dance. There’s even a resident dog, Rufus, to add to the fun. The signs are promising for the Drew children to have a wonderful break.
But the signs are not to be trusted: why is the boy whom they encounter on the harbour quay so horrible? Are the nice Norman and Polly Withers all they seem? Why should Jane be wary of the vicar Mr Hastings? Is Mrs Molly Palk the housekeeper as friendly as she appears? And why does Great Uncle Merry keep disappearing?
The scene is set for the Drew children to have an adventure they never expected when they arrived at St Austell train station for the start of their holidays. Apparently Over Sea, Under Stone was begun in response to a competition for family-adventure stories in the style of E Nesbit (Five Children and It may have provided a template) but another model also suggests itself. Three children and a dog may only amount to four characters but when they discover, while exploring the attic, an old manuscript with a sketch map I sense more than a whiff of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories. However, things get much darker more quickly, with ancient mythic conflicts providing a battleground in which the siblings — aided by Rufus and Great Uncle Merry — are required to play a pivotal role.
This is a story where there is little to lighten the mood. Not only do we have the archetypally distant parents but most of the townspeople the trio meet have a pall of suspicion hanging over them. To add to the menace of human adversaries there are chilling phenomena of a supernatural nature; as well as kidnaps and chases the children face an underground journey and the threat of drowning. As a trope the underground journey doesn’t just have mythic significance but is familiar from other children’s literature (notably The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen) and it offers the same scope for suspense and anxiety.
Significantly, their quest for the grail — for this is the object all are searching for — doesn’t prove to be simple, one-goal task: as Barney wisely notes at the beginning, “You can search and search, on a quest, and in the end you may never get there at all.” Their initial exploration of the objects in the house’s attic — “like reading the story of somebody’s life” — will prove the catalyst that initiates the author’s The Dark is Rising sequence, in which their lives will intertwine with other key protagonists, and with Arthurian legend.
Trewissick seems to be a conflation of two locations: one is Mevagissey, southeast of St Austell, which Cooper knew well from holidays there; the other is Trevissick Manor, between Mevagissey and St Austell, currently offering farmhouse accommodation. Much of the action of Over Sea, Under Stone can be located at Mevagissey — Chapel Point is Kenmare Head with its standing stones, Penmare headland is where local legend sites gravestones, St Peter’s church is St John’s in the book and so on. Mevagissey also has a Feast Week with a carnival, as does Trewissick in the book, though this takes place at the end of June as opposed to August, as in Over Sea, Under Stone.
After all the menace and hint of the supernatural I particularly liked the prosaic ending in a national museum, with a Celtic relic in its display case and learned discussion of its provenance by passing academics. This of course underscores Cooper’s elaboration of Arthurian elements here and in the rest of the sequence — which is particularly fitting for a Cornwall setting, given its legendary links to both Arthur and Merlin generally and to King Mark on this same coast, at Castle Dore near Fowey on the other side of St Austell.
Did I enjoy this? Yes, in many ways I did. But I found its endlessly sombre tone oppressive — though I’m sure this was deliberate — and its long extended dialogues, like a long-winded theatre script, were at times quite wearing. As my overriding impression both before and after this reread is oppressiveness as well as being worn down, my assessment may come over as damning with faint praise; but in what is otherwise a cleverly crafted and exciting fantasy these are really my only caveats.
In the 2015 Reading Challenge this novel fulfilled the category of a book with antonyms in the title