Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising
Vintage Classics 2013 (1973)
If, in a fantasy set during the twelve days of Christmas, you’re expecting lords leaping, geese laying or partridges in pear trees then you’d be sorely disappointed: despite the fact that there are seasonal gifts for young Will Stanton this is no twee tale of sweethearts, nativities or jolly old St Nicholas. Instead we get an intense battle between the Light and the Dark, accompanied by elemental forces in nature and threatened by betrayal.
Following on from Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) this novel focuses on a new protagonist, Will, but is linked with the earlier novel by the appearance of Merriman Lyon and passing references to the chalice which had featured in the earlier Cornish adventure. Will is due to have his eleventh birthday on December 21st, midwinter’s day: it’s already a magical time, with the sun ‘standing still’ for the solstice, but Will also happens to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a fact which marks him out for an epic struggle and for which he at first appears inadequate.
But Will is no ordinary youngster: he discovers soon enough that he is one of the Old Ones.
The Stanton family are preparing for Christmas in their Buckinghamshire farmhouse, near the village of Hunter’s Combe and not too far from Windsor. But Will’s life is utterly changed when, on the eve of his birthday, he meets a tramp known as the Walker and talks with the butler from the nearby manor who’s called Merriman Lyon. Confronted by a sinister Rider in black, Will has to draw from ancient depths in his being that he was previously unaware of if the world is not going to remain in the grip of a perpetual winter.
“Some writers make a careful detailed plan,” the author declared in an interview for this edition of The Dark is Rising, adding that “others know the beginning and the end and the main characters, and discover everything else as they go along.” Believing that writers in the second group “have more fun” to some extent explains the dreamlike structure of the narrative, albeit constrained by the Christmas timeframe. Divided into three parts (defined by the processes of finding, learning and testing) Will’s story reveals how he comes into his powers, aided by the acquisition of material objects and by the support of other Old Ones.
These material objects are talismans of different metals or from natural sources, all defined by a specific shape that allows Will to thread them on his belt. The author has herself drawn deep from ancient traditions and symbols for these: the belt is a kind of girdle which had significance in native tales and cultures as a sign of power; the talismans can be visualised as an X-shaped cross in a circle, less like Dark Age Celtic wheeled crosses (because they have to be threaded on Will’s belt) and more like prehistoric wheel pendants found in Switzerland or the four-spoked wheels of the famous Danish sun chariot found at Trundholm. In terms of the cycle of the year, with Christmas being one of the traditional quarter-days in England, this device then becomes most appropriate.
Cooper has been most magpie-like in her details, drawing from Old Germanic lore (a ship burial), Welsh mythological figures (Merlin, say, or Math ap Mathonwy), English folklore (Herne the Hunter in Windsor Forest, Wayland and his smithy), Buckinghamshire topography (Dorney Court, for example, is a model for the local manor house) and generalised pagan customs (greenery indoors, the Yule log, the prehistoric so-called Sorcerer cave painting in the Cave of the Trois-Frères, France). The whole adds up to an undefined, almost miasmic, sense of antiquity into which her innocent 20th-century Stanton family is placed, unconscious of all except the persistent seasonal blizzards and unreasonable cold.
Cooper is good at evoking nightmarish fear, particularly near the beginning when Will has an overwhelming sense of an unseen malevolence threatening him, but also when Hawkins — the Walker — proves increasingly unreliable and when Will’s family members are put in danger. Will himself is, to me, a more enigmatic figure, perhaps arising from this reader being unsure whether to sympathise with him as a young lad faced with difficult adult choices or to respect him as a powerful if impersonal wielder of ancient magic. Young one or Old One, which one is he? And yet his gently bickering siblings and his bumbling parents are all too recognisable — we know where we are with such relationships.
The Dark is Rising is too rich and complex a novel to sum up in a short review, and all I can do is hint at its complex richness — it’s like the traditional, very heady Christmas cake chockful of ingredients soaked in spirits and served with a dollop of snowy-white cream. It has resounding echoes of the icy landscapes other children’s classics, notably The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950) and, even more, The Box of Delights (1935); in fact, Hawkins (who first appears as a tramp) brought to my mind the figure of Masefield’s itinerant Punch and Judy man, Cole Hawlings. Though I didn’t feel as engaged with Will as I expected, and remain rather unconvinced by the nature of the elemental magic, there’s no doubt that its dream quality shading into nightmare is the perfect midwinter accompaniment to seasonal festivities, a reminder that the cosy indoors has just a thin barrier between it and the bleak darkness outside.
Will’s Signs have a contemporary ring, don’t they: when Cooper was writing the logo of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was very familiar to the public, its distinctive four-armed device in a circle not too dissimilar to Will’s symbol. In our own times, of course, the stylised hourglass set in a circle that is the Extinction Symbol is even closer in design than the CND device, paralleling the warnings of climate and environmental disaster contained in TDIR .