Bleak midwinter

Beware the Rider

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.

Dorney Court, Buckinghamshire (credit: Kevin White / 1496320 CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

Trundholm sun chariot (credit: Nationalmuseet, John Lee)

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.

Sorcerer, Les Trois-Frères cave painting tracing by Henri Breuil (1920)

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 .

23 thoughts on “Bleak midwinter

  1. Pingback: Bleak midwinter — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

    1. Yes, that sense of deep cold is strong here. When living in the south of England I didn’t experience the worse conditions of northern Britain, but the prolonged snaps of 1962-3 and of 1982-3 stick in the memory, and a memory of digging the car out of deep snow in West Wales to drive to a skiing holiday abroad seems the height of some cosmic irony!

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  2. Not a fan of heavy Christmas cakes myself, I very much prefer the traditional Polish poppyseed strudel on this occasion, but I wonder how The Dark is Rising compares to The Mythago Wood in terms of the use of mythology and the general structure? Seems like the protagonists share the trait of reader unrelatability 😉

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    1. I find all Christmas cakes hard to take in moderation, Ola, whether stollen, strudel, panettone or the British fruit-and–nutty version!

      I like your comparison of TDIR to Mythago, very apt–both free with their handling of myth, both having a nightmarish quality in terms of random things appearing to happen. And yes, their enigmatic protagonists too, somewhat distant personalities even with their sterling qualities. Le Guin asserted she began with character (“Mrs Brown” in a railway carriage for example) and built her story around them rather than an abstraction: “the proper study of mankind is man,” Alexander Pope declared, rather philistinely, but in terms of story most of us favour a lowly human being at the heart of it, an Everyman or Every Woman whom we can project ourselves into.

      I’m not sure that the Will does it for me, admirable though he is. It’s that problem with Chosen Ones, isn’t it? Harry Potter is full of doubts, makes mistakes, is bullied by adults, students and circumstances and baulks against his Chosen One status, and yet somehow keeps our sympathy; on the other hand Lyra Belacqua is unaware of her status as the one prophesied by the Finnish witches and so is able to pursue her destiny by just being herself.

      I feel a post coming on about Destiny, Fate and Chosen Ones… 😁

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      1. And I’ll be very happy to read it and discuss! 😀

        You are right, Chris – too much abstraction in a character and he or she starts to seem nothing more than a mouthpiece for the author, or, worse, an unfinished cardboard cutout. The human qualities in protagonists allow us to bond with them and feel empathy – in short, become invested in their fates. I admit I judge novels harshly on this account – any detected lack of psychological realism in the protagonists is felt keenly, and drastically diminishes the value of the book for me.

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  3. Well, to barge into this conversation about Will as protagonist — even though I love this series, what always bothered me about it was that Will seems more like a tool than an actor — he’s someone the others use in order to achieve their aims. When does he ever express (or even have) agency? In the later books, he’s just an irritating know-it-all Old One. (Now I have to reread the series to remind myself why I don’t like him. Go figure.)

    The Drew children are much more engaging heroes/heroines because they do things and make choices, rather than wait-for-it.

    Final comment: Greenwitch is my favorite book of this series, and when Susan Cooper spoke at a conference I attended, I took my copy for her to sign.

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    1. Not barging in at all, Lizzie, just confirming the sort of assessment Ola and I are inclining towards, that Will is a kind of personality vacuum at the heart of The Dark is Rising. Perhaps ‘personality vacuum’ is a bit harsh, but all I ‘get’ from his character is that he has a lovely voice (though likely to break at any time) and that he chooses suitable presents for his family at Christmas. Perhaps this is the key to why I couldn’t remember whether I’d read this back in the 1970s, my lack of engagement with the main protagonist.

      You aren’t the first to draw attention to Greenwitch as the best in the series, though I must have been in a funny mood when I borrowed this from the library when it first came out, because I remember returning it unfinished. Not this next time, however!

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  4. I confess, I never found Will bland, but perhaps that was what subconsciously appealed to me about the book, that I could project myself into him, could become him quite easily as he wasn’t a strong personality to begin with. It’s true, he is steered throughout by Merriman and Merriman’s treatment of the Walker struck me as heartless at the time, that the man was allowed to stray from the path, was used to carry one of the signs for centuries. Reminds me of Judas’s role, a patsy who suffers for a greater good.

    Cooper is the mistress of atmosphere, though and it’s that I love as much as anything else, the snow, the cold, the Rider, the scene in the church when the Dark is beating at the walls … Makes me want to read it again!

    A fair and balanced review Chris and I love that Herne like painting from the Cave of the Trois-Frères – brilliant.

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    1. I wouldn’t say Will is bland — he starts off in a way that I remember being as an 11 year old boy (except he’s a lot kinder and generous!) — but I couldn’t marry that up with his Chosen One role (OK, Old One role) which is a lot more alienating, less empathetic. For me, at any rate. And don’t get me started on Merriman! That description of Hawkin is spot on, by the way.

      The figure from Les Trois-Frères is controversial: not everyone could see the horns, for example, and nowadays the image is so faded and indistinct that nobody knows what it must’ve been like in the first place. But in the 70s the conjectured reconstruction was generally accepted, and there’s no doubt that Cooper would’ve been familiar with it. Anyway, I thought it was relevant! And I agree, she evokes that wintry atmosphere so brilliantly.

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      1. Yes, poor old Judas. Just a cog in the grand plan – so unfair. And Merriman is wonderfully enigmatic, mysterious, cold and manipulative – pretty much how I’d imagine an ancient wizard to be, to be fair. True or not, I love that painting, that idea of the sorcerer becoming a stag – very TDIR 🙂

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  5. These reflections on Will make me stop and think of my impressions of him. Honestly, he’s a nice enough character but not a standout. Merriman, The Lady, even Hawkins are characters that one can chew on. Hawkins humanity and feeling that he was a disposable tool to achieve Merriman’s ends is any employee who works in a toxic work environment!

    I wonder if Will represents the passive reader. Or maybe he’s a certain kind of child who bumps along in life, trying to be invisible because the alternative always leads to some kind of violence. I doubt Susan Cooper had that in mind.

    Because Will is an Old One, maybe he instinctively lives a less showy life because of his greater purpose. He can’t be a real child because he isn’t actually a child at all; his body is just a vehicle.

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    1. I think you express what I felt about Will when I read this for the first time: less a paradigm more an impossible paragon, revealed as an Old One inhabiting a human youngster’s body rather than a role model. I’m not saying he’s unlikeable, just that he’s ultimately not easy to relate to. I’m really interested to see what I make of it all in my upcoming reread since, as much as I clearly enjoyed all the seasonal symbolism, this felt strangely distancing compared to the all too human Drew children of the first and third instalments who I felt were more approachable!

      What you say about Will possibly representing the passive reader is interesting, and I suspect quite profound (no, don’t be shocked or irritated, I’m not being condescending!). I shall have to ponder that. 🙂

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