Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper.
The Dark Is Rising sequence 3,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Puffin 2019 (1974)
This is a book with magic in its pages, its phrases, its words. There were moments when my neck hairs rose, especially during the making of the Greenwitch, and times when I was transported by the sheer poetry within a paragraph or passage. If this short novel in Susan Cooper’s five-book fantasy sequence occasionally feels poised between revelation and resolution, that’s no doubt because it’s the middle book in the series: it’s here where earlier strands become more intertwined but where we can’t yet see the whole picture. But to me it’s the quality of the writing which holds the attention, and because Greenwitch is virtually a novella in length I think its brevity works in its favour, making the story more intense.
As the novel opens we realise it’s the Easter after the events in Over Sea, Under Stone (published in 1965), with news of the theft of the so-called Trewissick grail from the British Museum where it had been donated by its finders the Drew children Simon, Jane and Barney. Before they can get too het up over the relic’s disappearance relatives get in touch offering them a holiday break in south Cornwall, at the fishing village where their adventures had all begun.
Coincidentally — or perhaps it isn’t a matter of coincidence — young Will Stanton, whom we met in The Dark is Rising (1973) and who is more than he at first seems, is invited by Merriman Lyon, the Drew children’s great uncle, to take the next step in the conflict against the Dark, which of course will take them down to that Cornish village where the Drews are now already ensconced. Naturally their hackles are raised by the appearance of a strange boy, especially one who doesn’t appear to mind their natural suspicion or quiet antagonism. But soon all will have their attention focused on the strange artist at work down by the harbour.
The figure of the title is an effigy made overnight by the women of Trewissick out of branches and greenery. This ceremonial weaving at Easter (mid April, and so probably in a notional 1965) is akin to many seasonal customs held in this southwestern peninsula — such as Padstow, Combe Martin and Minehead — mostly in May and featuring a hobby horse; but none have a female effigy as a focus. Jane is honoured as the only non-local witnessing the making, during which personal requests are offered to the uncanny Greenwitch. Jane’s sympathetic and charitable gesture — wishing the sculpture happiness rather than asking for a personal boon — sets in train a set of events which affect the outcome of the looming crisis.
Saying much more about events would give too much of the plot away, so it’s probably then best to talk about more general impressions — and those impressions are overwhelmingly positive. Compared to the first book in the series — which I found overly wordy, doubtless due to it being an early work — Greenwitch is quite taut and focused. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot going on: menace, misunderstandings, mysterious manuscripts, mystical visions, and of course magic all come into play. The author knew how to maintain suspense when she contrasted mundane events with inexplicable happenings, and when she hid some significances from the three Drew children while allowing us readers to see some of the bigger picture otherwise known to the trio of Great Uncle Merry, Will Stanton, and Captain Toms.
This is story that for me is best summed up by that hackneyed term ‘haunting’. I retain strong visions of the Greenwitch being constructed like a Green Man or wicker effigy but at dead of night, and knowing that this is women’s work and for female eyes alone gives the arcane ritual the kind of antiquity that means its origins are lost to human memory. Its function as an obscure form of community scapegoat, consigned by the village at dawn from high cliffs to the sea as one would a garland of remembrance is oddly moving, even as I know that it is an invention in a work of fiction.
We are invited to empathise with Simon, Jane and Barney who are assured they will be protected from the Dark but who are not so reassured by what they witness; their individuality comes out with Simon’s suspicious yet pragmatic nature, Barney’s susceptibility to suggestion while retaining an artistic sensitivity, and Jane’s own sensitivity to undercurrents of the uncanny. Will aims to receive their grudging acceptance but they all sense he is somehow different, somehow older than his years, and that is hard for them to come to terms with.
Robert Macfarlane’s introduction to this edition emphasises the spellbinding qualities of the series which he recognised from his youth and which he appreciates even more now. The spellbinding comes of course from words, from archaic rhymes and from the nature writing, as at the start of Chapter Three, and elsewhere:
Under the sunset sky the sea was glass-smooth. Long slow rollers from the Atlantic, rippling like muscles beneath the skin, made the only sign of the great invisible strength of the ocean in all the tranquil evening…
More spellbinding, but of a darker nature, comes from the abstract expressionist daubings of the mysterious artist whose several malevolent interactions with the Drews unsettle them and cast a blight on their Easter holiday. I wonder if the abstract expressionism which came to the fore in North America during the Cold War years influenced Susan Cooper to introduce this element here, as the conflict with the Dark that dominates the novel sequence parallels that between East and West during the second half of the twentieth century.
The Arthurian influences — Grail quest, Merlin, even the hint of ogham writing — are more muted here than before, but their time will come. It’s interesting that in the meeting of the Drews and Will Stanton in Trewissick a couple of motifs coincide. One is that not so far distant, south of Bristol, there is a complex of prehistoric stone monuments at Stanton Drew, reminding us of not only the two family names but also the five ‘fingers’ of stone on a Trewissick headland. The second is that in Over Sea, Under Stone the village is clearly based on Mevagissey, which is on the south Cornish coast; yet all the details — sunrise and sunset, the Atlantic rollers, the undersea journey to a mid-oceanic trench — all point to a setting on the north Cornish coast. It’s almost as though this implicit reorientation is designed to anticipate the remaining west-facing episodes of the sequence set in Wales.
But for now, the theme is of voluntary giving, of sacrifice, even as the grail comes closer to their grasp. As the inscription on the gold strip Will makes and gives to Jane, to do as she will with, reads:
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea.
One hopes that the Greenwitch will at last be truly happy.