Lost beneath the sea

Mevagissey in the 1960s

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.

30 thoughts on “Lost beneath the sea

    1. I have only the vaguest of memories of when I got partway through a library copy of this in the 70s, Karen, but I’m glad to say it was a delight to read it now, like discovering it for the first time!

      Isn’t memory a marvellous thing, faulty at times, massive lacunae manifesting occasionally, and often a completely different vibe on a second read!

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    1. I think the way the Drews see Merriman as ‘their’ great uncle makes them feel possessive when he associates himself with this young stranger; I’m not quite sure (yet, it may become evident when I read on) why they can’t be trusted with knowing Will is one of the Old Ones, but at least that mild antagonism Simon and Barney have adds to the tensions in the novel.

      ‘Het up’? It’s not a phrase I use often — I see it originates from the North of England and the Scottish lowlands — but it certainly is a simple way of saying ‘heated, angry or passionate’. Another word I’d like to use more if it wasn’t so strongly associated with the North is ‘fashed’, meaning bothered — as in “I’m not fashed to carry it” — ultimately from the French fâcher meaning to disturb, upset or enrage. I love words!

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  1. Greenwitch was always my least favourite of the sequence (well, maybe 2nd least favourite, but I hardly count USOS as part of it). I feel like the Drews are a kind of hang-over from the middle-grade, almost “cosy fantasy” aspect of the first one, and that she’s never able to integrate them effectively into the main business of the others. That said, you make me want to re-read it; I re-read DiR along with Robert Macfarlane and co on Twitter almost two years ago, but I need to re-read the whole sequence. And the whole Jane plot line is very powerful, as well as Cooper’s always strong capture of place. Stanton Drew!!! That’s so cool.

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    1. I just missed that readalong with Robert Macfarlane, Debbie, only joining in with The Box of Delights thanks to Lizza Aiken’s urging! I agree about the (pardon the pun) sea change between Over Sea, Under Stone and subsequent novels, attributable to a gap of nearly ten years I suppose — there feels to me to have been a gradual shift in children’s literature after the 60s from a middle class, almost Blytonesque style of writing to something a bit less bourgeois — but don’t ask me to justify that assertion!

      Yes, Stanton Drew felt too obvious to me until I noticed a couple of other commentators refer to the coinciding of the names. And yes, Jane feels to me to be the heart and soul of this instalment too, even though the others have their parts to play.

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      1. That’s a very interesting comment about the shift from the bourgeois. I was talking to Cathy Butler about books I think of as “cosy fantasy” like, for example, the Carbonel books by Barbara Sleigh. Her comment was “oh, they’re so middle-class” – so it sounds like she shares your perception! I’ve been thinking of doing some work on those books, which I see as in a direct line from E. Nesbit, and I think that shift is something worth developing. “Cosy Fantasy” is under-discussed, I think.

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        1. “Middle class” covers a much wider range than it’s sometimes credited with, I think, Debbie — some mid 20th-century children’s literature (“cosy fantasy” like C S Lewis) presents a definitely more privileged bourgeois class, with nannies and cooks and gardeners, while an aspirational lower middle class (such as I was brought up in) were hard pushed to bring in someone to tutor their kids for immanent exams.

          And my impression (though don’t ask me to quote chapter and verse) is that kidlit changed in the second half of the century to reflect those changes, and even started accommodating aspirational working class kids. Does this seem a likely hypothesis?

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          1. I think it does. Garner was really the one who brought a tougher, more urban, edge to children’s fantasy with works like Elidor and Red Shift, and of course The Owl Service really addresses the divide explicitly. But by no stretch of the imagination could one describe his work as “cosy.” Something that interests me is that the kind of semi-realistic “magic in the garden” fantasy that I think of as “cosy” doesn’t really exist in the US (apart from maybe Edward Eager, but he is riffing directly off E. Nesbit) or is certainly not as common. And perhaps there’s a broader cultural reason for that as well (not having that middle class lifestyle that you describe, for one).

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            1. I have got a copy of Red Shift as I found it nigh incomprehensible way back when I first read it (another library book, how grateful I am that we had a well-stocked library nearby when I was growing up and then had a growing family of my own). I also want to reread Boneland as that somehow got under my skin at the time so deep I couldn’t bear to review it until I’d fully absorbed it. I agree, Garner doesn’t write “cosy”.

              Regarding the relative dearth of cosy kids fantasy in North America, I can see how in social terms that mayn’t have really taken off; but US audiences have chances to enjoy them vicariously, don’t they, with blockbusting films of the Lewis, Tolkien et al books. Interestingly, the dire The Dark is Rising (I could barely bear to watch the trailer) failed miserably I think because in trying to translate Cooper’s book it lost any intrinsic cosiness, not forgetting nuance and heart in favour of CGI effects and a family not rooted in its environment.

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  2. I had expected Greenwitch to be the weakest link in the sequence but not so. I loved it for all the reasons you so eloquently describe, Chris. And thank you for pointing out the north coast-south coast flip. I hadn’t picked that up at all. When next I read the sequence, I’ll be more observant!

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    1. Right after the alliterative “Under the sunset sky the sea was glass-smooth” passage I quoted there is this description, where Jane is standing on Kemare Head watching the fishing fleet heading out to sea:

      “The sun dropped over the horizon, a fat glowing ball spreading yellow light over all the smooth sea […]. As the last spreading lines of the [last] boat’s wake washed against the harbour wall, in a final rush the great sun dropped below the horizon, and the light of the April evening began very slowly to die.”

      That scene just doesn’t feel right if Jane is facing east from the headland if Trewissick is where Mevagissey is now. And later, when Merry and Will head to their rendezvous with Tethys, they’d have to first set off east, then south round Land’s End to get to those “great Atlantic swells” described in Chapter Seven before speeding to “the distant deeps” — again, a route that’s not at all evident in the novel.

      Despite this double take, I’m glad you agree with me, Sandra, that Greenwitch has more to offer than the general opinion seems to have it. But then, perhaps we’re more inclined to look for the good in people and things than others might! 🙂

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  3. It’s interesting to read your thoughts on this, having read it so recently myself. I agree that the shorter length of the book and its position in the series give it focus and intensity and I also loved the descriptions of the making of the Greenwitch. I have the next book, The Grey King, lined up to read soon and am looking forward to it after enjoying this one so much.

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    1. I’m really looking forward to the last couple of books with their Arthurian themes and Welsh setting, Helen, and hope to get on to The Grey King sometime next year.

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  4. I am really captivated by your review of this book, and by the way the author uses language. The text you quote is very evocative. Sometimes, really good writing seems like a form of magic to me, having the power to reach inside the reader and awaken dormant pathways in the mind. It’s just transporting.

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  5. Every time you bring this series up (hello! Yes, I’ve been gone an age yet again. Good reasons this time, I promise!) I get some images of the movie attempt in my head and think, “So the series *is* good, right? It must be, the way Chris speaks of it.” I love your points here about a third book, which has to keep the series arc moving while also being complete. Perhaps I need to do some series studies in 2021; I know I keep hearing calls from the series of Nicholas Flamel, His Dark Materials, and Mortal Engines…

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    1. Some series one wants to binge read, with others one needs to savour each instalment and not rush ahead! As for HDM, I’m waiting till I get, read and review my copy of Serpentine before I finally review The Secret Commonwealth as I’m trying to enjoy the saga (HDM + The Book of Dust) according to internal chronology.

      You really need to put the movie out of your head, Jean — exorcise it, use ‘Obliviate!’ on yourself! — before you get round to the novel series. Though Over Sea, Under Stone is in some ways the weakest instalment so far it’s helpful to have read it before you tackle this, and of course The Dark is Rising title too.

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