Trailing the grail

© C A Lovegrove

Over Sea, Under Stone
by Susan Cooper.
The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 1.
Margaret L McElderry Books, 2013 (1965).

“You can search and search, in a quest, and in the end you may never get there at all.” — Barney

When I first read this in the late 1960s or early 70s I was on the lookout for stories featuring quests for the Holy Grail in modern times. It joined Charles Williams’ War in Heaven (1930), Arthur Machen’s The Great Return (1915), Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965) and other titles, some best forgotten, as examples of how the notion of a grail, as cup as well as symbol, could inspire so many different tales of quests and trails followed by those seeking it.

A more recent second reading revealed more subtleties than I remembered and now a third has raised the novel even higher in my estimation, for its pacing, its verisimilitude (for all that it’s a fantasy) and above all its characterisation of the three siblings who are at the core of the fiction.

Among other things that struck me was the fact that apart from one or two details that set it firmly in the sixties this was a narrative which had scarcely dated, meaning that it’s perfectly enjoyable by today’s readers whatever their age.

Mevagissey in the 1960s

The Drew children – Simon, Jane and Barney – have just disembarked from the train at St Austell in Cornwall, ready for their August holiday. Met by their Great Uncle Merry and a resident dog called Rufus, they and their parents Dick and Ellen are taken to the Grey House up above the town of Trewissick, an ancient dwelling owned by an absent sea captain.

And it’s in the Grey House that the adventure proper starts, with an exploration leading to a modern quest for the grail. Author Susan Cooper manages to reference various of her predecessors and their adventure stories while making us believe in her three young protagonists. Here is a hint of Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It set near the Kent coast, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Kirrin Island, and even C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, especially with an enigmatic Professor and an old house with a mysterious wardrobe leading to hidden spaces.

I really took a shine to the three Drew children. Simon as the eldest was both bossy and superior, yet also fiercely protective of his sister and brother. Jane was proactive if not quite the archetypal tomboy, but her reluctance to join a fishing expedition or enter a dark cave was perfectly understandable and not at all girly. Finally there’s Barney who, though the youngest, is equally proactive and imaginative, his love of the Arthurian legends proving crucial to answering many of the questions raised by their quest.

But this is a fantasy where Light is pitted against the Dark, and where it’s very possible that three youngsters won’t be able to stand up to the older, stronger, and to some degree more supernaturally powerful adversaries ranged against them. Cooper manages to sustain a sense of both the existential and psychological threats faced by the Drews as the narrative winds its way to the final crisis.

She also has a degree of fun with words and names. The Drews are well named, for the children’s mother is an artist, and a sculptor friend predicts Barney will be one too. Professor Merriman Lyon’s own name hides a not unexpected secret; there’s even an oblique reference to Narnia’s Pevensie siblings with a sinister clergyman called Hastings, after the town near Pevensey beach; and the author has done her historical research, as with the backstory to the novel’s relic and the name-checking of literary and other scholars among the gaggle of archaeologists at the end.

Just one more point I think I might add for now: the fictional Trewissick is clearly inspired by the real Mevagissey south of St Austell, but it borrows freely from other Cornish ports and their folk traditions. I once made the mistake of trying to identify the locations in Cooper’s town too closely with real promontories, buildings and beaches, but the results don’t pay close inspection. Still, it’s certainly a fun exercise – even if, as Barney says, “in the end you may never get there at all.”


#TDiRS22 @ annabookbel.net

Book 1 in The Dark is Rising sequence, reviewed for Annabel’s #TDiR22 event with an instalment read every month till December. I may find I have a little more to say in some future post…

Trewhiddle chalice, St Austell: 9th century (British Museum CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license)

14 thoughts on “Trailing the grail

  1. Wonderful. Thank you. I loved this book. Thank you for pointing out the nods to Hastings/Pevensey and surname Drew – details I didn’t pick out on a first reading which was probably far too quick – but I was hooked. I even managed to be slightly surprised with the Merry reveal – doh! I did see him as Gandalf-like, but still! Bring on TDIR. I think I’ve found a photo of Mevagissey harbour to illustrate my own post with from 2010, the last time I was in Cornwall – I didn’t label it, but the big white building seems the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yay! And I look forward to your own shot of Mevagissey. I’ll discuss the Mevagissey-Trewissick convergence and divergence in another post in more detail but here is certainly how Cooper imagined her town to resemble.

      And, as you’ll discover with TDiR, there’s that strange relationship between the Drews and Will Stanton that must surely have been suggested by the megalithic complex south of Bristol at Stanton Drew. Whether ‘Drew’ derives from the Celtic for ‘oak’ or from a medieval family called Drew or Drogo (Wikipedia seems to favour both theories simultaneously) there’s certainly a sense of antiquity attached to both lots of protagonists, as befits the theme of the series.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree. That’s a core strength to the series, I think, that sense of place, and of locations that go back centuries or even millennia.
      Cooper had clearly not only done her homework but had seamlessly integrated her findings into the narrative.

      Even the Trewissick graal has its origins in the Trewhiddle chalice, buried in the 9th century in the village of that name north of Mevagissey and just to the southwest of St Austell. Though not as ornate as the Trewissick relic Cooper’s grail will doubtless have resembled the Cornish chalice in shape and feel.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The children feel real, their physical exertions feel real, and the adults – especially when they seem to behave in ways that appear irrational to the siblings – feel real. And the sense of continuous menace, as with the too-perfect Withers siblings and when Hastings tries to gaslight Barney, is one that anyone growing up can readily recognise, I think. The Dark is Rising is then rather a shock to the new reader after the summer spent with the Drews!

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  2. Pingback: Trailing the grail – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  3. I loved the series in my teens and have been meaning to revisit it for ages so I’m glad to hear you feel it stands up well to older and more modern eyes. You have whetted my appetite nicely!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Part of my reassessment was due to now reading OSUS in a modern US edition which didn’t include the period 1960s line drawings by Margaret Gill which had accompanied the Puffin paperback I’d previously read. That definitely made a difference in that, despite references to old money like shillings and farthings, I wasn’t stuck in some scenario from sixty years ago and thereby feeling somewhat distanced. In terms of language and clothes it hardly felt dated at all. Do revisit this and the series and see what you think of it now!

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  4. Pingback: #TDiRS22 – The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 1: Over Sea, Under Stone – Annabookbel

  5. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this. I’ve been dithering over joining in mostly because this has been a bit of a busy time but reading some of the reviews I did get tempted once again. Karen’s response to my comment on her review acted as one more nudge and so I’ve ordered the books from the second hand shop I buy from online. Now hoping that i can join in from September.

    Liked by 1 person

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