The Dark is Rising
by Susan Cooper.
Introduction by Susan Cooper, 2013.
The Dark is Rising Sequence, Book 2.
Margaret L McElderry Books, 2013 (1973).
“Six Signs the circle, and the grail gone before.”
From the winter solstice, through Christmas and the New Year and on to Twelfth Night – the twelve days of Christmas are rarely so joyless and bleak as here when the Dark threatens the Light. Yet for all its fantastical elements – and there are many – The Dark is Rising is, I sense, a deeply personal tale for the author, set in the southeast corner of Buckinghamshire where she grew up and where, aged eleven, she will have experienced the severe winter of 1946-7 which affected so much of postwar Europe.
Our protagonist is Will Stanton, seventh son and the youngest in a family of nine surviving siblings, about to celebrate his eleventh birthday on midwinter day. But unbeknown to him he is something other than the amiable baby in the family, a personage who will have a crucial role to play during the assault of the Dark. He will have helpers but also a dread assailant, and there will be a betrayal that will put the fate of many at a risk beyond imagining.
Alongside this archetypal conflict which threatens a Ragnarök-scale disaster and the several players who have parts to play is the corner of England that the author knew so well from childhood, a landscape that is as integral to the plot as the people. As Cooper wrote in her introduction to this edition, “every inch of the real world in which Will Stanton lives—and some of the fantasy world too—is an echo of the Buckinghamshire countryside in which I grew up.” In this, my second read of the novel, that knowledge quite literally grounded the novel for me.
Will discovers he is one of the eternal Old Ones, thanks to hints from certain individuals including the enigmatic butler from the Manor, Merriman Lyon – a figure who’d first appeared in Over Sea, Under Stone where his true nature was revealed. Will is destined to be the Sign-seeker, his role to acquire six items associated with wood, bronze, iron, water, fire and stone; each one will add to his ability to withstand the malign influence and power of the Dark.
These objects are apotropaic, that is they’re intended to avert evil (much as crossed fingers or charms are meant to do), though in this case the evil is entirely the work of the Dark. Cooper imagines an ancient symbol for the Signs, a four-spoked wheel or wheeled cross which figures everywhere in antiquity, such as on the Danish Bronze Age sun chariot from Trundholm, the attribute of the Celtic thunder god Taranis, or the great Celtic crosses of Ireland and Wales. In this form the buckle-sized Signs can be worn on Will’s belt.
After the very human Drew siblings in Over Sea, Under Stone Will Stanton has come across as perhaps more distant and less knowable as the lead character for some readers. However, whenever he behaves impulsively or thoughtfully amongst friends and family I recognise a very human child, aspects of which ring true for me when I think of my own reactions or thought processes at that same age. But as someone who, partly because of his innate powers and partly because of his absorbing the arcane knowledge of The Book of Gramarye, grows into his ancient role as an Old One, Will inevitably will appear alienated from his contemporaries and to some extent his family. The contrast with the Drew children when he eventually gets to meet them will be very marked.
The more I immerse myself in Susan Cooper’s fantasy world the more I appreciate the nuances she put into her writing which I’d missed the first time round. It’s not just the diverse multicultural influences she’s drawn on, from West Indian carnival masks to pan-European pagan myths, Welsh legends and English folk and church music; it’s also the descriptions of nature, the complex interactions and relationships that abound in pretty much any family, the musical rise and fall of pacing when real and immanent fear gives way to normality.
And there’s no escaping how good writers, by investing their fiction with the authenticity that comes from personal experience, can allow us to suspend disbelief and accept what we read as very possibly true. That’s evident in her Buckinghamshire setting, drawn from the cycle rides she did from her hometown Burnham to Dorney village, and perhaps in Will’s sister Mary, who comes close to peril at one stage: for Susan Cooper’s second given name was also Mary.
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