The gift of gramarye

© C A Lovegrove

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.

The area around Burnham and Dorney, Buckinghamshire, north of the Thames, and Windsor over the river in Berkshire

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.

Trundholm sun chariot, Denmark

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.

Horned deity, Gundestrup cauldron

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.


#TDiRS22 @ annabookbel.net

Read as part of #TDiR22 hosted by Annabel of https://annabookbel.net. I’ve previously reviewed this novel here, and its predecessor Over Sea, Under Stone here and here.

https://readersimbibingperil.wordpress.com/2022/08/29/readers-imbibing-peril-rip-begins/

#RIPxvii celebrates the genres of mystery, suspense, thriller, dark fantasy, Gothic, horror and the supernatural.

18 thoughts on “The gift of gramarye

  1. Thank you again for your wonderful analysis and for taking part. My post is finally up! While I didn’t love this one, I did admire the way Cooper builds so much folklore into her text – especially as I read a lot around The Wild Hunt and Herne the Hunter earlier this year.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yay, I’ll look at your post presently! And you may guess how pleased I was to revisit the series by jumping to it when you announced the read-along!

      Yes, there’s something distancing when the protagonist becomes godlike, a situation Cooper avoided when she had the behaviour of the three Drew children reflecting their youth, inexperience, and humanity.

      The Wild Hunt is a favourite YA theme with writers though, isn’t it, with Penelope Lively’s The Wild Hunt of Hagworthy (1971) one I’d like to reread after a gap of 50 years.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes, that was the other title I remember reading from that period, also very scary, also Diana Wynne Jones’s Dogsbody (1975).which I’m keen to reread.

          I have a downloaded open access paper by Ronald Hutton about this theme in the British imagination, and though I’ve only dipped into it you may find it interesting: Hutton, R. (2019). The Wild Hunt in the Modern British Imagination.
          Folklore, 130(2), 175-191.
          https://doi.org/10.1080/0015587X.2018.1493861

          Liked by 1 person

  2. “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.”
    Well said. And, of course, a powerful imagination is part of that personal experience.

    What a great review.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Josie. That’s what strikes me more and more about the fiction that I most admire – the sense of a lived life, in a story that’s not just “made up” yet without it being slavishly a closet autobiography.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Great fiction is another and most strange world made real .
        As I used to tell students when they asked me whether a story was real or not: “All stories are real.”
        It’s just that not all are believable.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. There’s a quote from Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies that always strikes me – “It is so beautiful it must be true” – that I think in essence applies to stories: well-crafted, and with a profound truth about human nature embedded deep in them, they can be beautiful. Without that humanity they can never be beautiful or credible.

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  3. Excellent review. I love this one, as I’ve said on Annabel’s review I believe it was the first one I read, then I went back through the sequence. I would have been the same age as Will or a little younger when I read it first. I love the weaving in of the folklore; I read it at the same time as I read Alan Garner and that’s what I like about both of them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Liz. I know what you mean about the weaving in of the folklore: Cooper does it so well, drawing elements from different periods, cultures and traditions and suggesting they have common roots going back in time. Powerful stuff, like a spell.

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  4. Thank you for adding those images. It would be fascinating to read an article really exploring the legendary and archaeological ties of this book. Certainly it gave me a sense of the deep past and of different planes of consciousness as few other books have done.

    You describe well the narrative difficulty of Will becoming somewhat distant and alienated, although for me it was one of the attractions of the book. I was an alienated child. Now, though, I find that a bit disturbing. I wasn’t so fond of the Drew children in my own childhood, but I think now I may find it refreshing to return to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We’ll, it’s funny you should want to read an article with those details, Lory, because I am planning to post a piece about them in a couple of weeks! And mythic stuff too – did you know Mr Mitothin’s name was once an alternative name for Loki?

      And your reading experience reverses mine in that I only really appreciated the Drew kids on my recent read, whereas I had felt Will lost his identity when he came into Old One guise – now it feels more nuanced. But I too did have that alienated feeling as a kid – an aspect, then undiagnosed, of being on the spectrum – but I found fiction was an excellent way to start to have an inkling of other people’s thought processes and behaviours.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fantastic Chris, can’t wait for that article. No, I did not know that about Mitothin! Although it is such an unusual and very un-British name, I am not at all suprised.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Apparently Mitothin (or Mythotin, Mithodin, or Mitoðinn) incorporates the name Óðinn, so perhaps he is a doublet or dark aspect of Odin. The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus has Odin (he renders it in Latin as Othinus) travel abroad, leaving Mitoðinn (in Latin, Mithothyn) to take Óðinn’s place in the marriage bed. I hope to have more on this in my post!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. I left reading this until I’d got down my own thoughts – I finished the book yesterday and was knocked out again. She draws in so many different elements and there’s probably much I haven’t recognised. But you’re right about the location and landscape and the lore attached to it – it’s so important to the story. I personally found Will a fascinating and well realised character – there are points when he’s just an 11 year old boy and other parts where he has to step up and take on the forces of Dark. Such a brilliant book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I wrote to Lory, I intend to post a piece about some of the historical, archaeological, mythical, fokloric and personal aspects to the novel in a week or two because I’m keen to explore what makes this novel so attractive and powerful. There’ll definitely be some more stuff on the three “L”s you mention!

      And Will is brilliantly realised, with possibly more than a bit of the author in him, and maybe also of her younger brother Roderick. https://www.therodcooper.com/about

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Looking forward to that article as well, Chris!

    I felt much more conscious of and curious about the physical location while reading this book because it seemed unusual to have so much specificity about it. Thank you for the map! I thought there were so many little touches that showed Cooper’s mastery – one that comes to mind is simply describing how all the snow froze the ground so that the rain the villagers had cheered for had nowhere to go and caused dangerous floods. I wasn’t sure I liked the West Indian mask sent by the brother – it reminded me of the Ugglie Wuglies in Nesbit and several books with allusions to The Wild Hunt.

    I don’t think Will is as alone in this book as the Drew children are in Over Sea. Will has other Old Ones around him while the Drews’ parents are clueless, the housekeeper is spying on them, and their enemies are trusted by their parents (like Mr. Stanton welcoming Mitothin into the house and allowing him to take one of Mary’s hairs – so creepy).

    I suppose it’s just as well I did not know Mitohin was an alternative name for Loki. I am reminded that I brought home a Madeleine L’Engle when I was about 11 and my mother was looking at it and commented that Kali (a main character) was the goddess of death. Way to signpost the plot!

    Constance

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What insightful points, Constance, thank you! Cooper makes you feel that the real landscape and the fantasy world are parallel existences separated by a fragile diaphonous veil, but that each has validity. I’ve never visited this area (though I’ve travelled through it many times over the years, by train or by car) but with a map open while reading the book (and with the aid of Google Earth) I can sense places where this story could actually happen. Ugly-Wuglies though, they’re still capable of sending shivers down the spine, as much as Mitothin with Mary’s strand of hair.

      I don’t disagree with what you say about Will and the Drew children, but I think their respective apprehensions about being alone are allied but different. Merriman is ever in the background in both stories, but at least in TDiR the nature and number of Old Ones is made explicit.

      I hope to say more about the Wild Hunt and the horned figure in a later post, but I liked the way Herne wasn’t depicted in isolation as a figure in British folklore but part of a tradition stretching across different cultures. The annual Abbots Bromley horn dance from Staffordshire at least testifies to the horned figure lodging in English folk memory, whatever its antiquity.

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