A second read of Susan Cooper’s fantasy The Dark is Rising helped reveal to me several layers of possible inspiration that went towards making it such a rich concoction, layers which I’d like to examine in a little more detail.
These layers are personal and topographical, historical and archaeological, folkloric and mythical. It may also be possible to detect symbolic and psychological depths which we might try to dig down through.
But as with my first read there remains much to ruminate on and be impressed by in this, the second instalment in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence. To make this discussion manageable I’ve split it into two posts; this first one looks at personal and topographical layers, plus historical and archaeological aspects; the rest appears separately.
Personal and topographical
The Dark is Rising takes place in a specifically defined place, even if some of the names have been changed. Susan Cooper grew up on the borders of Berkshire in Burnham, Buckinghamshire, not far from Taplow on the Thames which gets a mention near the climax of this novel. In the biography published on her website TheLostLand.com she tells us she was “born into the peaceful green countryside of Buckinghamshire, in England, in 1935,” so when she came to write this particular fantasy it was inevitable that “every inch of it [is] set in the part of Buckinghamshire where I grew up.” This was on Westlands Avenue in Huntercombe, the area around Huntercombe Manor which straddles Cippenham, Dorney and Taplow.
Before she began this novel she “wrote down the names of all five books, their characters, the places where they would be set, and the times of the year. The Dark Is Rising would be at the winter solstice and Christmas, the next book Greenwitch would be in the spring, at the old Celtic festival of Beltane” and so on. Her brother Rod Cooper, another writer, writes of his childhood (in the third person) that, like Susan, he was born
three miles from Burnham Beeches, Eton, and Maidenhead, but also, less happily, from Slough. The round keep of Windsor Castle could be seen on the skyline from the bedroom of his sister […] but so could the chimneys and water towers of Slough Trading Estate.https://www.therodcooper.com/about
The Berkshire town of Slough, by the way, has not had a good press: sometimes referred to as, using Bunyan’s phrase, the Slough of Despond, its pre-war industrial estate was deprecated by John Betjeman in his 1937 poem ‘Slough’: “It isn’t fit for humans now, | There isn’t grass to graze a cow. | Swarm over, Death!” Nevertheless Slough was where Susan attended high school.
Cooper was, like Will Stanton in her story, eleven years old during the severe European winter of 1946-7 when snow lay thick in drifts for many weeks in many countries, including Britain. In between spells in the USA – the second when she moved there permanently and got married – it’s possible she was in Britain for another severe winter, that of 1962-3. Though her immediate inspiration for writing the snowy landscapes in The Dark is Rising was when she went skiing in New England, I can’t help but associate the blizzards of the novel with those two extreme British winters, one in Buckinghamshire, the other possibly in Wales (where her parents had relocated).
Meanwhile, aged 17 in Burnham, she had tutorials in Latin “from the wife of the local vicar – whose house I used a decade later, lock, stock and barrel, as the house of Will Stanton’s family in The Dark Is Rising. The vicar’s wife improved my Latin, and off I went to university, where I spent three of the happiest years of my life,” reading English at Somerville College at Oxford University.
She set her story in the fictional village of Huntercombe which, however, approximates to Dorney, a little south of Burnham and just north of the Thames; by 1961 the M4 west out of London had been built, meaning travel between Burnham and Dorney was only possible by a bridge over the motorway. How do we know? In a 1999 interview this is what she said:
The Dark Is Rising is set in the part of Buckinghamshire where I grew up. Every stick is real. It doesn’t look that way now, a lot of it, but some of it does. The little church is still exactly the same. Huntercombe is based upon the village of Dorney and the Great Hall is Dorney Court.https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/interview-with-susan-cooper
Historical and archaeological
So what is there about this area’s history and archaeology that she may have drawn on for details in her book? There’s much to consider.
As mentioned, the real Huntercombe is part of Cippenham, a suburb of Slough, which in the Middle Ages was owned by the Norman French family Fitzother; they took the new surname Huntercombe after part of their land holdings. The word survives in Huntercombe Lane, a thoroughfare which heads south from Burnham towards Dorney, stopping near junction 7 of the motorway; if it carried across the Thames it would reach the northwest corner of Windsor Great Park, one of the many medieval royal forests where monarchs hunted game. As well as the road, the name attaches to Huntercombe Manor, a 14th-centuy foundation, now home to Huntercombe Hospital.
Meanwhile, Dorney Court is a manor house dating from the mid 15th-century (though partly remodelled in the 19th-century); it’s been owned by the Palmer family since the early 17th century. This was the model for the manor house, the Great Hall, owned by Miss Greythorne in The Dark is Rising, where the Stanton siblings traditionally went carol-singing at midwinter.
I wondered at first if the fictional Huntercombe church might be an amalgam of two churches – St Peter’s, Burnham, dating from the 12th century and sited due north from the northern end of Huntercombe Lane; and St James the Less, Dorney, also from the 12th century, adjacent to Dorney Court – but no. Cooper is very specific: the building is actually called St James the Less and described as a “little church.”
The Dorney building has a Jacobean gallery at the west end as has the church in the novel, a space where Will and his brother James in their surplices go to sing on Christmas Day. This image strongly reminds of the folk carol Green Grow the Rushes-o with its line “Two, two, the lilywhite boys dressed all in green-o”.
Upriver, on the north bank of the Thames, is the town of Taplow. On rising ground above the river is the site of the Taplow burial mound, the ‘-low’ suffix deriving from Saxon hlaw or hlæw meaning a barrow. Here the Victorians discovered a princely intermittent, a royal personage accompanied by goods such as a claw beaker, and also a gold buckle comparable to those found at the East Anglian ship burial at Sutton Hoo and the Saxon barrow at Prittlewell near Southend-on-Sea.
Taplow is where the novel claims there was another ship burial to match that Will discovers in the island created by the flooding River Thames. A third is supposed to exist further downriver. However, in the late sixth and early seventh century this area was dominated by the kingdom of Kent, whose funerary traditions didn’t include ship burials.
A parallel to the recurrent theme of a stag’s head in the novel is the Sutton Hoo whetstone or sceptre. This was surmounted by an iron ring, atop which was a copper alloy mount in the form of a stag modelled, as the British Museum notes, naturalistically. Not quite the “roughly shaped head of a stag, antlers held high” on the prow of the Thames ship, part of “a beautiful golden image, prancing” as described in the chapter titled ‘The King of Fire and Water’ but certainly suggestive.
Nowadays this area is dotted with lakes formed from pits dug for gravel extraction; and I mustn’t neglect to mention Dorney Lake, also known as Eton College Rowing Centre, which was constructed between 1999 and 2006. However the area is also prone to flooding, and Cooper will have been aware of the significant flooding around Windsor that occurred after the thaw in 1947. Eton then temporarily became one of a handful of islands in the flood plain similar to the one where Will Stanton witnessed the emergence of the buried Dark Age ship.
To be concluded