In a previous post (“Hunter’s combe”) I discussed some of the personal, topographical, historical and archaeological associations I fancied I’d detected in Susan Cooper’s fantasy The Dark is Rising (1973). The area north of the River Thames, to the south of Slough (Buckinghamshire) and east of Maidenhead (Berkshire) provides the essential geography and history for the events in the novel, places the author knew from childhood.
In this companion piece I want to look at the folkloric and mythic aspects of the novel, and to try to chase up symbolic and psychological clues. Again, local legends, particularly to the south of the river (in the Royal Borough of Windsor) provide some of her inspiration, but also her interest in Robert Graves’s The White Goddess and her literary studies at Oxford feed into the fantasy.
All this ferreting around in what some might see as “only a fantasy” represents my approach to exploring what seems to make this particular instalment in the five-book series such a significant title for many fans of Cooper’s writing as well as striking in a new direction after Over Sea, Under Stone.
The Stanton family home
But I want to start with the home of Will Stanton’s family. The author has said that she’d based this on the Old Rectory in Burnham, Bucks, where as a sixth-former in 1952/3 she’d been tutored in Latin by the vicar’s wife. An enquiry to St Peter’s, Burnham got me a speedy and full response from Pam Rogers, parish administrator and churchwarden, and with help from Jacqui Jackson and Mary Haskell she furnished me with some background on this house, which try as I might I couldn’t find mentioned online.
“Sadly,” she writes, “the old vicarage was demolished in the 60s and the current rectory was built on part of the land. The rest of the land is now a residential area called The Precincts” – located to the south of the churchyard. The label to one of two photos indicates that “Burnham Vicarage” was actually demolished in 1964, the year after the severe winter of 1962-3. Records suggest that a vicarage was in existence as early as 1266.
The label on the back of the frame tells us that the building Cooper knew replaced an earlier structure in 1833, and that it included “28 rooms, one bathroom, one inside & one outside toilet”. Heating, sewage and water supply appeared to be fairly primitive, probably sealing the building’s fate. Nevertheless, their being a large family, the Stantons clearly required a large home; and though we can picture Mr Stanton inadvertently (but disastrously) inviting Mr Mitothin in through the front door, normally the house was a safe space for Will and his siblings.
Folkloric and mythical
In a piece I posted on Christmas Day 2018 (‘Promises of special things‘) I talked about how Yule, the period around the midwinter solstice (from Old Norse jól), is still marked in Britain with what are essentially pagan practices overlaid with religious beliefs and imagery. The Yule log, the greenery, the seasonal carols, the special food, the Wassail cup – it all speaks of hope and joy for the return of warmth, of health, and of growth in the coming year. The Stanton family rituals and the visit to sing carols at the Manor are all an expression of this and, moreover, echo folk customs going back generations and through the centuries.
Let me first note the seasonal carols that are sung during the course of the novel. Not all are notably religious, and if anything many have more than a whiff of pagan beliefs and superstitions. True, the ones sung around the village – God Rest Ye Merry, Once in Royal David’s City, Adeste Fidelis and Les Anges dans nos Campagnes – are specifically Christian, of course. But when Will and five of his siblings get to the Manor the choices are less overtly religious and more seasonal. Apart from Lullay, thou little tiny child and God Rest Ye Merry (the first a lullaby, the second concerning the angels addressing the shepherds at the first Christmas) they sing a wassail song, The Holly and the Ivy, and Good King Wenceslas.
Wassail songs were sung at various times over the winter period and performed when visiting and seeking festive welcome from neighbours; the evergreen holly and ivy were symbolic of life in winter, borne by visitors to decorate dwellings; and Wenceslas (Václav in Czech) was a duke from medieval Bohemia who, legend said, visited his subjects to deliver alms. Winter visiting has long been a custom, whether by Christmas mummers, children begging for soul cakes, or first footing at Hogmanay.
Then there’s Herne the Hunter, best known from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. In Act IV, scene 4, he’s introduced thus by Mistress Margaret Page:
There is an old tale goes, that Herne the Hunter
(sometime a keeper here in Windsor Forest)
Doth all the winter-time, at still midnight
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
He’s described then as the unquiet spirit of a deceased gamekeeper in the Royal Forest of Windsor. Cooper, who well knew her Shakespeare – as is apparent from her timeshift novel King of Shadows (1999) – retains the deer horns, the oak and the midwinter season for her concept of Herne. In the novel he leads the Wild Hunt against the forces of the Dark. Now, Cooper drew some inspiration from poet Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948 and 1961), subtitled A historical grammar of poetic myth. Of course she didn’t believe everything Graves asserted here – he was more interested in what was true in poetic terms than in unambiguously evidenced facts – but there’s no doubting that she liked his syncretic approach to myth and the creation of composite stories.
So to Herne the Hunter we might discern elements she took from the Abbot’s Bromley Horn Dance, Caribbean carnival masks, a Siberian shaman’s headdress, Celtic horned deities like Cernunnos, and so on. Graves, for example in the chapter ‘The Song of Amergin’, links the Mabinogion tale of Pwyll with Cernunnos, the Greek myth of Actaeon and the enigmatic figure with owlish eyes and stag’s antlers from the palaeolithic cave of Les Trois Frères in the Pyrenees. Whether or not his approach is valid it certainly proves a boon for writers of fantasy fiction to be able to pick and mix motifs from different periods and cultures.
You have heard of such a spirit, and well you know
The superstitious idle-headed eld
Receiv’d, and did deliver to our age
This tale of Herne the Hunter for a truth.
Shakespeare’s Mistress Page proposes using the Windsor legend as a ruse to make a fool of Sir John Falstaff. George Page agrees that “there want not many that do fear | In deep of night to walk by this Herne’s oak,” while Mistress Alice Ford suggests the group plot “that Falstaff at that oak shall meet with us, | Disguis’d like Herne, with huge horns on his head” and that they then proceed to torment him. Cooper’s Herne however is the real thing, neither a keeper’s ghost, nor a man in disguise, but a cthonic deity.
But it’s not just folklore that Cooper evokes here: there are also other North European mythic roots she alludes to in The Dark is Rising. Apparently the character Mr Mitothin (alternatively Mythotin, Mithodin, or Mitoðinn) incorporates the name Óðinn, so perhaps he is a doublet or dark aspect of Odin. You’ll remember Odin has his eight-legged steed Sleipnir – perhaps a reference to a coffin carried by four men – so Mr Mitothin as the Dark Rider has his own, dark, steed.
The Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus narrates that Odin (he renders it in Latin as Othinus) once travelled abroad, leaving Mitoðinn (in Latin, Mithothyn) to take Óðinn’s place in the marriage bed. Mithothyn (actually “Mitoðinn”, meaning “dispenser of fate”) introduces rules where there were none before, which I see as the Dark Rider’s attempt to begin a new dispensation in the world.
Symbolic and psychological
Two types of magical items feature in the novel. One is the Book of Gramarye which Will the Old One has to scan and learn before it gets destroyed. Gramarye (as I’ve discussed in a post here) is a word related both to grimoire or book of spells, and grammar, meaning a language’s system and structure; Will’s Book of Gramarye – extracted from a grandfather clock, thus indicating it is beyond Time – is in an unknown ancient language which I fancy might be related to Old Welsh. This fancy comes from the mention in one rhyme of the Welsh legendary figure Math, whose name is claimed to derive from *matu-, itself a Proto-Celtic root meaning “good” or “fortunate” and a euphemism for a bear; mathúin, from Old Irish mathgamain, is just one of the words in modern Irish for the animal.
There’s more to consider: the last two books in The Dark is Rising sequence are partly set in Wales, and Arthurian legend plays a large part in them. Can we reasonably surmise that Cooper knew that the name Arthur is believed to relate to arth, Welsh for a bear, and so knew of linguistic correspondences with the Irish word for bear, and that these parallels underline the possibility of The Book of Gramarye being in a Celtic tongue?
Finally, I want to refer to the symbol that Will, as Sign-seeker, collects in the form of wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone. As I’ve already indicated the Signs, threaded on Will’s belt, are similar to a Celtic wheel cross except that the arms in the circle are in the form of the letter X (the St Andrew’s cross) rather than the orthodox Latin or Greek cross adopted by Christianity. If shown as a spoked wheel it’s often associated with Taranis, the Celtic equivalent of the thunder god Thor, or alternatively with the sun chariot (as seen in a Bronze Age example from Trundholmsmossen in Zealand, Denmark, for example, or a rock carving from Skomakarhällen in Backa, Sweden).
The four-spoked wheel-cross, so frequent among Scandinavian symbols, can therefore be code for the sun; in Norse tradition it’s iconographically associated both with chariots and with bird-headed ships and so an ideal sign for the Light and for the Sign-seeker to bear.
And, with the focus remaining on Will I want to just briefly talk about his transformation from carefree boy to Old One. Cooper will have known what a terrible thing it would have been for a pre-teen lad to accept his destiny and shoulder his ancient responsibilities; those two parts of his nature sit uneasily in him, making it hard for some readers to feel any connection with a protagonist composed of a dual personality, even though it can’t really be classed as Dissociative Identity Disorder. Now, unlike Harry Potter, who had seven years to grow into his role as the ‘Chosen One’, or Lyra Belacqua who had no notion of the destiny appointed to her, Will Stanton has only the Christmas holidays to come into his own, learning on the job as it were.
I get the impression that the author was putting two aspects of herself into Will’s character – her eleven-year-old self, when, like Will in the 60s, she had to survive through the severe winter of 1946–7, and her adult self, with a degree in English from Somerville College, Oxford University and, married, already embarked on a literary career. When we meet Will again in Greenwitch (1974) we will come across the same confusion as to his true nature in the reaction of the Drew siblings who first appeared in Over Sea, Under Stone (1965). The contrast with the Drews will be striking.
• Susan Cooper. 1973. The Dark is Rising. Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013.
• Peter Gelling and Hilda Ellis Davidson. 1969. The Chariot of the Sun, and other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age. Aldine / J M Dent & Sons, 1972.
• Robert Graves. 1948. The White Goddess. A historical grammar of poetic myth. Faber and Faber, 1962.