In the continuing struggle between the Light and the Dark that features in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence we’ve so far seen the Dark manifested in Mr Hastings and in Mr Withers and his sister Polly in Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), while in The Dark is Rising (1973) it’s principally represented by Mr Mitothin, the Dark Rider himself, along with two humans who are somehow drawn across time as allies of the Dark.

Now, in Greenwitch – the third title of the sequence – we have another human who’s allied with the Dark, a counterpart of Merriman Lyon’s associate Hawkin who also tried to betray his allegiance, though in this instalment the motivation is different.

I’m talking of the unnamed painter, the artist who claims he’s half Romany and who covers his canvases and his caravan’s ceiling with nightmarish daubs that sicken those who see them. But as well as this character there are other aspects of this novel I’d like to note in this post.

After Susan Cooper had married and settled in New England she began to expand the range of narratives that were emerging after she’d first composed Over Sea, Under Stone back in England. Now admittedly this is sheer speculation, but I fancy that at least two aspects of her new homeland have found their way into the portrait of the Cornish artist who becomes a disruptive influence in the seaside village of Trewissick.

One may be her closer acquaintance with American abstract expressionism, an umbrella term to describe the work that several very different artists – Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston and others – created that were both semi- or fully abstract and expressionist or neo-expressionist, following the earlier German lead. Cooper is self-evidently a very visual writer with an eye for nature and the inner eye of the artist, and in Over Sea, Under Stone she had already made a point of indicating that young Barney Drew was a budding artist following in the footsteps of his mother.

So here, back in Trewissick, Barney is out sketching the harbour when he is disturbed to see the wild lurid colours of the painter’s canvas, some of which offend his sensibilities in ways that profoundly affect him. Now I’m not suggesting that Cooper was against abstract expressionism per se – far from it – but is there a further aspect of these unsettling fictional canvases that owed something to her residence in Massachusetts and her closer awareness of the sometimes challenging concepts in the art of Pollock, de Kooning et al?

Perhaps there is. Massachusetts is where an earlier 20th-century writer had set many of his horror fantasies about non-human entities trying to take over the world. I’m referring of course to H P Lovecraft, author of The Dunwich Horror, The Haunter of the Dark and other tales in his Cthulhu Mythos, many of them set in New England. I fancy that in the creepy canvas, with its offensive colours crawling over the surface and which the painter holds up during his spell to control the Greenwitch, we have a deliberate nod to the deluded sorcerers of the Cthulhu stories who attempt to bring those inter-dimensional entities into this world. The collective name of these entities, which – coincidentally or subconsciously, Cooper may have echoed in her sequence – is striking: the Great Old Ones.

It’s worth now alluding to other aspects of Greenwitch which particularly appeal to my love of mythic motifs, legends and lore. First is the Greenwitch herself. Many commenters have pointed to woven figures from both histories and popular culture, from the practices of the ancient Celts (who according to Caesar burnt sacrificial victims in wicker effigies) to the 1973 film The Wicker Man which so caught the public’s imagination that it has spawned festivals featuring such a figure as their focus.

But we must remember that the Greenwitch isn’t incinerated but cast off a cliff into the sea, a very different kind of offering. Her function is to be a kind of sacrifice, to become both expiation (making amends for wrongs, perhaps) and propitiation (appeasing the powers that be). We might remember the scapegoats of biblical lore: one was sacrificed, the other – distinguished with a crimson thread – turned loose in a ravine to fall to its death. I also recall Theseus’s father Aegeus who by the temple of Sunium jumped into the sea to his death, mistakenly thinking he’d sent his son to become the Minotaur’s victim; whether he did this from despair, to appease the gods, or as amends for his responsibility is unclear.

A coloured lithograph of The Temple at Sunium, currently in my possession

But in the menacing appearance of Cooper’s figure in the dark, whether on the cliff, emerging from the sea or appearing to Jane in her waking dream, I also recall the trees, bushes or hedges one might come across when out walking at night and which the imagination often turns into a sinister threatening stranger. Small wonder when we recall the nighttime making of the Greenwitch, lit by the bonfire on the Kemare headland:

“Hazel for the framework,” the woman said. “Rowan for the head. Then the body is of hawthorn boughs, and hawthorn blossoms.”

Chapter Three

Each of these trees has its magical significance and symbolism. Hazel rods supposedly protect against evil spirits, and are used as wands and for water-divining. Rowan is also protective against evil and witchcraft, while hawthorns, believed to have fairy guardians living under them, are associated with the bonfires of Beltane, the pagan spring festival at the beginning of May (which thus indicates the period when Cooper set this novel). With all this symbolic wild magic woven into the Greenwitch we mustn’t be surprised at the power that fizzles and radiates out from her.

Finally I want to return to the Trewissick painter and to contrast him with the Greenwitch. This is how he describes himself when he invites the reluctant Barney and Simon Drew into his vardo or caravan:

“Half Romany chal,” the man said, “and half gorgio.”

Chapter Five

Here is the man’s attempt at othering. He wants to define himself as Romany, but admits that he is not fully so. That self-othering – distancing oneself from those seen as belonging to an in-group – indirectly indicates the man’s intention to set himself apart: apart from the Drews, for sure, but also to secretly set himself up to become a key figure of the Dark without their knowing. But note how, in othering himself and attempting to gain status and power, he recognises he is actually alone: neither truly Romany or non-Romany, neither of the Light nor yet of the Dark (nor will be); nor is he identified by name, as the other characters are, merely known to them and to us as “the painter”.

The Greenwitch, who sees herself as a child of Tethys, the consort of Okeanos or Oceanus, is also strangely ambivalent: she too is neither of the Dark nor Light, being a creature of wild magic; but being made of trees while also being cast into the sea she is also neither wholly of land nor of water. However, unlike the painter, who refuses to be friendly and spurns relationships, the Greenwitch accepts both the wish and the gift exchange which Jane makes and thus forges an understanding with her, despite her otherness.

And of course it is the Greenwitch who proves the stronger in the battle of wills with the painter.

Next to be examined is Susan Cooper’s The Grey King, which I completed in the first week of November in Aberdyfi on the Gwynedd coast – and thus precisely the time and locale of the fourth title in The Dark is Rising sequence.

10 thoughts on “Otherness

  1. Oh, really interesting post, Chris, and that background information is fascinating. This time round the painter really stood out for me, in his contrast with Barney, but I hadn’t made the connections with abstract art or in Lovecraft. Fascinating!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Karen! It’s interesting, I think, how the painter – who’s the nexus for all the trouble in this novel, remains anonymous right through to the end. We’ve had the Withers pair, Mr Hastings and Hawkin, plus Mr Mitothin, so far in the series, and even if their explicit origins are never made clear at least they’ve always been named. Here the adversary is simply “the painter” or “the man”. So I tried to focus on the abstract expressionism that was an indicator of his being and his malevolence.

      The Lovecraft link? Although HPL was a Rhode Island man, many of his tales were set in Massachusetts – which is where Cooper has spent much of her life since moving to the US. I couldn’t resist pointing out the connection!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed your comments about the artist, too, thank you. I love this book for its feminine energy and always have done, having read it at various times of my life. And bonus points for reading book four when and where you did – hope no Mari Llwyds appeared!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that this is very female-centred, Liz, and quite rightly too! The next one is back to male-centred again, though there is I suppose an element of cherchez la femme in it. No Mari Lloyds yet though, until I’m guessing the last instalment…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yet more wonderful discussion of sources and influences. I love the abstract expressionism link. Funnily enough, I’ve recently read another novel in which a painter is driven mad by something he’s seen and has to get onto canvas! (Cole Haddon’s Psalms for the end of the world – highly recommended).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Haddon book looks and sounds intriguing, Annabel, I’ll look into it further! As for the discussions, I’m enjoying going into these novels in a little more detail than spoiler-free reviews can allow, so I’m glad you’re liking them all.


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