A strong sense of place #TDiRS22

Cadair Idris range, Gwynedd

The last instalment of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Silver on the Tree, is set in several places – by the Thames in Buckinghamshire at the start, mythical lost lands out in Cardigan Bay – but principally in the southwest corner of Snowdonia, Gwynedd, centred on the seaside town of Aberdyfi on the edge of the Cadair Idris range.

Having spent a couple of recent breaks in Aberdyfi with relatives who had links with the area, I was in a good position to become more acquainted with the background to both Silver on the Tree and the preceding volume in the sequence, The Grey King. It reinforced the strong sense of place that Cooper embedded in these two titles.

This post then is an attempt to give a pictorial impression of some of the landscape mentioned in the final novel for those who’ve not visited here; a later post will go into some detail of the literary, legendary and mythical influences that the author drew on to give both grounding and significance to incidents in the narrative.

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#TDiRS22: By Pendragon’s sword

The Square, Aberdyfi, 2022 © C A Lovegrove

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper.
With a note by the author, 2013.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1977).

When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

‘Silver on the Tree’

The longest and the last of Susan Cooper‘s fantasy sequence is also the most far-ranging and complex of the series. Bringing together many if not most of the principal characters we’ve met previously, it also introduces us to one final individual who has a key part to play in the sequence’s resolution. It’s fitting therefore that like Cooper herself he should be a maker and a wordsmith as well as a poet out of history.

Moving from Buckinghamshire to Gwynedd, and from the ‘present-day’ – the 1970s – to times historical and legendary, this tale takes the unwary reader, like the five youngsters in the novel, through a whirlwind of emotions, information and impressions; it conjures up dreamlike images and primeval, nightmarish fears; and it provides both comfort and wonderment.

Above all, the narrative thrust artfully conceals the poetic skill that Cooper brings to her creation; like a finely-wrought artefact its splendour dazzles, but closer inspection reveals its subtle intricacy, balance and presentation of motifs. Ungainly it may at times appear but I believe this quality gives it its distinctive character; and of course life is nothing if not ungainly.

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Quarter days and others #TDiRS22

#TDiRS22 annabookbel.net

Today marks the winter solstice, the day when in the northern hemisphere the sun ‘stands’ at its most northerly limits at dawn and dusk, bringing about the shortest 24 hours of the year. In times past both solstice and equinox periods were marked by quarter days, when in Britain workers were hired, rents were collected, and school terms began.

In England these quarter days were settled on Lady Day (25th March, the feast of the Annunciation), Midsummer’s Day (24th June, the feast of St John the Baptist), Michaelmas Day (29th September, the feast of St Michael and All Angels) and Christmas (25th December).

But there were also so-called cross-quarter days, holidays occurring roughly midway between quarter days, which corresponded closer to feast days celebrated in Celtic nations such as Scotland and Ireland. These were Candlemas (2nd February), May Day (1st May), Lammas (1st August), and All Hallows or All Saints (1st November). Some of these days are popular dates in much fantasy fiction whenever supernatural events take place, and that has been the case with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, completed by the final volume entitled Silver on the Tree.

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Darkness in Gwynedd #TDiR22

The 9th-century monolith known as the Cadfan Stone © C A Lovegrove

When Susan Cooper was writing the fourth title in her The Dark is Rising sequence, The Grey King (1975), she was drawing from family connections with the southwestern corner of Merionethshire (now part of Gwynedd) where she had holidayed as a child, where some of her relatives lived and where her parents retired. So some of the places referenced in the novel were based on real locations, while others were inspired by places she was familiar with.

She also was inspired by local legends attached to specific sites, legends which she either borrowed wholesale or freely riffed on. In this discussion post I want to give readers some background to both the locations and the legends, drawn from a couple of recent visits to the area (one of those around Hallowmas, the time of year The Grey King is set) and my longterm interest in folklore, archaeology, and Arthurian legend.

Needless to say, if you haven’t read the novel there will be spoilers galore.

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When the year dies #TDiRS22

Llyn Mwyngil, Tal-y-llyn lake © C A Lovegrove

The Grey King by Susan Cooper,
The Dark is Rising sequence, Book 4.
Illustration by Julie Dillon.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1975).

“On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks.”

The Grey King

The fourth book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence opens with a prophetic rhyme which, with its alliterative phrases, antonyms and allusions, reads like a riddle to be solved – which in a way it is. The day of the dead is the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain, the modern Halloween, which once upon a time marked the end of summer and the start of the new year as autumn begins ushering in winter.

Noson Galan Gaeaf – ‘the eve of the first day of winter’ – is the Welsh term for All Hallows Eve, an ysbrydnos or ‘spirit night’ when the departed walk abroad in spirit. Cooper’s The Grey King is set in Gwynedd, the northeast corner of Wales, at precisely this period, and it’s especially fitting that I completed it at the very time and in the area where the story’s action takes place, around Tywyn near Aberdyfi.

It was in 1950s Aberdyfi – where, Cooper tells us, she spent many teenage holidays – that her Welsh Uncle Llew told her about the Brenin Llwyd or “Grey King” who features at the sinister heart of this spellbinding fantasy. It’s to nearby Tywyn and its hinterland that eleven-year-old Will Stanton comes to recuperate from hepatitis and where he has to call on all his powers to combat the malign forces on the slopes of the Cadair Idris massif.

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Otherness

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.

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#TDiRS22: Neither Light not Dark

© C A Lovegrove

Greenwitch by Susan Cooper.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1974).

“Though they make me in the form of a creature, yet they are making no more than an offering, as once in older days it might have been a slaughtered cock, or sheep, or man. I am an offering, Old Ones, no more.”

Chapter Eleven

Greenwich, the meridian, marks the notional point when one day becomes the next but is neither, the point of balance when time is an orphan.

The Greenwitch – fashioned from hawthorn and then sacrificed as dawn breaks and a fishing fleet returns to a Cornish village – it too feels like an abandoned orphan, being a creature of Wild Magic and thus subservient to neither the Dark nor the Light.

And, in the interval between Easter and May Eve when spring gives way to summer, this wild child, this scapegoat naturally seethes and is ready to have a tantrum; is there anyone who doesn’t want to use her, who will instead show her kindness and wish for her to be happy?

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Herne and the hunted #TDiRS22

Horned deity, Gundestrup cauldron

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.

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Hunter’s combe #TDiRS22

‘The Abbey in the Oakwood’ (detail) by Caspar David Friedrich

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.

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#TDiRS22: 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.

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#TDiRS22: Trailing the grail

© C A Lovegrove

Over Sea, Under Stone
by Susan Cooper.
The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 1.
Margaret L McElderry Books, 2013 (1965).

“You can search and search, in a quest, and in the end you may never get there at all.” — Barney

When I first read this in the late 1960s or early 70s I was on the lookout for stories featuring quests for the Holy Grail in modern times. It joined Charles Williams’ War in Heaven (1930), Arthur Machen’s The Great Return (1915), Alan Garner’s Elidor (1965) and other titles, some best forgotten, as examples of how the notion of a grail, as cup as well as symbol, could inspire so many different tales of quests and trails followed by those seeking it.

A more recent second reading revealed more subtleties than I remembered and now a third has raised the novel even higher in my estimation, for its pacing, its verisimilitude (for all that it’s a fantasy) and above all its characterisation of the three siblings who are at the core of the fiction.

Among other things that struck me was the fact that apart from one or two details that set it firmly in the sixties this was a narrative which had scarcely dated, meaning that it’s perfectly enjoyable by today’s readers whatever their age.

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