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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Lost beneath the sea

Mevagissey in the 1960s

Greenwitch, by Susan Cooper.
The Dark Is Rising sequence 3,
introduction by Robert Macfarlane.
Puffin 2019 (1974).

This is a book with magic in its pages, its phrases, its words. There were moments when my neck hairs rose, especially during the making of the Greenwitch, and times when I was transported by the sheer poetry within a paragraph or passage. If this short novel in Susan Cooper’s five-book fantasy sequence occasionally feels poised between revelation and resolution, that’s no doubt because it’s the middle book in the series: it’s here where earlier strands become more intertwined but where we can’t yet see the whole picture. But to me it’s the quality of the writing which holds the attention, and because Greenwitch is virtually a novella in length I think its brevity works in its favour, making the story more intense.

As the novel opens we realise it’s the Easter after the events in Over Sea, Under Stone (published in 1965), with news of the theft of the so-called Trewissick grail from the British Museum where it had been donated by its finders the Drew children Simon, Jane and Barney. Before they can get too het up over the relic’s disappearance relatives get in touch offering them a holiday break in south Cornwall, at the fishing village where their adventures had all begun.

Coincidentally — or perhaps it isn’t a matter of coincidence — young Will Stanton, whom we met in The Dark is Rising (1973) and who is more than he at first seems, is invited by Merriman Lyon, the Drew children’s great uncle, to take the next step in the conflict against the Dark, which of course will take them down to that Cornish village where the Drews are now already ensconced. Naturally their hackles are raised by the appearance of a strange boy, especially one who doesn’t appear to mind their natural suspicion or quiet antagonism. But soon all will have their attention focused on the strange artist at work down by the harbour.

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Bleak midwinter

Beware the Rider

Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising
Vintage Classics 2013 (1973)

If, in a fantasy set during the twelve days of Christmas, you’re expecting lords leaping, geese laying or partridges in pear trees then you’d be sorely disappointed: despite the fact that there are seasonal gifts for young Will Stanton this is no twee tale of sweethearts, nativities or jolly old St Nicholas. Instead we get an intense battle between the Light and the Dark, accompanied by elemental forces in nature and threatened by betrayal.

Following on from Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) this novel focuses on a new protagonist, Will, but is linked with the earlier novel by the appearance of Merriman Lyon and passing references to the chalice which had featured in the earlier Cornish adventure. Will is due to have his eleventh birthday on December 21st, midwinter’s day: it’s already a magical time, with the sun ‘standing still’ for the solstice, but Will also happens to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a fact which marks him out for an epic struggle and for which he at first appears inadequate.

But Will is no ordinary youngster: he discovers soon enough that he is one of the Old Ones.

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Promises of special things

Inverted commas 5: Will Stanton’s Christmas

Christmas Eve. It was the day when the delight of Christmas really took fire in the Stanton family. Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly blossomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in the corner of which Gwen could be found putting the final touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that.

In Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising (1973) Will Stanton’s family is preparing for the great day in their little corner of England. The conifer, grown locally, is fetched into the house:

When they carried the tree ceremonially through the front door, the twins seized it with cross-boards and screwdrivers, to give it a base. At the other end of the room Mary and Barbara sat in a rustling sea of coloured paper, cutting it into strips, red, yellow, blue, green, and gluing them into interlocked circles for paper-chains.

For them, as for many families, the decorating of the tree is left to the night before, all such ornamentation remaining until Twelfth Night when the Feast of the Epiphany (marking the visit by the Three Magi) takes place.

Out of the boxes came all the familiar decorations that would turn the life of the family into a festival for twelve nights and days: the golden-haired figure for the top of the tree; the strings of jewel-coloured lights. Then there were the fragile glass Christmas-tree balls, lovingly preserved for years. Half-spheres whorled like red and gold-green seashells, slender glass spears, spider-webs of silvery glass threads and beads; on the dark limbs of the tree they hung and gently turned, shimmering.

All of the foregoing sounds like many a traditional Christmas. The next day there will be the visit to the village church for the Christmas Day service. But little else is overtly religious — the tree, the yule log, the preparations for feasting, the paper chains and greenery strewn around, all smack of a pagan midwinter festival more than the advent of a deity. At the local Manor the songs remain resolutely heathen in inspiration: a traditional wassailing song, the lullaby known as the Coventry Carol, Good King Wenceslas based on a medieval Bohemian legend.

And then Will later will find himself reading lines from The Book of Gramarye, verses that at first sight appear traditional but in truth are out of time:

He that sees blowing the wild wood tree,
And peewits circling their watery glass,
Dreams about Strangers that yet may be
Dark to our eyes, Alas!

There are hints that old Welsh myths are interwoven here, in lines translated by Robert Graves from his reconstruction of the sixth-century Cad Goddeu or ‘The Battle of the Trees’, a Welsh poem from The Book of Taliesin which he included in the mythic study The White Goddess:

I have plundered the fern | Through all secrets I spie;
Old Math ap Mathonwy | Knew no more than I.

And when Will encounters Herne the Hunter in Windsor Forest, the secrets of the battle between Light and Dark will be laid bare. In The Dark is Rising the author emphasises that the time of the midwinter solstice and the Twelve Days of Christmas are a magical and significant time of year.

No doubt this is one of the reasons the Church chose this period to celebrate the advent of Christ, whose actual birthday we are never told and will have no real way of knowing: throughout the northern hemisphere there are old traditions which some of us moderns consider essentially ‘Christian’ in basis but which in fact have long been there to mark the change of season and the turning of the year, the days of darkness turning towards the light.

But of course you all knew that.


A review of The Dark is Rising will appear in due course but, in the meantime, may I wish everybody the very best of Christmases, however you celebrate it!

Treasure at Trewissick

mevagissey 1960s
Mevagissey harbour in the 1960s (picture: http://mevagisseymuseum.co.uk/)

Over Sea, Under Stone
by
Susan Cooper,
illustrated by Margery Gill. .
Puffin Books 1968 (1965).

Simon, Jane and Barney Drew go to the attractive Cornish fishing village of Trewissick for the summer holidays, where their Great Uncle Merry has secured a holiday home for them and their parents. Attractions include a busy harbour, beaches, walks and a carnival featuring Trewissick’s famous Floral Dance. There’s even a resident dog, Rufus, to add to the fun. The signs are promising for the Drew children to have a wonderful break.

But the signs are not to be trusted: why is the boy whom they encounter on the harbour quay so horrible? Are the nice Norman and Polly Withers all they seem? Why should Jane be wary of the vicar Mr Hastings? Is Mrs Molly Palk the housekeeper as friendly as she appears? And why does Great Uncle Merry keep disappearing?

The scene is set for the Drew children to have an adventure they never expected when they arrived at St Austell train station for the start of their holidays.

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