Sunday, October 08, 2017

Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising Sequence


Opening Passage: From Over Sea, Under Stone:

"Where is he?"

Barney hopped from one foot to the other as he clambered down from the train, peering in vain through the white-faced crowds flooding eagerly to the St Austell ticket barrier. "Oh, I can't see him. Is he there?"

"Of course he's there," Simon said, struggling to clutch the long canvas bundle of his father's fishing rods. "He said he'd meet us. With a car."

Behind them, the big diesel locomotive hooted like a giant owl, and the train began to move out.

"Stay where you are a minute," Father said, from a barricade of suitcases. "Merry won't vanish. Let people get clear." (p. 1)

From The Dark Is Rising:

"Too many!' James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.

"What?" said Will.

"Too many kids in this family, that's what. Just too many." (p. 3)

From Greenwitch:

Only one newspaper carried the story in detail, under the headline: TREASURES STOLEN FROM MUSEUM. (p. 1)

From The Grey King:

"Are you awake, Will? Will? Wake up, it's time for your medicine, love...."

The face swung like a pendulum, to and fro; rose high up in a pink blur; dropped again; divided into six pink blurs, all of them spinning madly like wheels. He closed his eyes. He could feel sweat cold on his forehead, panic cold in his mind. I've lost it. I've forgotten! Even in darkness the world spun round. There was a great buzzing in his head like rushing water, until for a moment the voice broke through it. (p. 1)

From Silver on the Tree:

Will said, turning a page, "He liked woad. He says--listen--the decoction of Woad drunken is good for wounds in bodies of a strong constitution, as of country people, and such as are accustomed to great labour and hard coarse fare." (p. 1)


When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track....

The series follows the adventures of the Drew children (Simon, Jane, and Barney), Will Stanton, and Bran Davies as they find themselves enmeshed in a great cosmic war between the Light and the Dark, a war in which they fulfill a role in prophecies with the help of Merriman Lyon, the oldest of the Old Ones.

...and the grail gone before

The first in the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, is the one that is most different from the rest of the series, being less fantasy and more mystery that alludes to, but for the most part does not much depend on, larger fantasy elements. Invited to the fishing village of Trewissick, in Cornwall, by Great Uncle Merry (not literally their uncle, but a longstanding family friend), the Drews discover an ancient map and find themselves in a race to discover the long-lost grail before the sinister Mr. Hastings and his associates.

Six signs the circle...

Will Stanton, born on Midwinter's Day as the seventh son of a seventh son, discovers that he has been born into a prophetic role as the last and youngest of the Old Ones, guardians of the Light, and that his task is to gather the six signs, powerful relics that can aid the Light in turning back the Dark. Completing the circle of the Old Ones, he must complete the circle of signs; but the Dark is at its strongest in the days after Midwinter's Day, and the Rider of the Dark will stop at nothing to prevent him from succeeding. He walks a path laid out by prophecy -- but the Dark has its own prophecies, and victory cannot come without great risk.

Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea...

The grail has been stolen from the museum where it had been housed, and the Drew children return to Trewissick ready to discover how to get it back. They are very disappointed when they discover that Merry has invited a boy named Will Stanton, as well, which will make hunting for the grail much more difficulty. In Trewissick, it is the time of the Greenwitch, an ancient festival in which the townspeople make a figure out of green branches and cast it into the sea for luck. Jane will discover that the Greenwitch holds a secret on which the fate of the world depends -- and the Greenwitch is a thing of Wild Magic, with no allegiance either to the Dark or to the Light.

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold...

Will is recovering from hepatitis, which has caused him to forget something absolutely essential; he can remember nothing more about it than that it starts with "On the day of the dead". He is sent to family in Wales to recover, and there meets Bran Davies, an albino boy. Together, they unravel the secret protected by the Grey King, one of the most powerful of all the agents of the Dark, as well as the secret of Bran's past.

All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.

The Dark has begun its final rising, a rising greater than any since it was partly back by Arthur, the greatest champion of the Light, and the Old Ones prepare for their last chance to stop it. Will returns to Wales with the Drews to find the crystal sword of the Pendragon, the last great relic of the Light needed to take the silver mistletoe on the midsummer tree, which grants great power to those who have it.

Fantasy relies on seeing the world, as we know it, not as an encompassing whole but as a thing with borders, beyond which is another world in which things work very differently and which can be explored imaginatively. Proper handling of those borders is the most important element in what is usually (and sometimes misleadingly, since it need not be a border that literally divides worlds) called 'world-building' when speaking of fantasy. Much of Tolkien's pre-eminence, for instance, comes from his deft constructions and handling of borders within borders within borders -- the hobbits are over the border from the reader, but the hobbits themselves are shielded by a border from a great world, and that greater world has its own border. Once you establish the border dividing our world from the other-worldly, there are many things you can do it. The mundane can stumble into the other world; the other-worldly can intrude into the mundane; they can run in parallel; one can stay entirely on the side of the mundane but in such a way as to suggest the existence of the other-worldly; one can stay entirely on the side of the other-worldly; if your story is sophisticated enough, you can mix these in various ways. Cooper is quite good at giving us a diverse treatment. The Drews at first don't cross the threshold, but find hints of the other world; in the next book, Will crosses it; in the third and fourth, the other world intrudes on the mundane in significant ways; in the fifth, we are in a sense always on the otherworldly side, but have to cross from other world to even stranger other world. All of these are handled well.

I think the series overall struggles a bit when it comes to integrating the "three from the circle" (Merry, Will, Bran) and the "three from the track" (the Drews); indeed, I think it struggles somewhat in integrating the mundane from the other-worldly in general. Within a single book, it does not interfere with the story, although I think it is nonetheless noticeable in SOTT; OSUS avoids the problem by deferring it, and TDIR manages to hide it by interweaving the story with the liturgical and paraliturgical elements of the Christmas season (somewhat ironically, since TDIR also makes clear that the series assumes a non-Christian cosmos). But the scale of things in the last three books is so great that the world of the Drews and the world of the Old Ones sometimes jar against each other a bit. Nonetheless, one needs both. For one thing, it is only because of the Drews that we can take the Light to be actually good, rather than just a different faction in a largely inexplicable war; we learn already in TDIR that the Light can be rather ruthless, and it is strongly hinted in TGK that Will's serious illness was simply a tactical move by the Light. The Light does benefit from the associations with Arthurian legend, but the associations are all stripped of exactly those things that would mark the Light as unequivocally good -- Arthur is not a Christian king, and the grail is not an instrument of divine grace. It is really the Drews who provide a reference point that lets us treat the victory of the Light as the victory of good.

TDIR is in many ways the best book of the series. I remembered liking Greenwitch quite well on my last reading, and I think it actually holds up. It is usually regarded as the weakest in the series (and I have held the same at some point), but having read it again, I'm still inclined to think it the second best, although its story is complicated somewhat by being the first book in the series definitely to make the series a series; OSUS and TDIR could practically stand alone, since the only thing relating them before Greenwitch starts tying them together is Merriman Lyon. It is also, I think, only Greenwitch that gives the Light an unambiguously moral victory; OSUS shows the cleverness of the Drews and TDIR the determination of Will, TGK gives us a victory that is (unsurprisingly) grey and mixed, and the victory in SOTT is so abstract as to border on allegorical, but the victory of the Light in Greenwitch depends entirely on human compassion. The series trades very heavily on the moral overtones of 'Light' and 'Dark', but for most of the series, you could just name them 'Red' and 'Blue' without all that much change, beyond the fact that "The Blue is rising" lacks that ominous and urgency-inducing ring. But Greenwitch is a struggle not just between the Light and the Dark, but between light and dark in precisely a moral sense.

Besides some excellent characterization and 'world-building', the series also is strengthened by the fact that there many very memorable scenes -- the dog Rufus coming to the rescue in OSUS, the Christmas party and also the flood in TDIR, the agent of the dark painting his spell and also the rise of the Wild Magic in Greenwitch, the riddle test in TGK, and the train to the midsummer tree in SOTT stand out particularly.

Favorite Passage: A part of one of the strongest portions of Greenwitch, a point at which it makes a forceful turn:

"You are a made creature only, you will do as I say!" Arrogance sharpened the man's tone, gave it an edge of command. "Give the thing to me, at once, before the Dark shall blast you out of this world!"

The children felt Captain Toms gently but urgently drawing them all back against the wall, into a corner almost cut off from the spot where the two figures confronted one another on the quay. Nervously they moved as they were told.

From the blackness that was the Greenwitch came a hair-raising sound: a long low lamenting, like a moan, rising and falling in a mumbling whine. Then it stopped, and the creature began muttering to itself, broken words that they could not make out. Then there was silence for a moment and all at once it said very clearly, "You have not the full power of the Dark." (p. 107)

Recommendation: Recommended.


Susan Cooper, Over Sea, Under Stone, Aladdin (New York: 1989).

The Dark Is Rising, Aladdin (New York: 1986).

Greenwitch, Margaret K. McElderry Books (New York: 2013).

The Grey King, Collier (New York: 1986).

Silver on the Tree, Collier (New York: 1986).

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