As I make my way to ALA Annual, I’d like to talk about one of my favorite series, written by an author who will be awarded for writing it at ALA Anaheim 2012. Susan Cooper, I’d say it’s well-deserved.
The Dark Is Rising: The Complete Sequence
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010 (omnibus edition)
Over Sea, Under Stone, 1965
The Dark Is Rising, 1973
The Grey King, 1975
Silver on the Tree, 1977
Simon, Jane & Barnabas Drew – goodhearted & resourceful, but un-magical
Will Stanton – young but Old
Merriman Lyon – little bit Indiana Jones, little bit Gandalf, a lot Merlin
Bran Davies – mysterious albino harp player of the Welsh mountains
The Black Rider – evil
Caradog Pritchard – human but twisted by jealousy
Those Whom The Dark Embodies – variously evil, whether in yachts or in caravans
The Dark is Rising! Well, technically it’s been rising for hundreds of years. But now things are getting serious and the Old Ones need work quickly. They have to depend on the help of children: three resourceful siblings, the last, youngest member of the Old Ones, and a surprising progeny appearing out of time. Or else the world will be a truly terrible place.
How did you encounter this series?
I was stuck on Narnia for a long, long time and had never heard of Susan Cooper or this series until I was wandering the stacks of the School of Information Science Library in search of something suitable for my booktalking assignment for my Children’s Services course. And there was The Dark is Rising. A book about an epic snow in a small English town, and the discovery of old knowledge and new responsibilities for its protagonist, Will Stanton. Cozy and cold, mythic and childhood-nostalgic, hopeful and thrilling each have their place in this book. It was the perfect thing to curl up with in a silent, chilly Brutalist university building under the guise of classwork. I still can’t think of a better book to read on a snowy day.
It’s four days until Christmas and one day until Will’s birthday. Will is happy in his crowded house with all his brothers and sisters – the only thing he can wish for is more snow, “beautiful, deep, blanketing snow” so it feels like a real holiday. His sister chops onions to season a meal in the warm kitchen as Will goes to feed the rabbits with his brother. His family is the kind who walks to the neighboring farms to sing carols and drink hot cider in celebration of Christmas. They live the kind of poor but idyllic life that sounds so appealing in books – the kind where hard work yields greater appreciation for family and the gifts of nature.
Something’s off, though, and it’s not just the thin, gray snowfall. The rabbits huddle in the corner of their hutch, afraid of the smell of Will’s hands. The radio blasts static when Will walks by. The crows in the grove of horse-chestnuts spring up and wheel around uneasily the sky when he passes. On the road, Will says he sees “a weird-looking man all hunched over, and when he saw me looking he ran off behind a tree. Scuttled, like a beetle.” When Will mentions it to Mr. Dawson, his neighbor, Dawson just says “The Walker is abroad.”
And so Will, though he doesn’t know it yet, is introduced to the world of old knowledge, situations and phrases that seem plain but are otherworldy. As a reader, I was powerless to resist a book with this combination of rural life and eerie signs.
Plus, it had rad illustrations by Alan Cober:
photo by flickr user Ojimbo
Cooper, who won the 2012 Margaret A. Edwards award for this very work, is concerned with how good can defeat evil. The Edwards committee describes it thus: “one of the most influential epic high fantasies in literature, Cooper evokes Celtic and Arthurian mythology and masterly world-building in a high-stakes battle between good and evil.”
Cooper prefers the terms Dark and Light to good and evil, and interestingly, the Light side here is ready to sacrifice things for its cause – it can come off as cold and practical. That trait speaks to Cooper’s ambition for the scale of her story. It’s epic on both sides, it encompasses three different kinds of magic as well as at least two different belief systems/mythologies, and the network of dark and light spans the world. But she doesn’t forget that humans are at the heart of the struggle, and her human characters are essential to the battle, as well as human imperfection. As Merriman says: “Every human being who loves another loves imperfection, for there is no perfect being on this earth–nothing is so simple as that.”
There’s so much to cover! Each book is centered around finding an item or items that will allow the Light to overpower the Dark side, and the searches happen to have to involve youth and unsuspecting humans. Here’s a list of the things that need to be recovered over the course of the books:
- The Six Signs (wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, and stone)
- The Grail
- The Harp of Gold
- The Crystal Sword
Although most of the stories center in either Cornwall (the seaside), Buckinghamshire (the forest), or Wales (the mountains), the last book takes place in a land out of time and space. Giving each book a quest in a small location but imbuing it with big implications that stretch out across time ensures that the series has tension and balance. The smaller quests draw the reader into the books, while the larger quest draws the books together into the sequence. It’s both mysterious and comforting, and I think that great balance in construction and tone is one of the reasons it has remained a fantasy classic.
What are the books’ intentions and are they achieved?
You don’t have to take my word for it, these books are influential and award-winning for a reason. I remembered being initially enthralled on my first read, and was able to read all five in under a month on my second read with the same amount of enthusiasm.
Let me make a list of how these books achieve their greatness:
1. exploration-type adventure
Can we all agree that exploring things is fun? Cooper’s characters get to explore their surroundings, usually in search of something, using clues (as in the first and third books), or exploring one’s familiar home surroundings with new eyes (as in the second book), or exploring the legendary past with a real life person from it (the fourth and fifth books).
2. historical mysteriousness
King Arthur and his dudebros feature heavily in these books. You don’t have to be an Arthur nerd from way back to enjoy this. You can simply revel in the way the plot doesn’t falter under the weight of the heavy literary baggage that comes with Arthurian legend. Like a fine batter, it incorporates, and even adds some pagan fun (“fun”) into the mix. This is the stuff of tragic folk songs ONLY OLDER. The books have pedigree, and they treat it with pomp.
3. noble cause
Like many fantasies this book has a world that lives behind our world and behind what we see, but this one is very close to us. The Old Ones live all around us, and they rely on us not ever expecting their magic to be real to keep themselves hidden. The world that Will, Merriman, and the Drews are working to save is very much their world and our world, made out of the darkness and light in everyday life, and so the cause matters all the more. In one scene, Will encounters a bigoted man and thinks that:
“From the moment when he had heard the man in the car begin to shout, and seen the look in his eyes, he had been no Stanton at all but wholly an Old One, dreadfully and suddenly aware of danger. The mindless ferocity of this man, and all those like him, their real loathing born of nothing more solid than insecurity and fear… it was a channel. Will knew that he had been gazing into the channel down which the powers of the Dark, if they gained their freedom, could ride in an instant to complete control of the earth.”
And then, the Light comes back in an equally quotidian way:
“Tea was laid out on the orange wicker table, glass-topped, that stood outdoors with its matching chairs in high summer. Will’s spirits began to rise. For an Old One with the tastes and appetite of a small boy, it was hard to despair for long over the eternal fallibility of mankind when confronted with home-made bread, farm butter, sardine-and-tomato paste, raspberry jam, scones, and Mrs. Stanton’s delicious, delicate, unmatchable sponge cake.”
4. real danger
There are snows that threaten an entire village. A man’s life and livelihood ruined by suspicion and jealousy, which makes him go and change the course of the lives around him. Servants make wrong decisions and exist in a limbo of fear for hundreds of years, and their minds are warped so much they can’t even save themselves when help is offered. A slimy, isolated, covetous totem of the sea haunts the mind of a girl:
“she knew suddenly, out there in the cold dawn, that this silent image somehow held within it more power than she had ever sensed before in any creature or thing. Thunder and storms and earthquakes were there, and all the force of the earth and sea. It was outside Time, boundless, ageless, beyond any line drawn between good and evil. Jane stared at it, horrified, and from its sightless head the Greenwitch stared back. it would not move, or seem to come alive, she knew that. Her horror came not from fear, but from the awareness she suddenly felt form the image of an appalling, endless loneliness.”
5. deep magic
Not only do we have the kind of magic that existed at the Round Table, passed down in an awesome (I say that with full meaning) way through the Book of Grammarye, there is also even older magic. I like to call it space magic in my head, but that’s just me. This is the stuff that can be used for such unearthly things as this accident:
“He could never explain, afterwards, how he came to stumble. He could only have said, very simply, that the mountain shrugged. … The mountain did shrug,… so that a piece of the path beneath Will’s feet jumped perceptibly to one side and back again, like a cat humping its back, and Will saw it with sick horror only in the moment that he lost his balance and went rolling down.”
6. modern but ancient (and gorgeous) locales
I want to go to everywhere that is in this book. The hedges, paths, stone walls, sheep cottages, creeks, boulder-strewn mountains, and cliff-buttressed seas are wonderfully described. Here’s one small moment from Silver on the Tree that exemplifies the natural detail thrown into the descriptions:
“Jane peered closely at hedgerow and field as the car turned out into the lane, and saw Barney gazing too, but there was no sign of anything except white fool’s parsley, and rose-bay willow-herb tall in the grass, and the sweep of the tall green hedges above.”
And here at the beginning of The Grey King:
“The earth smelled clean. Yarrow and ragwort starred the hedgerows white and yellow, with the red berries of the hawthorn thick above them; the sweeping slopes where the valley began to rise were golden-brown with bracken, dry as tinder in this strange Indian-summer sun. Hazy on the horizon all around, the mountains lay like sleeping animals, their muted colours changing with every hour of the day from brown to green to purple and softly back again.”
7. you matter
All this magic and legend wouldn’t mean half so much if it weren’t anchored to humanity. There’s a clear division between the Old Ones and what humans are, and the Old Ones clearly need the humans to win, even if they don’t share the same morality (for lack of a better word). It’s Will’s family and the sea captain of the house that the Drews rent in Cornwall, and the good sheep farmers in Wales that make the world worth saving. Cooper writes these people in so you know them.
The Snow Spider / Jenny Nimmo / 1986
The first in a trilogy, though I’ve only read this one. It’s set in Wales and involves sheep and magic and is utterly charming. It captured my imagination when I read it as a kid. But there’s a darkness in there, too.
Under the Mountain / Maurice Gee / 1987
More on the sci-fi tip, it’s a story about twins on vacation in Auckland, New Zealand,who discover that there are creatures posing as humans under a mountain. Tense creepfests ensue.
Disclosures & Digressions
1. I’ve never seen the movie they made based on the second book, and I suggest you do the same. And so does Susan Cooper: “You do have to do violence to a book to make it into a screenplay — the two mediums are so different,” Cooper says. “But the alteration is so enormous in this case. It is just different.” from this NPR piece on the books and their transition to a movie.
2. There was less food than I had expected! I always expect a lot of food in fantasy/quest stories so I tried to keep track. Here’s the pages that I managed to mark, saying the things they ate:
“a stack of fresly-baked scones cut in half, thickly buttered and put together again; a packet of squashed-fly biscuits; three apples; and a great slab of dark-yellowy-orange cake, thick and crumbling with fruit.” (21)
“a dish of gooseberry tart and a small jug of cream.” (50)
“three plates of cold mackerel and salad covered up on the kitchen table, left for their lunch.” (157)
a sandwich: “the bread was soft and new, with plenty of butter, and in the middle there was some delicious kind of potted meat.” (175)
“two fried eggs, thick slices of home-cured bacon, and hot flat Welsh-cakes, like miniature pancakes fleck with currants.” (750)
the afore-quoted “home-made bread, farm butter, sardine-and-tomato paste, raspberry jam, scones, and Mrs. Stanton’s delicious, delicate, unmatchable sponge cake.” (863)
It’s a wonder these children aren’t diabetic with massively high cholesterol.
3. I hereby call for a reissue with the old Alan Cober covers. You can’t improve on them, and they didn’t try very hard (I’m sensing they were going for boy appeal in the redesign and ended up in Clip Art Purgatory). This is worse than replacing Stephen Gammell’s iconic Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark illustrations, because at least they replaced him with another real artist, Brett Helquist (they still shouldn’ta done it, but anyway). Please compare:
More images here: