I began re-reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising quintet at Christmas. I was staying at my Mum’s and one night I found I was unable to sleep, having snoozed through most of the afternoon. Looking through the bookshelves of my childhood, filled with Beatrix Potter, Swallows and Amazons, the multi-coloured Children’s Britannica, and other nostalgic delights, I alighted on this slim collection of novels with way-out fantasy covers. I remember being so terrified by the cover of The Dark is Rising (the second in the series) that I couldn’t sleep with it turned upwards by my bed, and always had to leave it face down, preferably safely hidden underneath another book.
That night I re-read, cover-to-cover, Over Sea, Under Stone, which is the first in the series. It is about the three Drew children who go on holiday to Cornwall. They stay in an old house, where they discover an old map and they soon find themselves on a quest for King Arthur’s grail. Funny how in children’s literature, when you go on holiday you tend to find yourself on a very exciting quest, whereas in adult literature, you go on holiday and either fall in love or discover something about yourself. Even now I’m a grown-up, I’d rather my holidays followed the first plot line.
This family adventure story that’s set in a Cornwall steeped in Arthurian legend is great fun, but it doesn’t begin to prepare you for the books that are to come.
The Dark is Rising, which I read a couple of weeks later when feeling poorly, is a terrifying coming-of-age story. It begins on Midwinter’s Eve, the night before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday:
It was then, without warning, that the fear came.
The first wave caught him as he was crossing the room to his bed. It halted him stock-still in the middle of the room, the howl of the wind outside filling his ears. The snow lashed against the window. Will was suddenly deadly cold, yet tingling all over. He was so frightened that he could not move a finger … there was only a dreadful darkness in his mind, a sense of looking into a great black pit.
It’s a brilliant description of terror, which we soon learn is an expression of the Dark. Will Stanton discovers that he is the last of The Old Ones, a force for the Light. He is about to embark on his first quest for the Light, helped on his way by Merriman Lyon, who we met in the first book.
This gives a new resonance to children’s common fear of the dark. Throughout the books, the Dark’s presence is often felt psychologically – a dark fug of fear not a million miles from J.K. Rowling’s Dementors – rather than physically. This idea is explored again in the character Caradog Prichard in the fourth book of the series, The Grey King. Caradog is clearly not a good person, but Will suddenly understands the awful full implication of this:
Will was filled with an overpowering compassion: an awareness of what must inevitably overtake Caradog Prichard if he were not checked, now, for always, in this passion before it was too late. Stop he longed to call to him: stop, before the Grey King sees you and puts out his hand in friendship, and you, unwitting, take it and are destroyed…
Man’s ambition and weakness can be taken advantage of by the Dark for its own terrible ends.
In The Dark is Rising, Cooper is very good at depicting the challenges and contradictions of Will’s double life. One minute he’s the youngest child in a big family, sparring with his older brothers, saving up pocket money for Christmas presents, feeding the rabbits. The next he’s on a terrifying magical quest, trying to save the world from the forces of the Dark.
Of course Will’s situation is greatly exaggerated, but I remember a similar feeling from childhood of having a whole complicated imaginary world which was completely separate from adult reality. Whether it was from reading books, or playing games, or organising midnight feasts, there was always something going on which felt top secret, that the grown-ups wouldn’t understand and that had to be concealed from them at boring moments like supper or home-time. Cooper brilliantly captures this feeling of a child’s life being an intersection of different worlds.
The Drew children re-appear, alongside Will Stanton, in the third book, Greenwitch, which is a kind of feminine Wicker Man. Then there’s The Grey King – every bit as terrifying as The Dark is Rising, when Will stays with some cousins in Wales, where he meets the mysterious albino boy Bran. Finally, there’s Silver on the Tree, which brings all the characters together in the ultimate test of good versus evil.
There is much to enjoy in this quest-filled quintet, but above all, I love the way the series is so firmly rooted in the British landscape, inspired by British stories and traditions. The Grey King, for instance, centres on Welsh tropes. At the heart of the story is the Brenin Llwyd, traditionally a Celtic King who lives in the Snowdonian mountain Cader Idris. Cooper casts him as a force for the Dark. Will has to find a golden harp – a Welsh object if ever there was one – and there is even an important sheepdog.
Then the last of the mist blew away, and in the dim light beneath the lowering sky they saw a line of trees before them, a wood of beech trees capping a round chalk hill – and, gradually appearing on the slope in front of the wood, a single huge tree … It was an oak tree, more vast and ancient than any tree they had ever seen.
I’m not sure there could be a more English landscape!
These books are about oak trees and other trees and the folklore of English wildflowers and Welsh mountains. They are about Celtic myth and Arthurian legend, and about the Old Ways – ancient paths through the landscape that have magical powers of protection (Robert Macfarlane should take note).
Cooper often transports her characters from the present day to an ancient time, while keeping the place the same. It is a wonderful way of capturing the layers of history encapsulated in the landscape, or as Macfarlane would put it, the land’s ‘storiations’.
Susan Cooper wrote Over Sea, Under Stone when she was working at The Sunday Times in London. The rest of the quintet came later, however, once she’d moved to America. Cooper was very homesick and in an interview on her website she says:
I was so homesick that when I went home to Wales to visit my parents a few months after moving, my husband later said he was afraid I wouldn’t come back … My homesickness never went away. It bubbled up into The Dark Is Rising, a fantasy about the Light and the Dark that is at the same time intensely English, every inch of it set in the part of Buckinghamshire where I grew up.
Perhaps this vivid conjuring of British landscape in the books helped to ease her homesickness. It certainly transports the reader to the various settings, making me long to go to Cornwall, Wales and Buckinghamshire.
I loved re-reading these books from my childhood and found they had definitely stood the test of time. I find children’s books are best read when feeling a little overtired or poorly – there is something about the imaginative quests and the elemental background of good versus evil which really takes hold of my mind when it’s already feeling somewhat unhinged from reality. I think next time I read The Dark is Rising sequence will be when I go on a staycation to Wales, Cornwall or Buckinghamshire. They would definitely bring a new resonance to the landscape and who knows, perhaps the holiday would take a more adventurous turn.
And for those of you who are either terrified by the old Michael Heslop covers or unimpressed by the current Penguin ones, you might be tempted by these completely beautiful editions with illustrations by Laura Carlin, recently published by The Folio Society.