Posts Tagged ‘Susan Cooper’

The Dark is Rising

May 14, 2013

The Dark is RisingI 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.

Over Sea Under StoneThat 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. The Grey KingThis 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.

GreenwitchThe 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.

Silver on the TreeIn Silver on the Tree, the tree of the title is in the Chilterns. This is the scene when they find it:

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.

Folio Society editions of The Dark is Rising

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When I grow up, I want to be …

June 18, 2010

I was looking through some children’s book reviews in the bookshop, when a particular title leapt out at me – The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper. I was instantly transported to being eleven-years-old, when I was utterly immersed in Will’s quest to fight The Dark.

For those of you who missed out on this particular episode of childhood fantasy adventure, the series of books boils down to Good versus Evil, with the main character discovering that essentially it’s all down to him.

Several fantasy plots reduce down to this Manichean scheme. It’s very appealing, especially to a child. It’s a world in which everything is completely black and white – the goodies and the baddies – and the reader fiercely empathises with the main character, who goes on the quest to make sure that goodness prevails. Like Will in The Dark is Rising, or Ged (aka Sparrowhawk) in Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, or Lyra in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy.

I read a lot of books when I was a child. And I loved all those questy fantasy adventures. And spending so much time with my head in between the pages, I emerged believing that I too had a Quest. Of course, I soon realised that I couldn’t do actual magic. But for a long time I thought I was psychic.

I used to play a game with my mother in which I’d tell her to think very very strongly of a particular letter. Then I’d sit down next to her – sometimes I’d have to place a hand on her forehead – and I’d imagine brightly-coloured letters of the alphabet jumping over a fence. There would always be one particular letter which wouldn’t make it over the fence and that was the one.

‘It’s P, isn’t it?’ I’d declare, confident of my psychic prowess.

‘No, darling, it’s not.’

‘Then you’re not thinking of it strongly enough. Let’s try again.’

The process would be repeated.

‘I’ve got it, is it R?’

‘No, darling. Getting warmer though.’

‘Hmm… oh, is it T?’

‘Um, yes, that’s right.’

I don’t think she ever let me guess too many times – it can’t have been the funnest game for a grown-up, after all. And sometimes, quite understandably, she said yes straightaway. Because I was psychic.

I really truly believed that I had these special psychic powers. It was a bit confusing when I didn’t have the same hit rate practising on my friends. But I assumed that either they didn’t have sufficient concentration for the letter to be communicated, or that perhaps it was a special psychic bond between my mother and me. I think it wasn’t until I was seventeen or so that it occurred to me she might not have been telling the truth.

My psychic powers would be key to saving the world in the battle of Good versus Evil. I was genuinely very worried about the fact that I couldn’t ride a horse properly (unlike my cousins), because I would probably need to for the adventures that were going to come my way. But at least I was good at reading signs.

I remember sitting by a tree in our garden and suddenly being absolutely certain that I had to cut off a twig of that tree and keep it somewhere safe (in a shoebox) because when the whole world was blown up, it would be the only surviving piece of nature and I’d have to plant it somewhere in order for life to continue on our planet.

I just knew.

I also knew that I was incredibly special and gifted and important, and one day I would have to save the world. Perhaps it was because, as my brothers are so much older, attention was lavished upon me as though I were an only child.

I remember telling my mother one night before I went to sleep:

‘Mum, I know this sounds funny, but I think I’m a prophet.’

‘Now darling why do you think that?’

‘Because I feel I’m going to do really important things.’

‘Well darling, I’m sure you will do really important things.’

‘I know I will.’

‘Perhaps when you’re older you might be Prime Minister like Margaret Thatcher.’

‘No, I don’t want to be Prime Minister, I’m going to be a prophet.’

In my eleven-plus interview for a rather precocious North London school, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up:

‘I think I’m going to be a bit like the Pope.’

The lady tried to smother a laugh. ‘The Pope? Now, why do you want to be like the Pope?’

‘I think he leads a very peaceful and important life. Isn’t he on some island at the moment?’

I’m not sure why they offered me a place. I didn’t even say I wanted to be a Rabbi. Mind you, when one of my brothers was trying to get into Eton, he  said he wanted to be a professional snooker player when he grew up. He ended up going to Harrow instead.

I did eventually realise that I wasn’t going to be a prophet. I thought for a while about being a poet – it was another way of channelling these very important thoughts that occurred to me into words for the masses. And, as I entered teenagerhood, I gave more thought to being Prime Minister. The problem was, try as I might, I couldn’t find politics all that interesting. The highlight of History GCSE was learning the exotic words Perestroika and Glasnost.

It must have been when it came to choosing A-levels that my belief that I was going to save the world really began to waver. It was suddenly clear that the four subjects I had to pick were going to define not just what I would learn for the next two years, but also at university and then my job and then the rest of my life. Suddenly Good versus Evil and exciting Quests to Save the World were completely out of the picture.

And I was reading books like The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby, which don’t particularly inspire one on to epic adventures.

As I grew older still, horizons got narrower and less and less intrepid. Even becoming Prime Minister became out of the question, as I never went to debates, or bothered with the hacks at the Oxford Union.

It was after my first year at Oxford that I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. This was after a year of reading Dickens and Eliot and Joyce and trying to think very seriously about what these important pieces of literature meant. So it was extraordinary to read these books that reminded me of being a child. The books are partly set in Oxford and yet it’s not really Oxford at all. In Oxford nobody has adventures and goes on quests; they’re too busy thinking about poststructuralism and having essay crises, or dressing up in black tie so they can vomit their way through an induction to some society or rugby team.

I cried at the end of those books. It was in part due to the ending, but it was also because they plucked at a delicate strand of nostalgia. I remembered the little girl who was determined to save the world, who had been buried under years of sobering, boring real life.

When I gave up my office job in publishing in order to write, that little girl was peeping out again, telling me ‘Yes, it is fun helping to make books, but you never wanted to grow up just to sit at a desk in a sterile office all day in which your main form of communication is email (which isn’t psychic at all).’

It can make me feel sad when I look at what some people do for a living. Did anyone really say, aged seven, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a banker’? There are exceptions, of course. There was one girl at school, who said from the age of eleven that she wanted to be a media lawyer; of course she became one. And I doubt she read particularly imaginative books.

But where are all the astronauts and the firemen? Where are the adventurers and the polar explorers? Some people do it. Some become doctors, having felt the calling as nine-year-olds, some become journalists and directors and other things that they’ve always dreamt of. My brother may not have become a professional snooker player, but he has become a concert pianist, which was his other dream.

And no I’m not a prophet, I’m not off on a Quest, and I’m not even Prime Minister. Perhaps it was because I never properly learnt to ride a horse. Like everyone else, I have to live in a real world filled with boring bureaucratic hassles of paying council tax and registering with a local GP. I’m not a writer whose books have been translated into several different languages, who gives talks to packed auditoriums, who anyone’s even remotely heard of. But I haven’t yet given up on the hope that while my writing might not save the world, one day it might make its own little impact.