Dorothea's Reviews > The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
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Nov 09, 2011

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Read in October, 2011

** spoiler alert ** I loved this book very much in my early teens. Unfortunately it was a disappointing re-read. The imagery is still very beautiful, but I now find the worldbuilding unsatisfying.

It suffers from the unquestioning existence of Good and Evil labels. The Good are good because they are born that way. Merriman, the protagonist's teacher, places great emphasis on the burden of being for the Light, which I now find disturbing, not noble: their burden is that they have to be misunderstood by the ordinary people about them, and especially that they have to sacrifice the people about them. This includes memory-wipes to protect from what the Good deem unilaterally to be too much knowledge, and also the changing and endangering of ordinary people's lives, mandated by the rules of the magic that the Good serve. In the end, as with many fantasy stories, the Good side seems to be good based mainly on poetic associations -- light, Christmas, warmth.

The Evil are said to become evil by choice. This might give some opportunity for interesting, humanizing characterization of the evil characters, but it does not in the case of the "Rider" (who is marked as evil mainly by the sinister feeling he produces in the protagonist) or of Maggie Barnes, who is the only character in the book to express any sort of sexuality, and who is referred to dismissively by the eleven-year-old protagonist as "the girl."


The one character whose choice of evil we do get to see is the Walker. We learn that he was an orphan, Merriman's liege man who loved him like a father. Because of their bond, he was chosen to be part of a spell protecting the Book of Gramarye. Using this spell, when Merriman retrieved the Book for the protagonist, he used the Walker's life as collateral. The Walker was shocked to realize that Merriman was willing to risk his death, and decided to betray him. Even though Merriman (in godlike fashion) understood how the Walker would choose, he cursed him to continue to help the side of Light by carrying one of its symbols for hundreds of years, living as a tramp and never being allowed even to die.

Besides seeing this situation as weighted against the Walker, on this reading I realized that the story is also assigning moral value to feudal loyalty. It would have best helped the Light if the Walker had accepted that it was right for Merriman to use his life for his cause. Instead he wanted to be Merriman's moral equal -- as Merriman puts it, "he loves as a man, wanting proof of love in return." But in the morality of the story, Merriman and the Light are too great to be able to relate to the Walker with equality; what they take from him is different from what they give to him, and when he protests that the taking is too much, they give him misery.

Other parts of the story also promote this idea of traditional, hierarchical relations. Most explicitly is the later episode in which the Dark is assailing the village with winter storms and the local gentrywoman offers to shelter everyone in her hall. The protagonist's father's refusal to take his own family there is presented as stubborn, prejudiced pride which has to be overcome. Then, the scene of the villagers gathered around the aristocrat is one of appropriate protection, beautiful and harmonious.

These things are mostly subtle, but they align the old, patriarchal social order with the Light -- another unfortunate tendency common to many fantasy stories.
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Nikki I think the Light/Dark dichotomy is dealt with more subtly in later books: e.g. in The Grey King or Silver on the Tree, John Rowlands says to Will that the Old Ones are cruel, and that the absolute good they serve doesn't seem all that good at times. And in Silver on the Tree, Will talks about how the Black and White Riders represent people locked up in the darkness of their heads or blinded by their shining ideals...

It's very interesting to bring my knowledge of feudalism to bear on Merriman and the Walker, and on Mrs Greythorne. I'd never thought of it like that before. Thank you.

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