Helen (Helena/Nell)'s Reviews > The Dark is Rising Sequence

The Dark is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper
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Apr 08, 12

Recommended to Helen (Helena/Nell) by: Winifred McEwen
Read from February 01 to April 01, 2012, read count: 1

There are five novels in this sequence, which is for young readers, perhaps nine upwards, I’d guess, though ten is suggested on the jackets. I missed them in my own childhood. The first (Over Sea, Under Stone) must have seen the light of day in the early seventies, and by then I was seventeen or eighteen and had read The Lord of the Rings several times, as well as a huge range of science fantasy for adults. But had I been ten when it was first printed, I would have loved it.

I would have loved it because I was a sucker for anything with magic in it. Now, going back, I worry about that a bit, because some of the things I loved were neither well-written nor well-conceived. At the age of nearly fifty-nine I wonder whether some adult influence might have introduced me to the mysteries of science, rather than science fiction. But the imagination was my master, and to some extent that continues to be true.

I imagine that anyone who read this sequence, and loved it, at the right age would battle to the death on its behalf. Even at my age, I can witness to the fact that the pace is compelling, that the style is slick and convincing, that there is at least one strong female character (thank goodness). Of the five novels, The Dark is Rising is the second, Greenwitch the third, The Grey King the fourth, and Silver on the Tree the last.

So what’s the plot?

Will Stanton, the youngest of the children in the series, is also one of the ‘Old Ones’, which is a bit like being a Time Lord in Doctor Who. He is the seventh son of a seventh son, and he must be the character most kids would identify with, unless you’re a girl, in which case you may be stuck with Jane Drew. Not quite so sure about Jane. “The world where we live is a world of men, ordinary men, and although in it there is the Old Magic of the earth, and the Wild Magic of living things, it is men who control what the world shall be like.”

Okay and . . .

“. . . beyond the world is the universe, bound by the law of the High Magic, as every universe must be. And beneath the High Magic are two . . . poles . . . that we call the Dark and the Light. No other power orders them. They merely exist. The Dark seeks by its dark nature to influence men so that in the end, through them, it may control the earth. The Light has the task of stopping that from happening.”

Needless to say, Will (who is young but Old) is on the side of the Light and so are the other children, and their great uncle “Merriman” who disappears into the twilight at the end (sorry, that’s a spoiler, though you would have guessed anyway) and is also, probably, Merlin. There’s a lot of Arthur in this sequence, but also various other mythological threads, and Herne the Hunter drops in more than once. (Herne really gets around in children’s fiction and one day perhaps someone will draw some conclusions about that.)

“From time to time the Dark has come rising and has been driven back” and this sequence focuses on the biggest rising of all. For the children the task is to “drive it back, so that the world of men may be free.”

Yes, it is a bit vague, but on the other hand, Dark is not exactly bad, and Light is not exactly good, which is in Susan Cooper’s favour. There are bits of prophetic poetry here and there, from which the favourable outcomes can always be predicted. And some of the well-tried recipes for children’s fiction are operational: no parents in evidence, for example. Children pitched against villains and defeating them. Children with insight that adults do not have. And lots of mystical language and allusion. In two of the novels, Welsh names and terms are particularly evocative.

I think, of the five novels, the title novel –The Dark is Rising – which is where Will Stanton comes into his own, is the strongest. It is set at Christmas, in England, and the Dark invokes mammoth snow (among other things) and the pace is wonderful. But all the five books are readable, enjoyable, do that thing, whatever it is, create a spell.

I worry a bit about the mixing of myth in children’s fiction. While reading this I had at the back of my mind Alan Garner (who also draws on the Mabinogion, but far more disturbingly and more consistently, and as he goes on, he is not really writing for children); J R R Tolkien (because you can’t read this without being aware of the influence); E Nesbit; J K Rowlings; John Masefield; and C S Lewis. By no means a comprehensive list, of course.

On balance, I think Lewis is strengthened by being able to draw on one consistent myth – the Christian story, in which he believed, though many of his readers may not. Tolkien is head and shoulders above the rest, to me, because he creates a whole world of his own, in a way that has never been paralleled (but then I would say this, because I have been his slave since I was about ten years old). Rowlings scrapes up scraps and remoulds them, and they are scraps that work again and again: witches and Old Stuff and no parents in the vicinity. Masefield invokes Herne the Hunter too, but also history and poetry and dream.

I don’t think Susan Cooper believes in Arthurian legend in the same way that Lewis believes in Christianity, though there may be a credible pantheistic thing going on. I don’t know a lot about Susan Cooper, but I think it to her credit that she conceived this sequence as five short novels and stuck to that. No sequels. No spillage. No merchandising.

On the downside, she uses the word ‘malevolent’ and ‘malevolence’ an awful lot. When the Dark creeps up, so does a feeling of imminent malevolence. It takes over everything. Something impish in me wants to banish this by slightly taking the piss, and I’m reminded that Joss Whedon, who exploits the whole nineteenth century vampire myth-kitty, manages to have fun at the same time.

So in the end, I’m not sure how good I think these novels are. I’m only sure that I’m now the wrong age to judge. But when I was the age to have enjoyed them, I am sure they would have had me riveted. I hope I would have emerged with my sense of humour intact, but I’m not 100% sure.
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