I recently revisited a children’s fantasy series I first read in the 1970s — Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence. I loved it in the 70s, but what would it be like now?
Fortunately, aside from a few elements that felt a little old fashioned, it held up well. It’s a rather odd series, though. Although such terms weren’t in use back then (at least, not in the UK), it seems to vary between what would now be regarded as middle grade and young adult, and from traditional adventure to surrealism, with some books sharing very few characters in common.
And it all works beautifully.
Susan Cooper was born in 1935 and is, at time of writing, still alive. After attending Oxford University, where she became the first woman to edit the university magazine Cherwell, she worked as a journalist (Ian Fleming was her boss at one stage) before moving to the US in 1963 to marry an American academic. Cooper’s literary output is extremely varied, spanning adult and children’s fiction, children’s picture books, biography, drama and screenplays. She’s been given or nominated for many awards, including a nomination for the high-status international Hans Christian Andersson Award.
The first book in the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, was published in 1965. Written initially for a contest in honour of E. Nesbit (though never entered for it), it’s a fairly conventional children’s adventure with a few magical elements, Three children, siblings Simon, Jane and Barney, are on holiday in Cornwall with their “Great Uncle” Merry (the relationship is entirely honorary). Just as in innumerable Enid Blyton tales, they become involved in a race with the “bad guys” to find a very special treasure.
The difference here is that the treasure is the Holy Grail, a few people on both sides have magical powers, and the context is an ongoing war between the Light and the Dark.
The ending of Over Sea, Under Stone implied a sequel at least, but it wasn’t until 1973 that the second book was published, and may not have been what Cooper originally had in mind. The defining book from which the series takes its name, The Dark Is Rising has a different setting and an almost entirely different set of characters. Not to mention an extremely different tone.
This tells of Will Stanton, a member of a very large family (it’s revealed that he’s the seventh son of a seventh son) who discovers on his eleventh birthday that he’s actually the last-born of the Old Ones, ancient magical guardians of the Light, who must be ready when the Dark comes rising. Where Simon, Jane and Barney are barely aware of the magic around them, Will dives deep into its heart. While learning his role as an Old One, he must search for six objects of power that can drive back the Dark. And he finds that the moral choices aren’t always easy, with the Light sometimes acting questionably towards individuals in order to defend the world.
The first two books in the series have only one real link: Merry, who appears in the second book as Merriman and is gradually revealed through the series to be Merlin. The third book, however, brings all the characters together.
In Greenwitch, the Grail has been stolen, so Merriman takes Simon, Jane and Barney back to Cornwall to search for it. He also brings Will with him, who as far as they know is just some random kid they have to keep their secret from.
Much of the siblings’ quest has a similar tone to the first book, while Merriman and Will are searching the magical world, including a hazardous trip to the deep ocean. However, the heart of the story is the relationship Jane develops with the Greenwitch, an ancient ritual idol that’s actually conscious. In the end, it’s Jane’s kindness to the Greenwitch that saves the day.
The fourth book, The Grey King, changes direction again. Sent to the west coast of Wales to recuperate from a serious illness (engineered by the Old Ones, his supposed allies), Will meets a strange, magical boy called Bran, who proves to have a very unusual origin — and to be crucial in defeating the Dark. The events that play out in the Dyfi Valley have almost the air of a Greek tragedy. As Will, Bran and Bran’s dog Cafall (with eyes that can see the wind) search for the golden harp that will wake the six sleepers, powerful warriors of the Light, the passions and jealousies that go back to Bran’s origins play out to their conclusion.
The final book, Silver on the Tree, is also partly set in the same location, but this one is distinctly weirder. Everyone is together for the final confrontation with the Dark, with Simon, Jane and Barney being drawn more thoroughly into the magical world.
The strangest part of the book comes where Will and Bran journey into the Lost Land, a country that was long ago overwhelmed by the sea, to regain the crystal sword of Light, with which Bran can defeat the Dark. The Lost Land proves to be a strange place, often more surreal than magical, and this unearthly spirit carries on into the climactic section.
So what makes The Dark Is Rising series special? Well, the depth of blending of Arthurian legend, Celtic mythology and epic fantasy was less common at the time than it is now, and Susan Cooper handles it beautifully. The magic is vividly lived in as we learn it along with Will. The characters are good, too — even Simon, Jane and Barney, who could have been somewhat clichéd, come over convincingly. And the children are faced with complex moral issues which, again, were less common then than now.
Most of all, though, I think it’s Cooper’s powers of description and sense of place that really makes this series special. Of the three main locations, two (the Thames Valley in Buckinghamshire and the Dyfi Valley in Wales) were places she’d lived in, and they’re vividly present in the writing.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she was writing about her homeland from abroad. Above and beneath the fantasy, these books are a love song to the landscapes she’d grown up with. These are intensely visual books.
Yes, the series is a little old fashioned. In general, the children represent the comfortable middle-class privilege usual in older children’s fiction, although Cooper does occasionally try to move beyond that. The narrative also has a bit more head-hopping than would be normal today.
The climax of the series has been criticised, too, with the final confrontation strangely static, and its aftermath perhaps a bit of a cop-out — all neatly put away, instead of any anticipation of the children growing and learning from what they’ve been through.
Even so, the five books of The Dark Is Rising have been a joy to revisit, and would be well worth new readers trying out. Whether you’re a child, or an adult who understands that great books have no upper age limit.