Saturday, November 29, 2008

On the trail of the Grail: A review of Over Sea, Under Stone

So therefore, I trust it to this land, over sea and under stone, and I mark here the signs by which the proper man in the proper place, may know where it lies: the signs that wax and wane but do not die.

--Susan Cooper, Over Sea, Under Stone

Warning--spoilers ahead.

I love stories that involve the King Arthur legend, regardless of their form, and so it was with much anticipation that after more than 20 years I began re-reading Susan Cooper's Over Sea, Under Stone. While not exactly a children's book, Cooper's novel--the first in her acclaimed The Dark is Rising sequence--is geared for the young adult audience. But even though I'm far removed from that demographic I nevertheless found it to be very enjoyable and engaging.

Over Sea, Under Stone tells the story of the three Drew children--Simon, Barney, and Jane--who travel with their parents to Cornwall (located on the coast of England) for an extended holiday in the home of their great-uncle Merry. Merry is an eccentric but respected historian who lives in a many-roomed old mansion, the Grey House, which proves to be a fertile playground for the children. While rummaging about the attic they discover an ancient map which puts them on a quest for none other than the Holy Grail.

Merry explains that he came to Cornwall years ago to hunt for the Grail, which is also being sought after by the forces of the dark. The Drew children soon become involved in this ancient, millenia-old conflict. Says Merry:

"That struggle goes on all round us all the time, like two armies fighting. And sometimes one of them seems to be winning and sometimes the other, but neither has ever triumphed altogether. Nor ever will," he added softly to himself, "for there is something of each in every man."

Cooper is a good writer and she does a wonderful job making Cornwall into a living, breathing place. The Grey House and its concealed doors and dusty, treasure-laden attic is a memorable location, as is the rocky, sea-beaten coastline and its druidic standing stones. It's fun to watch the children puzzle through the map's ancient secrets, with Merry serving as a guide and protector, but always in the background. Because he must serve as a decoy and keep the attention of the dark forces focused on him, the children are thrust into the leading role in the quest to find the Grail.

This arrangment provides Simon, Jane, and Barney with plenty of chances to shine. In a memorable scene Simon and Barney are racing against time and the rising ocean, exploring a dark cave at the foot of Kenmare Head on the coastline which is revealed only during low tide. Like a young knight of the round table--or Arthur himself, perhaps--Barney fights back his fear and squeezes through a dark opening with only a small candle to illuminate the dark. Due to his small stature and uncommon bravery, he becomes "the proper man in the proper place" to find the Grail.

I did have a few relatively minor problems with the book. Great Uncle-Merry as a Merlin-like advisor was pretty apparent early on in the book (the "big reveal" at the end was hardly that), though this is only a minor quibble. More troublesome for me was the portayal of Mr. Hastings, the chief agent of the dark side. Though he was suitably sinister, Hastings was not nearly as frightening as he should have been. Given that Hastings knew the Drew children were on the trail of the Holy Grail--an artifact of such power that it would tip the scales of the milennia-old struggle into favor of the dark, perhaps forever--you'd think he and his minions would stop at nothing to get it. But perhaps because this is a children's novel, Cooper places the Drew children in very little physical danger, save for a few semi-tense moments in the final showdown for the Grail. This makes the forces of darkness and night seem a little more like semi-threatening agents of an overcast afternoon rather than evil incarnate.

Still, Over Sea, Under Stone is a fine, enjoyable, easy read and I'm looking forward to watching the days grow much darker in the books to follow.


Falze said...

I never felt this book sat well with the other 4 (not even Greenwitch). I'm not sure what order she wrote them in, whether this was the first (regardless of how they were released). Curiously, I think the set I have doesn't mention this book in the series in some places - for the longest time I thought this was book 2 and TDIR was book 1. The Dark Is Rising takes a notable turn to the dark, which continues in book 4, with a return to the more juvenile adventures of the kiddies in book 3's quick read spacing them out. I'm not sure she knew what she was doing all the time, writing different stories but trying to tie them together. Only book 5 really shows some unity between the story lines.

Glad to see you picked this one up again, I gave these books to my nephew last year for Christmas (he's getting the original 3Dragonlance Chronicle books this year), have to see whether he actually read them. I pick these up every few years and tear through them, often as a palate cleanser from something weightier. And sometime just because I crave immersing myself in The Dark Is Rising. I find myself pulled towards it each Christmas, actually and many years succumb, reading just that book and not the others, it's so short sometimes I just barrel through it on Christmas Eve day when I have time.

I would heartily agree with your assessment that the danger feels contrived and a bit tame because, well, it's a children's story. It's as if she tries this villain out and introduces much more serious and dangerous foes as she goes.

All that said...I always sort of hated Barney. Not sure why. Nothing logical about it. It may be because I always picture the Drews as the kids in Bedknobs and Broomsticks and that little kid always rubs me the wrong way in that movie.

Please do give us your insights on the rest of series if you continue through your rereading.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Falze, I'll definitely be blogging about the others in the series. That is a great idea giving these and the Dragonlance books to your nephew. I hope he reads and appreciates them.

The best part about re-reading The Dark is Rising Sequence after so long is that I've largely forgotten what happens. My memory is awful, which is partially why I made the decision to start a blog and write reviews (a written record is better than my own slipshod mind).