Saturday, December 27, 2008

Coming home to the dark: A review of The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.

—Susan Cooper,
The Dark is Rising

In the height of a blinding pre-Christmas snowstorm, and with the uncertainty of the New Year looming on my mind, I recently re-read (after the passage of some 20-odd years) Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. For anyone familiar with Cooper’s novel, the second in her acclaimed five-book The Dark is Rising Sequence, you’ll understand why I couldn’t have picked a better time to re-visit the series.

The setup for Cooper’s book is not terribly original: Forces of the dark and light are locked in an ageless struggle, and into this conflict is thrust Will Stanton, a boy of portentous birth (a seventh son of a seventh son). Will is an Old One, a small group of immortals who exist outside time, and it is up to him to combat the forces of the dark, whose power waxes over the midwinter and casts a pall over the Christmas season until it threatens to consume all of the Thames Valley.

Although he has the potential to combat the dark, Will’s power is unfocused and weak. He must harness it by recovering six symbols, one each of iron, bronze, water, fire, wood, and stone. As Will seeks out the symbols, a dark agent, a rider in black, marshals the forces of the dark in an attempt to foil Will and bring him to despair. Bitter cold, choking snow, floods, and dark flocks of birds are a constant menace in the story.

But while its themes are well-trodden, what makes Cooper’s book an enduring work of young adult fantasy is its execution. Cooper is a fine writer and uses her considerable skill to craft a tale that literally feels timeless: The setting of The Dark is Rising is at once familiar and remote, modern and ancient. Although Cooper wrote The Dark is Rising in 1973, and the events of the story take place in 20th century England, I can’t recall a single mention of an automobile or a telephone in the story, for instance. If you squint a little it could take place in an isolated 18th century farming village. The whole book feels like a dream of an 11-year-old—and in many ways, that’s exactly what it is.

The war in which Will finds himself has been raging for 4,000 years—predating Christ, who is notably absent in Cooper’s book. Cooper infuses her story with Welsh legends, including the horned huntsman Herne and the legend of King Arthur. Merlin appears in the book as Merriman Lyon, a character who first appears in Over Sea, Under Stone, the first book in the sequence.

The forces of dark and light are quite vague, portrayed deliberately as broad archetypes by Cooper (I found this at turns compelling and maddening), which has the dual effect of making the story seem mythical, and every character and event allegorical. The Dark is Rising is loaded with symbols and archetypes, all the way down to the main character’s name—Will is not chosen lightly, as his will, and our will, is necessary to save us from the dark.

For example, the symbols that Will seeks out are in the shape of a circle evenly quartered by a cross (not to be confused with a Christian cross). Cooper never reveals their significance, but my own take is that these six elements represent different ages of man, and that we can find answers by tying together the lessons of the past and present. The dark gains its strength from fear and chaos and disharmony, a situation which brought about the rise of the literal Dark Ages. Yet we have within each of us the rough elements to find an inner peace and master these fears. Cooper alludes to old roads that, if followed, offer protection from the power of the dark. These roads can be viewed as a mindset, a map to our own salvation.

The story can also be viewed as the end of innocence and the arrival of adulthood. Twelfth night is the conclusion of the 12 days of Christmas, the end of merrymaking. In Cooper’s story, it coincides with Will’s 11th birthday, which marks the end of his childhood and the arrival of power and responsibility. The time for tough choices has begun. As a young adult, he will be sorely tested and must choose his own road.

I dislike books which feature “chosen ones,” or characters fated to do great things and blessed with plot immunity. I’d rather read about characters that create their own fate and succeed and fail on their own merit. At times, Cooper crosses this line in the sand. For instance, Will is frequently bailed out of trouble by Merriman Lyon (Merlin), a powerful Old One who is the light’s equivalent of the dark rider. J.R.R. Tolkien had a similar character (and a similar problem) in Gandalf, but he wisely kept him off the stage and allowed the hobbits to (mostly) fail or succeed on their own. At times, Will becomes as a passive participant in the struggle, pushed along in a tide of events in which he apparently has no control.

But Cooper adds depth to her tale by including The Walker, a symbol-bearer who betrayed the light by choosing to ally with the dark, and is cursed to wander the ages as an outcast. The Walker is obviously inspired by Tolkien’s character Gollum, a pitiable figure that also failed out of his own weakness, and serves as a reminder of the consequences of ill choice.

The true magic of the story is Cooper’s message that there are things older and stronger than the dark, and that, while it can sew fear and havoc, the dark cannot destroy us if we choose not to give in to despair. In all, The Dark is Rising is a terrific read and certainly worthy of inclusion on any fantasy fan’s bookshelf.


Anonymous said...

I read this recently, for the first time at someone's recommendation. I found the writing to be too choppy, sometimes almost unreadable.

Will was frustratingly passive and I grew bored of waiting for him to sort out his emotions so that the latest vastly under-described scary thing would go away, again and again.

There were some good parts but overall I was much disappointed. Beyond matters of taste, I really feel the quality of the writing was objectively poor, or at best, not of a style I find very enjoyable.

Admittedly I'm prejudiced against the whole genre of "special English children experience parallel fantasy world". The more closely parallel, the less I enjoy it -- which perhaps explains why I like Wonderland and Narnia, but can't stomach Potter, Pullman, and this.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Anonymous, thanks for stopping by. I think some of your criticisms are valid, particularly in the way Cooper handles Will. At times, you can see the puppet strings.

But I can't agree that the writing is poor. In fact, I think the book succeeds because Cooper is a talented writer. Her descriptions were well-done but not overwrought, and it was a rich experience for me.

I've been debating on giving Pullman a try, but the more I hear about the series, the less appealing it gets.

Listener said...

By all means, read the first book in Pullman's series. It's a great story full of fantasy imagery. But you need willpower to not read the other two books. There are strings left hanging in the first book. It's best to leave them that way than to suffer Pullman's inept handling of his characters in the second and third books.

Robert said...

Your desciption of The Dark is Rising reminds me of Garth Nix's Keys to the Kingdom series, which I recommend, but if you haven't read anything by Nix, I recommend Sabriel over it.