Published from 1965 to 1977
On the Midwinter Day that is his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton discovers a special gift: he is the last of the Old Ones, immortals dedicated to keeping the world from domination by the forces of evil, the Dark. At once, he is plunged into a quest for the six magical Signs that will one day aid the Old Ones in the final battle between the Dark and the Light. And for the twelve days of Christmas, while the Dark is rising, life for Will is full of wonder, terror, and delight.
Susan Cooper was one of the authors at the 2013 Library of Congress National Book Festival. It was a fortuitous coincidence that I had just finished rereading her Dark is Rising series last month. She was my favorite author as a child, so I had to go see her. It was wonderful to see her address a rather packed tent (she's quite a fit lady for 78), and unlike Margaret Atwood, whose line was so long that I didn't reach the front before her booksigning was over, I actually got my books signed by Cooper and exchanged a few words with her.
I asked her if there was a chance there would ever be another attempt at a film version of The Dark is Rising, given that The Seeker dipped her book in shit and rolled it in broken glass. (I did not use those words. But she pretty much agrees with the sentiment.) She said she's "gunshy" (understandable!) but has hopes that maybe someday the BBC might do a proper series.
She's written a lot of other books, and was appearing at the National Book Festival to promote a new one, Ghost Hawk, but she'll always be remembered for The Dark is Rising. Like J.K. Rowling, with whom comparisons are inevitable, her first and most famous works cast a shadow over everything else. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.
The Dark is Rising was my Harry Potter
Everyone has those books they grew up with, the treasured classics of their childhood. For me, as a young'un, it was The Great Brain, The Three Investigators, Tom Swift, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan and the Barsoom series), and a little later moving on to Robert A. Heinlein's juveniles and thence to adult science fiction.
And The Dark is Rising.
For a lot of you younger folks, it will no doubt be Harry Potter that you remember with a nostalgic glow as you head into middle age or senescence. Maybe you will reread them over and over, or maybe you will be afraid to reread them because you know that what was awesome beyond all reckoning as a child might not hold up as well twenty or forty years later. You will see J.K. Rowling go on to write other things (she's already establishing herself as a competent writer of adult fiction, but she's never going to repeat the Harry Potter phenomenon). I will bet much money that someday she writes more Harry Potter books, and in twenty years or so they'll remake the films. But it won't be the same. It will never be the same.
I was in fifth grade when I picked up The Dark is Rising at my school library. It had this cover:
Yeah, this is what children's book covers looked like in 1973.
I loved it. I went back and found out there was a whole series... and that The Dark is Rising was actually the second book. I read the whole series — having to wait a while for the last book to arrive at the school library — and finishing it was poignant, bittersweet sorrow. I distinctly remember being a little depressed when I got to the end, partly because the ending itself is bittersweet, and partly because the story was over. I wanted more, and there wasn't any.
Many years later, I actually felt something similar when I got to the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, after having avoided the entire Harry Potter phenomenon for years and then reading the entire series in a month. That J.K. Rowling was able to evoke feelings in me, an adult reader, similar to those I felt as an eleven-year-old child, is one of the things that convinced me that she really was quite an exceptional writer. For all the books' flaws, the Harry Potter phenomenon was more than just that, a mass media bandwagon. The Harry Potter books have an ineffable quality that grabs readers and invests them in the characters and the story, so that even a much more critical reader than I was at age eleven feels it.
Of course, the Harry Potter books are both wonderful and flawed, and being a critical adult reader, I no longer have the capacity to completely immerse myself in a children's book and turn off the analytical part of my brain.
So, for many years I remembered Susan Cooper's books fondly, but I was a little afraid to revisit them. I knew they would never be as magical as they were when I was eleven, and there are some books you adore as a child that you reread as an adult and say "What was I thinking?"
And I am not much of a rereader to begin with. I rarely revisit books, even books I loved. Too many new books to read.
So, despite listing them as one of my favorite book series of all time, I had not actually reread any of the Dark is Rising sequence since I was eleven. This year, I finally picked up the books again and read them in order, start to finish, hoping that they had not been visited by the Suck Fairy in the intervening decades.
Harry Potter vs. Will Stanton
There are some obvious similarities between Harry Potter and Will Stanton, the protagonist of The Dark is Rising, but they are mostly superficial. One might argue that Will Stanton is one of the spiritual forebearers of Harry Potter, but then they both draw on so many other obvious influences that it's rather pointless. I already believe Rowling was much more heavily influenced by Anthony Powell than any of the usual works cited as likely inspirations. So they are both British lads who discover on their eleventh birthdays that they're destined to fight evil, and they both have a wise elderly mentor who keeps being mysterious about the whole "You need to save the world" thing. Well, all those tropes are older than time.
Harry Potter is largely about friendship and opposing prejudice, and includes a lot of allusions to contemporary British society. The Dark is Rising is a starker good vs. evil tale. It is about moral choices and choosing good over evil, even when it means thankless sacrifice, even when it means losing comfort and friends.
This should come as no surprise if you are aware that Susan Cooper studied under J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at Oxford.
Cooper draws on a lot of English and Welsh folklore, as Rowling did, but mostly she makes use of the Arthurian mythos; this is quite explicit in the last two books.
Will Stanton is a darker, gloomier boy wizard. He gets a little help from Merriman, his Dumbledore, and he has a few friends, notably Bran and the Drew children, but none of them become truly close, for reasons that become plain in the end. Unlike Harry, he has a loving family, but from the moment he realizes his destiny as an Old One, he is both of and apart from them, an immortal being who contains vast power and knowledge, confined in the body and mind of a boy with mortal blood relatives. His quest is a lonelier one, and his reward is simply knowing that evil has been vanquished. Romance plays no part in Cooper's series, which did not "age up" from MG to YA, so there's no Ginny waiting for him in the end either.
This is probably why The Dark is Rising gets less squee and less fan fiction.
As a writer, Susan Cooper is unquestionably better than J.K. Rowling. By that I mean her plots are tighter, her world is, while less expansive than Rowling's, much more coherent and sensible, and her composition is more skillful. Susan Cooper crafts words and images like someone who studied under Tolkien and Lewis; Rowling crafts words and images in a more freewheeling, creative manner, like someone who just lets her muse take her on a ride. This makes her world brighter but less controlled. The literary and mythological references Rowling has been so praised for are generally neither subtle nor particularly clever, though they are fun, while they are deeply embedded in Susan Cooper's story.
It may sound like I'm saying Susan Cooper rules and J.K. Rowling drools. But that's not it at all. (I did love Harry Potter too, after all!) As much as I admire and respect Susan Cooper as a writer, I can also see why she didn't quite achieve the mass popularity Rowling did; the sense of fun isn't there. The conflict of Good vs. Evil is not leavened by the heartwarming "friends forever" theme of the Potter books, and Cooper, by being sparser in her storytelling, does not elaborate her world with extra characters and magical creatures and references that make you want to know more about what's happening outside the sphere of the main characters.
Cooper's books are MG books with very little sex and violence. The few deaths all happen off the page. I was surprised that, unlike Rowling, who created several situations where it was clearly an elephant in the room but never actually acknowledged, there are a couple of places where Cooper is very clearly referring to attempted or threatened rape (though she never uses that word). I probably passed right over that in fifth grade, but in context, it's not hidden at all.
Over Sea, Under Stone
"And at the last all shall be safe, and evil thrust out never to return. And so that the trust be kept, he said, I give it into your charge, and your sons', and your sons' sons, until the day come."
When I first read the series at age eleven, I read this book second, which didn't detract from the experience at all because the first two books star an entirely different set of protagonists, who only meet in the third book. It does, however, introduce the Light and the Dark, and with a modern-day Grail-quest, the Arthurian thread that will run through the rest of the series.
Over Sea, Under Stone is a sort of "prequel" to the rest of the series. The protagonists in this book are three siblings who are completely devoid of any supernatural powers, and the plot is basically a kids-solving-riddles-to-find-the-MacGuff
I'd consider this the weakest book in the series. The Drews play a part in the latter half of the series, but mostly a minor one, despite being along for much of the adventure. Merry of course goes on to mentor Will Stanton in the remaining books, and the hints of Arthurian lore and a supernatural war found in this book are picked up again and turned into a true fantasy adventure in the rest of the series. But Over Sea, Under Stone, while certainly not a bad book, is written at a more juvenile level and with much less magic and wonder than the following volumes.
The Dark is Rising
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.
Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning, stone out of song;
Fire in the candle-ring, water from the thaw;
Six signs the circle, and the grail gone before.
Fire on the mountain, shall find the harp of gold;
Played to wake the sleepers, Oldest of the old;
Power of the Greenwitch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.
On his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton learns that he is the last of the Old Ones, immortal beings who have represented the Light since the beginning of history, trying to protect mankind against the encroachment of the Dark.
Merriman, the oldest of the Old Ones, is the only character who appears from the first book; the Drew children are completely absent.
As with the previous book, The Dark is Rising is a MacGuffin hunt. Will's first quest is to find all six Signs, created by the Light ages ago and which must all be brought together as the first step in the final defeat of the Dark. To this end, he will travel back and forth in time, while the Dark sends its minions after him.
Will has vast magical powers at his command, but initially, he neither understands nor can use them. However, his mind is that of an Old One, and the interesting duality of his nature is skillfully juxtaposed by Cooper until the very last book.
This is a rather dark and gloomy tale that sets the tone for the rest of the series. The good guys win, but Will mostly has to prove himself on his own, and his introduction to magic and the power of the Old Ones is not an entrance into a fantastic world of wizardry, but the realization that he's now an eternal warrior whether he likes it or not, and he's also been forever set apart from his family and everyone else he knows.
For a book targeted at young readers, it's pretty heavy stuff. There is of course not much direct violence (though there is death), and the good guys are always good, the bad guys unambiguously bad. One character, a traitor who turned to the Dark, is as tragic a figure as Gollum, and far more sympathetic. But this isn't fun times with wands and owls. It's freezing storms blanketing all of England and sinister rooks and as much scary stuff as you can throw at a preternaturally-aged eleven-year-old boy.
Students of Celto-Arthurian mythology will delight in spotting all the references, but Cooper does invent a fair amount herself.
This is also the book that got made into a movie.
The Seeker: The Dark is Rising (2007)
I have already said pretty much all I want to say about this movie here. In short, the movie sucks. It is terrible on every level, it is one of the worst movies I have ever seen, and it bears only the most superficial and incidental resemblance to the book. Susan Cooper herself hated it. But she's no J.K. Rowling, so she didn't have much input.
The third book brings together all the characters from the first two: Will Stanton meets the Drew children. The Drews are initially suspicious of this strange boy with his mysterious connection to their Uncle Merry, while Will, with his growing Old One awareness, takes their mistrust in stride.
Once again they're on a quest to retrieve an artifact before the Dark gets it. The key is the Greenwitch, an annual Cornish tradition in which the local villagers create an effigy of hawthorn and rowan and toss it into the sea. The Greenwitch is in fact a powerful being of Wild Magic, neither of the Light nor of the Dark.
Greenwitch is not my favorite volume in the series. It's got some fine parts, but it's a fairly typical children's fantasy, and has neither the dark foreboding of The Dark is Rising nor the epic build-up that begins with the next book. It's a very G-rated adventure in which pesky kids follow a minion of the Dark around and even go into his home and emerge unscathed.
On the other hand, the descriptions of the creatures of Wild Magic had a grandeur and majesty worthy of any epic fantasy, and Cooper describes the bottom of the ocean as vividly and spookily as she does the misty Welsh hills.
Porpoises played above their heads; great grey sharks cruised and turned, glancing curiously down as the two Old Ones flashed by. Down and down they went, to the twilight zone, that dim-lit layer of the ocean where only a little of the day can reach; where all the fish — long slender fish with great mouths, strange flattened fish with telescopic eyes — glowed with a cold light of their own. Then they went down in the deep sea, that covers more of the surface of the earth than any land or grass or tree, mountain or desert; in the cold dark where no normal man may see or survive. This was a region of fear and treachery, where every fish ate every other fish, where life was made only of fierce attack and the terror of desperate flight. Will saw huge toad-like fish with bright-tipped fishing-lines curving up from their backs, to hang cruelly alluring over wide mouths bristling with teeth. He saw a dreadful creature that seemed all mouth, a vast mouth like a funnel with a lid, and a puny body dwindling into a long whiplash tail. Beside it, the body of another began to swell horribly, as a big fish, struggling, disappeared inside the trap-like mouth. Will shuddered.
"No light," he said to Merriman, as they flashed onwards. "No joy in anything. Nothing but fear."
"This is not the world of men," Merriman said. "It is Tethys' world."
Cooper skillfully involves the Drew children, who each have their part to play in winning the battle for the Light, even though they're just ordinary children, while Will Stanton, simultaneously an eleven-year-old boy and an enormously powerful Old One, accompanies Merriman on a journey to the ocean depths. Ultimately it's not magic or confrontation that wins the day: it's the little choices and small kindnesses of ordinary people, which was a nice message and far more deftly done than Rowling's attempts at delivering moral fiber.
The Grey King
On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks.
There fire shall fly from the raven boy,
And the silver eyes that see the wind,
And the light shall have the harp of gold.
By the pleasant lake the Sleepers lie,
On Cadfan’s Way where the kestrels call;
Though grim from the Grey King shadows fall,
Yet singing the golden harp shall guide
To break their sleep and bid them ride.
When light from the lost land shall return,
Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,
And where the midsummer tree grows tall
By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.
Y maent yr mynyddoedd yn canu,
ac y mae’r arglwyddes yn dod.
This fourth book is where the Dark is Rising sequence begins to pick up its pace and become more epic, weaving the final battle of the Dark vs. the Light into a retold Arthurian mythos. Rereading it as an adult, I began to feel again the magic that so entranced me as a child when this was my favorite series ever.
Will has been sent to stay with an uncle in Wales to recover from an illness, thus continuing to contrast his humanity (physically he is still an eleven-year-old boy) with his immortal nature as an Old One. He is coming into his power and is now able to work magic and know things without everything being fed to him by his mentor Merriman, who makes only a token appearance in this book. Indeed, this is Will's first true solo quest. The Drew children, who starred in book one and shared the story with Will in book three, are completely absent and unmentioned here.
In The Grey King you get a lot of Welsh — Welsh landscapes, Welsh mythology, even a little bit of Welsh language lessons. The Grey King is the Brenin Llwyd, a great Lord of the Dark who dwells in Cader Idris, a misty mountain over a pleasant farm valley, where six sleepers lie sleeping, to be awoken by a harp of gold — if Will can find it and play it while the Grey King tries to prevent him.
Also to play a role in this story is Bran, the Raven Boy, an albino the same age as Will, whose true nature is revealed in dramatic and powerful fashion.
Highlights of this book, besides the magnificent Welsh scenery, were the bits of magic, much more forceful and powerful this time. Will isn't playing around any more, but he's no god or even a full-fledged wizard, and the Light and the Dark both have limits on what they can do, bound by natural laws. Susan Cooper gives the magic powers a sense of mystery and epic scope even while applying appropriate narrative constraints and without trying to enumerate them in the style of a modern fantasy novel.
There is also much more powerful human drama this time around. Caradog Prichard, the human "villain" of the piece, is a nasty piece of work, yet ultimately just a man, and so Will's inevitably doomed efforts to save him from his own folly read as real and yet foreordained. There is an eternal human tragedy replayed as Will proceeds toward the final stage of his quest.
Silver on the Tree
I was so sad when I finished this book years ago as a child. I felt what I suppose a lot of Potter-heads felt finishing Deathly Hallows.
"It's over..." :(
In Silver on the Tree, everyone returns for the final battle between the Dark and the Light. Jane, Simon, and Barney Drew; Will Stanton, last of the Old Ones; Bran Davies, the albino boy taken out of time to fulfill a destiny set for him a thousand years earlier; and of course, Merriman.
The Dark Rider returns too, along with a White Rider, and all the other forces of the Dark. Susan Cooper didn't write a plot so full of crafty easter eggs as Rowling did, but like Rowling, she will make use in the last book of things mentioned in all the preceding ones. Will and Bran have to go on a quest that resounds with Celto-Arthurian mythology, and the Drew children have their own mortal part to play. All that was fun and splendid and rich, and alone would have made this the best book of the series.
But the ending — in which there is love and loss and sacrifice in a fashion that does Cooper's mentors Tolkien and Lewis proud. The part that John Rowlands plays in the final confrontation, even after learning the truth about his wife, was about as intense as an eleven-year-old reader could probably have grasped, when conveying adult feelings of grief and loss. Followed by the arrival of the King, and Bran's decision, and then... Will, left alone with the Drews, and what they lose as well.
It's a happy ending — the good guys win, of course. And Susan Cooper's finale is more bloodless than Rowling's. There's hardly any actual bloodshed throughout the series; for all that the Dark is the manifestation of everything evil and selfish in the human heart, the child protagonists are always protected by "rules" that limit when the forces at war can do direct harm.
But it's a very bittersweet victory. You can see them walking off into the sunset, and know that it's over.
"For remember, that it is altogether your world now. You and all the rest. We have delivered you from evil, but the evil that is inside men is at the last a matter for men to control. The responsibility and the hope and the promise are in your hands-your hands and the hands of all men on this earth. The future can not blame the present, just as the present can not blame the past. The hope is always here, always alive, but only your fierce caring can fan it into a fire to warm the world."
Have you read The Dark is Rising sequence?
Verdict: This was my Harry Potter, you kids. I read it years ago, and finally reread it this year, and it's still magic. If I were composing my personal list of "1001 books you must read before you die," these five books would be on it. Sure, they are juvenile, written for children nearly forty years ago. But I feel more comfortable proclaiming The Dark is Rising to be books that are assured of their place as classics of children's fantasy literature than the yet-untested-by-time Harry Potter. I think Rowling's books will probably be sitting on the shelf next to Cooper's in a hundred years. But Cooper's will definitely be there.