Sometimes revisiting your childhood favourites after years can be a disappointment. Then there are books like Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING sequence.
I confess that I originally read them all out of order when I was very young, so I had no clear picture of the overall sequence. Despite loving the books, it’s taken me a long time to come back to them (I draw a veil across my brief engagement with the film, which was a terrible disappointment). The one that stuck most in my mind through the years, though, was always the second book, THE DARK IS RISING itself. At the time of writing this, my re-read has only taken me to the end of that book (so I’ll be focussing here on the first two parts of the series), but so far I stick by my childhood impression – the second is far more powerful than the first.
That’s not to say that the first (OVER SEA, UNDER STONE) isn’t entertaining; it is. Some might say that stories of grail quests and Arthurian mysteries have been overdone, and they probably have, but perhaps not quite so much when the book was first published in 1965 as they have been since. When Simon, Jane and Barney go to stay with their Great-Uncle Merry in Cornwall, they discover a map that will lead them to an ancient magical object – but a group of sinister figures seem determined to get there before the children. It’s a good, adventurous treasure hunt, and remains accessible to the 8-12-year-old age range, despite being (naturally) a little dated. The Cornish setting is vividly brought to life, and Cooper’s villains are some of the creepiest around – mostly because they do not initially appear villainous, but enter the story in the guise of friendly, dependable adults.
This formula for a villain is repeated in THE DARK IS RISING, and I’d say that its chilling success lies in presenting danger in the ordinary, the everyday, the safe. Will Stanton is just an ordinary boy until his eleventh birthday, when he discovers that, as the seventh son of a seventh son, he is part of a group of powerful beings known as the Old Ones. Evil threatens the world, but more significantly, evil threatens Will’s own home and his large, chaotic, lovely family – and it is this aspect that is terrifying. There are distinct echoes of THE LORD OF THE RINGS in the threatening Black Rider, and indeed in much of the overall mood and themes, but this is no pale imitation – it deserves its place among the classics just as much as Tolkien’s work.
The setting in THE DARK IS RISING (this time the Thames Valley) is, to my mind, even more effective than that of the first book – it was the stark winter imagery, in which past and present blur, that made this one the most memorable to me. Cooper inhabits the English countryside and its mythology with ease, giving both roots and heart to what is, at its most basic, a simple story of good and evil. It really couldn’t be a better cosy winter fireside read.
(I believe that this is the last TGNA post scheduled before Christmas, and it’s certainly the last from me. So to those who celebrate it: Happy Christmas! To those who don’t: Have a great holiday season regardless!)