Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence is beautifully mythical, with a dash of British adventure that reminds me of C. S. Lewis and E. Nesbit. Cooper strikes a nice balance between the mythical aspect of the series and the more “natural” aspect so that they flow smoothly from one to another, although at times things can get a little strange.
One thing that puzzled me throughout the series was Cooper’s attempts to distance her symbolism from its obvious place in Christianity. She does this by brushing aside the significance of the crosses in the Signs, by having Merriman state that there’s no “second coming,” and by making everything centered on the importance of man and the charity and good that stems from man, rather than from the Light. What was so puzzling to me is that she ultimately fails to distance the two, even with her not-so-subtle attempts: she has a line in Silver on the Tree which talks about hope not lying dead in a tomb and has blatant symbolism lying in the Signs that can drive back the Dark and in the entire concept of the Light versus the Dark, good versus evil–with good ultimately winning and completely driving back evil. If the series was a person, it would be basically saying, “No, no, don’t read too much into this. Crosses don’t mean Christianity. Look, this is how the Light and the Dark actually work,” but while saying that, it’s wearing a T-shirt that reads “Look at all the symbolism that’s rooted in reality and Christianity!”
Puzzlement (and quibbles about the representation of the Light and the Dark) aside, I do really enjoy this series. I would probably enjoy it even if it didn’t have that odd back-and-forth between “this is Christian symbolism” and “no, this isn’t Christian symbolism.” The books are beautiful fantasies that, yes, are slightly odd at times, but have a nice grounding with the presence of Simon, Jane and Barney. And although they all read a little similarly and Will and Bran sound much older than they are, the books stand out as unique, classic fantasy for their audience.
As always, my favorites, ranked from most to least:
1.) The Grey King
2.) Silver on the Tree
4.) The Dark is Rising
5.) Over Sea, Under Stone
Next week I’m back to my normal schedule of Tuesday and Thursday, with fairy tales on Friday!
Silver on the Tree is the fifth and final book in the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. It was published in 1977.
Breaking into the peaceful family world of young Will Stanton, during high summer in England, comes a dreadful warning that the Dark is rising in its last and greatest bid to control all the world. For Will is no ordinary boy, but the last-born of the immortal Old Ones, servants of the Light, immortals dedicated to keeping the world free for men. So the great battle catches up Will, his ageless master Merriman, and the strange Welsh boy Bran, whose destiny ties him to the Light. Drawn into the conflict also are the three Drew children, who are mortal but have their own vital part to play in the story. In a quest through time and space that touches the most ancient myths of the islands of Britain, these six fight fear and death in the darkly brooding mountains of Wales. There Will and Bran are caught into the haunting, timeless Lost Land, to find dream and nightmare—and to achieve the crystal sword that alone can ultimately vanquish the Dark.
Silver on the Tree is the most beautiful of the Dark is Rising books, I think, with Cooper really outdoing herself in terms of description and things happening. There’s a nice, but odd, balance between the mythical happenings in the descriptions and the casual dialogue of the children. There is a fine line in this book between the fantastical and the normal, and Cooper does a really good job of maintaining that fine line throughout the book without making the switches between the two abrupt or out of place.
The Dark is dispatched extremely quickly when we finally get to that process, but it is such an awesome moment that one can almost forgive Cooper for not devoting more time to it. And as always, her “this person is part of the Dark” twists are quite unexpected, merely because the Dark always manages to pop up in places you aren’t expecting them to.
John Rowlands really goes through the wringer in this book, but I love his actions at the end and I love what he has to say about free will and choice, especially when faced with the White Rider.
I talked in my review of The Grey King about the flaws I found in Cooper’s descriptions of the Dark and the Light, and I saw them again in this book. Will explains why half of the Dark wear black and half wear white by saying that “the Dark can only reach people at extremes—blinded by their own shining ideas, or locked up in the darkness of their own heads.” I particularly dislike Cooper’s descriptions of the Dark because it just doesn’t make sense, and yes, I know this is a fantasy and her good and evil can be however she wants them to be, but Cooper throughout the series is too obviously trying to make a connection between the Light and Dark of her books with the good and evil found in the world. And this description of the Dark does not fit reality at all. Yes, the Dark, or its equivalent in reality, does reach people at extremes, but not only at extremes.
Speaking of Cooper too obviously trying to make connections (or in this case, too obviously trying to break them), I mentioned in the second book of my puzzlement about her distancing the Signs from their obvious symbol in Christianity. There are even more mixed messages in this book. At the end of the novel, Merriman states, “You may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you.” Okay, wow, we get it, Cooper. But how am I supposed to reconcile this blatant statement about the apparent futility of Christians in looking forward to Jesus’s return with Owain’s statement a little earlier on, “Hope does not lie dead in a tomb but is always alive for the hearts of men”? I mean, come on! How can you not see the symbolism in that?? It seems to me that Cooper is trying to distance this fantasy and its (Christian) symbolism from Christianity, but simply cannot completely break the connection even though she tries her hardest.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Jane said, “Will Stanton!”
“Hello, Jane Drew,” he said.
“Oh!” Jane said happily. Then she paused, surveying him. “I can’t think why I’m not more surprised,” she said. “The last time I saw you was when we left you on Platform Four at Paddingotn Station. A year ago. More. What are you doing on the top of a mountain in Wales, for goodness’ sake?”
“Calling,” Will said.
Silver on the Tree is probably the most visually beautiful of the Dark is Rising sequence, and even though I thought too much time was devoted to Will and Bran in the Lost Land and not enough time was devoted to the vanquishing of the Dark, overall the conclusion was very satisfying. I was confused by Cooper’s attempts to bleach the Christian symbolism from her book, especially since she continuously alludes to it herself with the dialogue of her characters, but apparently she had to get her message across even if she contradicted herself doing it.
The Grey King is the fourth book in the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. It was published in 1975.
There is an old tradition in North Wales that, within a certain hill, a harp of gold will be found by a boy followed by a white dog with silver eyes—a dog who can see the wind. Will Stanton knew nothing of this when he came to Wales, just before Halloween, from his English home for convalescence after a severe illness. But when he met a strange boy named Bran and Bran’s white dog, Cafall, memory awoke in him. For Will himself was no ordinary boy, but the last-born of the Old Ones, servants of the Light, immortals dedicated to saving the world from domination by the force of evil which calls itself the Dark. And it is Will’s long-appointed quest, as he now learns, to wake—with the sound of the lost golden harp—the six sleepers who must be roused from their long rest in the ancient Welsh hills to make ready for the last dreadful battle between the Dark and the Light.
The Grey King is sort of a mix of Greenwitch and The Dark is Rising in terms of mythological/strange things happening. It lacks some of the “British seaside adventure” style found in Greenwitch, but also lacks some of the heavier mythical descriptions and happenings that occur in TDIR. I quite like the balance that it strikes between the two, and as a result I think The Grey King is one of my favorites in the series.
The introduction of Bran is a little strange if you haven’t yet noticed all the references to the Arthur legends throughout the series. The Dark is Rising sequence really isn’t so much an original fantasy world as it is a sort of adaptation or tribute to Arthurian legend. And Cooper manages to hand-wave the convenience of Bran (and everything else in the series, really) by having both prophecy and the machinations of the Light and the Dark clearly explained and shown throughout the books. It’s a lot harder to say that Bran was conveniently found where Will was vacationing when it’s explained how the Light manipulated those circumstances so that Bran would be found. Although I do still find it a bit convenient that of all the places Will’s aunt lives, it’s where the harp will be found. Plot mechanics, I know, but still.
Speaking of the Light’s manipulations, I have absolutely no idea why Will had to lose his memories. It makes for a bit of a tedious beginning, but luckily he regains his memory quite early.
One main thing I disliked in The Grey King was the description of the Light and the Dark given by Rowlands to Will. The Light and the Dark are made out to be two forces on opposite sides, like two extremes. Each one only cares about defeating the other and each are, in some respects, similar in that “at the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe.” They are impersonal forces, and humans are separate from both of them. Will tells Rowlands that “the charity and the mercy and the humanitarianism are for you, they are the only things by which men are able to exist together in peace.” It’s as if the Light is catering to the humans by giving them charity, etc., but it itself is not charitable, merciful, or humanitarian. Will even says that the Light cannot make use of charity or mercy. I know that the Light does not represent “goodness” but I feel that Cooper has sucked a lot of feeling out of the world by making the Light and the Dark so impersonal. Why should we care who wins if both the Light and the Dark are just two opposite extremes? Sure, we want the Light to win because they will allow men to continue to be charitable, but the implication here is that charity and mercy stems from man and not something outside of them, like the Light.
One additional thing: Bran is supposed to be Will’s age, but no one sounds like they’re ten in this book. Will sounds older because he’s an Old One, but Bran sounds like he’s fifteen. I cannot see him as a ten- or eleven-year-old at all.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
“Where is Cader?”
Bran stared at him. “Don’t know much about Wales, do you? Cader Idris, over there.” He pointed to the line of blue-grey peaks across the valley. “One of the highest mountains in Wales. You should know about Cader. After all it comes in your verse.”
Will frowned. “No, it doesn’t.”
“Oh, yes. Not by name, no—but it’s important in that second part. That’s where he lives you see, up on Cader. The Brenin Llwyd. The Grey King.”
The Grey King is one of my favorites in The Dark is Rising sequence due to the nice balance it strikes between the mythical and the “normal.” The Arthurian aspect comes roaring to the front with the introduction of Bran and Arthur’s appearance, and if you love dogs this book will tug at your heartstrings. The book does have one main flow, however, and it is how the Light and the Dark are described and what it implies.
Greenwitch is the third book in the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. It was published in 1974.
Simon and Jane and Barney come to Trewissick, in Cornwall, enlisted by their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry to help rescue a priceless golden grail stolen by the forces of evil—the Dark. They are not at first aware of the strange powers of another boy brought to help, Will Stanton. Nor do they realize the sinister significance of the Greenwitch, a traditional image of leaves and branches that for centuries the women of Trewissick have made, each spring, and cast into the sea for good luck in fishing and harvest. But this is the time of the Greenwitch’s making, a night-long ceremony that Jane is allowed to witness, in mingled fear and pity, and it shapes all the events that follow. In a series of disturbing and sometimes dangerous incidents, the children discover the whereabouts of the stolen grail, the Greenwitch—possessed of a dreadful, vengeful power—is called from the ocean depths by the Dark, and its Wild Magic is loosed over the land. Yet, because of Jane’s pity, the Greenwitch makes to her a strange gift that, for a time at least, will keep the Dark from rising.
I used to think that Greenwitch was my least favorite book in the Dark is Rising sequence, but upon re-reading, I found that I really enjoyed it. I think it was the departure from the myth-laden Dark is Rising and a return to the “seaside adventure” of Over Sea, Under Stone that made me enjoy it so much. I also think it’s because Greenwitch actually reminded me quite a bit of Drowned Ammet from Diana Wynne Jones’s Dalemark quartet. In any case, this book is much more like OSUS than DIR, probably due to the inclusion of Simon, Jane, and Barney (SJB). I love the mythology of DIR but it was nice to get back to a lighter touch like in OSUS.
I mentioned in my review of OSUS that it’s not exactly a necessary book to read, and Greenwitch shows why. The grail that SJB worked so hard to find in OSUS has to be found again, and this time the little lead capsule that was lost has to be found, as well. OSUS is only necessary to introduce the characters of SJB, but its plot gets sort of reset in Greenwitch.
I wish we had gotten more from Will’s point of view, just because I really like Will, but getting to see him from the outside was pretty cool.
I can’t remember if SJB return, but I hope they do, because I really like the more relaxing atmosphere that they give to the book.
Also, I love how Jane’s pity and selflessness is what wins the day for the Light.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
As [Jane] came close to the Greenwitch she felt again the unimaginable force it seemed to represent, but again the great loneliness too. Melancholy seemed to hover about it like a mist. She put out her hand to grasp a hawthorn bough, and paused. “Oh dear,” she said impulsively, “I wish you could be happy.”
Greenwitch reads more like Over Sea, Under Stone than The Dark is Rising, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s less lore- and myth-heavy, but getting to see familiar characters like Will and Merriman and having a slight expansion of the lore found in DIR means that it’s both a refreshing read after the laden DIR and an intriguing continuation.
The Dark is Rising is the second book in the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. It was published in 1973.
‘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.’ Will Stanton turns 11 and learns from Merriman Lyon, the Lady, and Circle of Old Ones, that he must find six Sign symbols and battle the Black Rider, blizzard and flood.
The Dark is Rising is so different than Over Sea, Under Stone which came before it. This book is all mythology and gets into it so quickly that it’s a bit disconcerting at first. By the second chapter Will is already traveling through time and meeting sinister people and having landscapes blur in and out. The style is also vastly different than Over Sea, Under Stone. The latter is more “British children have adventures with a slight fantasy twist” and The Dark is Rising is more “this is ‘70s fantasy and weird as all get-out.” In addition, the mythology and mechanics are much more pronounced and explained in this book.
What I love about The Dark is Rising is the Fetch Quest. Will searching for the signs and the cool rhyme that goes along with it…I love these types of quests. The search for the Signs is why TDR is probably my favorite book in the sequence, and it’s the one I’ve read the most out of the five (I tend to stop after Greenwitch, for some reason. They do get very weird, maybe that’s why).
I actually found the Dark to be more sinister in Over Sea, Under Stone, possibly due to the juxtaposition between the ordinariness of Simon, Jane, and Barney and the supernatural-ish power of the Dark. But I love the surprise from <highlight>Hawkin, only because I think Cooper does reveals like this very well. In OSUS it was the vicar and then the housekeeper, and here it’s initially Maggie, and then <highlight>Hawkin’s reveal comes and is shocking and wonderful and makes your mouth drop open if you’re not expecting it.
There’s no mention of King Arthur in this book, which actually surprised me considering that the Arthur lore is central to the sequence. Perhaps Cooper just wanted to set up the premise first before diving into that.
I’m a little confused as to Cooper’s attempts to distance the Signs from Christianity, and religion in general. A cross being the symbol of the Signs just makes the fight between Light and Dark all that more significant, in my opinion, without any need to explain it away. I suppose she was just trying to say that the book doesn’t have any significant Christian overtures, even though it totally does…
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
The movement of the great horse changed to a slow-rising, powerful lope, and Will heard the beating of his own heart in his ears as the world flashed by in a white blur. Then all at once greyness came around them, and the sun was blacked out. The wind wrenched into Will’s collar and sleeves and boot-tops, ripping at his hair. Great clouds rushing towards them out of the north, closing in, huge grey-black thunderheads; the sky rumbled and growled. One white-misted gap remained, with a faint hint of blue behind it still, but it too was closing, closing. The white horse leapt at it desperately. Over his shoulder Will saw swooping towards them a darker shape even than the giant clouds: the Rider, towering, immense, his eyes two dreadful points of blue-white fire. Lightning flashed, thunder split the sky, and the mare leapt at the crashing clouds as the last gap closed.
The Dark is Rising is strange, in a ‘70s-fantasy, lots of description type of way. But it’s a wonderful Fetch Quest, and Will is a very endearing protagonist. Although a lot of the Old Ones are pretty flat characters, Merriman is awesome and the Lady reminds me of Galadriel. Cooper continues to surprise with her twists revealing who is really Dark or Light. Yes, these books are weird, but they’re also compelling and beautiful. Onward, to King Arthur and Wales!
It’s the seventh Series Week! Join me as I review the Dark is Rising sequence this week!
Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in the Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. It was published in 1965 by Harcourt.
“On holiday in Cornwall, the three Drew children discover an ancient map in the attic of the house that they are staying in. They know immediately that it is special. It is even more than that—the key to finding a grail, a source of power to fight the forces of evil known as the Dark. And in searching for it themselves, the Drews put their very lives in peril.”
Even though this is the first book in the Dark is Rising sequence, it’s actually not necessary to read this book. The style is vastly different, the mythology isn’t as pronounced, and everything that happens in this book is explained in Greenwitch, the third book. Cooper didn’t even have the whole series fleshed out when she wrote this book (presumably), since The Dark is Rising was published eight years after this one.
However, Over Sea, Under Stone is still a really fun “British children have adventures at the seaside” book and it does introduce us to characters that appear again in Greenwitch—namely, Simon, Jane, and Barney. It also gives a hint at the background of “Gumerry,” as the children call him, and who he is—or who he was, in any case.
The villains in this book start out as slightly cartoonish, in a vaguely menacing, “we wear white because we don’t want you to know we’re evil,” mask kind of way. But then towards the end of the book they get legitimately scary, especially Hastings. Cooper also pulls a “surprise villain” twist that nearly upsets the children’s and Merry’s plans and makes what should be a joyous parade into something much more sinister.
I do think the book had a slightly weak ending, which could have been stronger if Cooper had ended about two pages earlier, right after Barney muses about Merry. That would have been a wonderful way to finish the book, but unfortunately, it does continue for a little bit longer and the force of that revelation is weakened as a result.
Recommended Age Range: 10+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade, Realistic
The paper Barney had unrolled was not paper at all, but a kind of thick brownish parchment, springy as steel, with long raised cracks crossing it where it had been rolled. Inside it, another sheet was stuck down: darker, looking much older, ragged at the edges, and covered with small writing in strange squashed-looking dark brown letters.
Below the writing it dwindled, as if it had been singed by some great heat long ago, into half-detached pieces carefully laid back together and stuck to the outer sheet. But there was enough of it left for them to see at the bottom a rough drawing that looked like the uncertain outline of a map.
For a moment they were all very quiet. Barney said nothing, but he could feel a strange excitement bubbling up inside him.
Over Sea, Under Stone isn’t a necessary book in the Dark is Rising, but it’s a nice, slow way to introduce the overall plot and mythology of the series. This is only a glimpse at the battle between Light and Dark, which will be much more pronounced and fleshed out (as will the mythology) in The Dark is Rising and following.