Monday, September 26, 2022

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Title: The Dark is Rising
Author: Susan Cooper
Publication: Atheneum/Margaret K. McElderry, hardcover, 1973
Genre: Juvenile Fantasy
Setting: England
Description: Everything changes for Will Stanton, used to being the overlooked youngest in a bustling family, on Midwinter Day in December when he turns 11 and learns he is the last of the Old Ones, those responsible over the years for standing up to forces of Evil and Darkness. Will is responsible for finding six magical signs which will help him and the other Old Ones in the battle between Light and Darkness. As Will takes part in this quest over the days before Christmas, the dark is rising against him, bringing danger to his small village and light-hearted family unless he can overcome his own doubts and fears to save them.

My Impression: This is a series I enjoyed as it came out, although I don’t remember if we initially found The Dark is Rising because of the Margaret K. McElderry imprint, which was always the guarantee of a good story, or if we made the connection with the first in the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, which I bought on a family vacation. That is a very different book from The Dark is Rising although both fall into what I suppose is called realistic fantasy where the main characters inhabit a world like ours apart from the magic or supernatural activity which finds them. Here, Will is just turning 11, going from harmless squabbles with his siblings to saving the world in days, which sounds improbable but is very convincing while one is reading. But what makes the story memorable is not just the maturity Will acquires but the atmosphere of fear that sweeps over the Stantons’ small town and the juxtaposition of the threatening darkness and ordinary family life preparing for a holiday. For example, Christmas service is celebrated even as Will senses something chilling is waiting for him outside the church.
AnnaBookBel is hosting a readathon of The Dark is Rising series. As she points out, the setting shifts from Cornwall in the first book to a small village west of London on the Thames. The only connection between the two books is Merriman Lyon, who is an adopted uncle to the Drew children in the first book but acts as more of a sage to Will. The Dark is Rising is more of a traditional fantasy, which on this reread seemed much influenced by Tolkien and legend – for example, Will is the seventh son of a seventh son, destined for adventure. In my favorite part, on Christmas Eve the Stantons go caroling at the local manor but layer upon layer of other activity is taking place while his brothers gobble mince pies: time travel, a magic book, betrayal, and the butler turns out to be Merriman Lyon. Later, the Old Ones tell Will:
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.
It’s comforting to know that an eleven-year-old is not expected to save humanity alone but will have five companions to turn the darkness back!   Note that it is unusual to call a series after the second book but the series is known as The Dark is Rising, indicating the shift in direction Cooper took with this book.
Source: Personal copy. I have an extra (pristine) hardcover which I am happy to send to someone in the US, if interested. If there is more than one request, I will randomly pick a name.

Other Susan Cooper titles I have reviewed


LyzzyBee said...

A great review. I'm really enjoying watching everyone taking part in this and hope I can get them all read in December which is the time I like to read them. I read this one first then went back to read the whole lot the next time (I had them all in one volume originally but had to rebuy them when I went to read them again a few years ago). I love the layers of history in this one and the mixing of myth and modern day.

Cath said...

Yes, I was 20 when this book came out and didn't read it, or even come across it, until I started book blogging about 20 years ago. So I was in my 50s when I eventually read and enjoyed it. If I had had the chance to read it in my teens I'm pretty sure it would be one of my all-time favourite children's books. Ah well, never mind. It's a great series although I'm not sure I've actually read all of them.

Lory said...

This series still retains its magic for me although I have my questions now about being too dualistic regarding Light and Dark. However, as I recall that becomes a theme in later books and I'm looking forward to our discussion then.

The introduction to my Folio edition is by Cooper herself and explains that The Dark Is Rising was originally to be the title of the LAST book as well as the series as a whole (she had a sort of flash of inspiration some time after writing OSUS in which she had this overarching vision). But a publisher objected to her title for Book 2, The Gift of Gramarye, because it was feared readers would think it was about grammar. So she shifted the title to this book. I think it suits the contents well actually, because the sense of menace and darkness rising is indeed palpable, more so than the gift of gramarye, wonderful as that is.

Katrina said...

I was aware of this author in the 1970s but I don't think I ever actually read any of her books. I think I would enjoy them though so I'll look out for her books. How lovely that you have a personal signed copy!

Annabel (annabookbel) said...

Thank you so much for joining in. I too loved the layers of the carolling scene.