Like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is a Christmas fantasy novel. But whereas C S Lewis brought in a rather out-of-place Santa Claus — which makes me feel Lewis wasn’t, at that point, taking his story, or his audience, sufficiently seriously — Cooper brings in stag-antlered Herne and the Wild Hunt. Hers is a far different sort of Christmas.
The Dark is Rising is about the initiation of eleven-year-old Will Stanton into the ranks of the Old Ones, guardians of the Light who’ve been staving off the Dark for thousands of years. Among their number are Wayland the Smith and Merriman Lyon (Merlin), Will’s guide as he learns that he, as a seventh son of a seventh son, is the last-born of the Old Ones, and fated to be the Sign-Seeker: his task, to bring together six signs of power that can be used to quell the latest uprising of the Dark.
Fittingly for a book about initiation, it’s full of rites, ceremonies and pageants, of things that ‘must be’, and of ‘the right thing… done at the right time’. Conflict with the Dark seems highly ritualised, not so much clashes of power as games of trumping one another with various ancient laws and prohibitions. This feel of everything Will does being fated (he ‘plays his part’), or at least in some way laid out in timeless laws and traditions, blunts (for me) the story’s involvability — and also Will’s active part as a character — but Cooper makes up for it by presenting us with a world infused with dark, secret, pagan magic, a world where there is a second level of timeless reality the Old Ones can, at any moment, step into, freezing the mundane action, to play out immensely dangerous and power-charged stand-offs with the Dark. Meanwhile, even the mundane ‘action’ of Will’s family celebrating a rural Christmas is full of the rituals and traditions of an ancient festival, as well as family rituals — rituals, in this book, are what bind families and societies together, what roots them, and what protects them both from the magical Dark and the lesser, yearly dark of the Winter solstice, before it turns towards a new year.
The Dark is Rising was published in 1973, and follows on from Cooper’s previous novel, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965). Although both feature Merriman Lyon as a character (he’s Great Uncle Merry in the first book), and both are about the quest for an object of power (the Grail in Over Sea, Under Stone), The Dark is Rising has an entirely different feel, so much so that although Cooper says Over Sea, Under Stone is the first in the series, some readers prefer to think of it as a prequel. Over Sea, Under Stone is far less magical, but also far more conventional. Started by Cooper at a friend’s suggestion as an entry to a competition to write a ‘family adventure story’, it’s a Blytonesque children’s holiday adventure of a rather standard sort (the Drew children describe their enemies as ‘perfectly beastly’ — need I say more?). The Dark is Rising, right from the start, feels like Cooper has undergone one of those authorial moments of transformation I so like: suddenly, she’s writing very real-seeming characters (the large, messy Stanton family), in a very real-seeming world (the South West of England, studded with recognisable landmarks). And the magical elements are the sort of revivification of British folklore that made up so much of late 1960s and 1970s fiction for youngsters, in the work of Alan Garner, for instance, or (as late as the 1980s) Richard Carpenter, in Robin of Sherwood.
The cover to the 1976 Puffin books edition (shown at the top of this post) haunted my childhood. I can’t remember reading the book at the time, but I certainly remember being deeply struck by that cover (by Michael Heslop, who now specialises in equestrian and golf painting). There was something about the mix of grainy, wintry black and white, and the weird, pagan face of galloping Herne (‘a masked man with a human face, the head of a stag, the eyes of an owl, the ears of a wolf’), all enclosed in a full-moon circle. The central coloured circle always made me think someone had Herne in a rifle’s sights — which isn’t the case, but it seemed to sum up, to my mind at the time, what was so engaging about the cover: that it mixed ancient pagan wild magic and something obviously modern, bringing a very real and dangerous-seeming wonder into our world. It’s still one of my favourite covers of all time, and seems to sum up that whole wintry-folkish-rural magic I crave from fantasy (Mythago Wood being an excellent example), something that for me encapsulates an era, and an entire imaginative feel I still seek, for instance, in the kids’ TV of the time (The Moon Stallion, The Changes). There’s something of the same feel about the A Year in the Country blog, whose wintry, black & white images of trees recall, for me, the uncanny feel of Heslop’s painting.