Seaward by Susan Cooper

1985 Puffin PB, art by Steve Braund

Published in 1983, this was Susan Cooper’s first novel since finishing her Dark is Rising sequence with Silver on the Tree in 1977. Like those books, Seaward is a fantasy for young adults, though in this case a standalone one.

Two youngsters, separately, find their way into another world. The boy Westerley, whose home nation isn’t identified, though it’s evidently on the totalitarian spectrum, is told by his mother how to escape to this other world the moment before she’s shot by a political branch of the country’s police. He knows his father is by the sea and, thinking himself pursued even in this other world, heads towards it. The girl Cally (full name Calliope) has recently found herself alone after first her father then her mother are taken away to some place by the sea for a cure for a muscular disease — or, more likely, care before they die. Drawn by a music she vaguely recognises, Cally enters a mirror in her parents’ room and finds herself in this strange land. Like Westerley, she decides to head for the coast, where she believes she can reunite with her parents.

The world they’re now in is ruled by two beings — or, perhaps, ruled by one, who’s tempered by the other. There’s the blue-robed, white-blonde Lady Taranis, kind one moment, cruel the next, and the gold-cloaked, owl-eyed Lugan, who is much more of a helper to the two kids, though only at times:

“Sometimes I may intervene. Not always. There are perils in this country, but there are also laws—and while you journey here, I watch that neither you nor anyone else break those laws.”

1983 Bodley Head HB, art by Joseph A Smith

There’s something of an Alice in Wonderland feel to the fantasy in this book. Not only does Cally enter the world through a mirror, but Westerley’s first adventure is to find himself part of a chess game, played by unwitting squares of soldiers on a wide, flat plain. But this isn’t a nonsense fantasy, nor is it meant to be taken lightly. The whole point is that the perils Cally and Westerley face — at first alone, but soon together — are life-threatening, or at least potential prisons. This book is closer to, say, Ursula Le Guin’s Threshold or Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams, in that it’s about a lonely boy and a lonely girl meeting in another world and, through facing its perils together, forging a relationship that allows them to return to our world and face it with a renewed hope and strength. (Though I wouldn’t say it’s quite as good as either of those.)

And that theme, I think, would have been the thing I’d have responded to had I read it first as an adolescent, but as I’m reading it for the first time now, many years later, I was more bothered by the lack of solidity to the story. Lugan may mention laws, but his use of the passive voice (“there are also laws”) means we’re not going to told what they are, and his pronouncement that he “may intervene” sounds more like a writer letting the reader know that random interventions may occur, but they’re not going to tell you when. Cally and Westerley’s adventures are full of invention, but have none of the sort of logic that can allow the reader to really take part in the tale (anticipating what will happen, working out what they would do in the characters’ place). Most of the time, the pair are rescued from peril by some magic helper or gift that just works at the right moment: a magical wind to take them away, the help of birds, a friendly giant snake, a friendly giant insect. As Colin Manlove says of Seaward in From Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England:

“Though the book’s settings are finely imagined, they are not suggestive of meaning, but are there simply as fantastic inventions to give an exotic and exciting air to the plot.”

1987 PB, art by David Wiesner

In a sense, to use Tolkien’s word, the book is a series of eucatastrophes — last-minute miraculous rescues from certain peril — but used so often they soon lose their fairy tale element of genuine magic and just become frustrating. But the point of the book, I’d say, isn’t the story, but the way these perils bind the boy and girl together, teach them to trust one another and form a new bond of a type they’d only previously had with their parents.

Manlove’s other criticism of the book, I don’t quite agree with:

“Part of the trouble is that the book is non-moral: enjoyment of life is the only notion of good, hating it the bad.”

But I think this is to be too harsh on a novel that’s basically about overcoming grief and loss, and the fear of growing up in a world which can so easily take away what is most valuable, in human terms. As Charles Butler says in Four British Fantasists (a study of Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, Susan Cooper and Dianne Wynne Jones — four writers who happened to be at Oxford when Tolkien was lecturing there):

“One of the book’s main themes is that the two rulers of the secondary world, Lugan and Taranis, are not moral opposites, even though they at first appear to be so, with Lugan protecting the children and Taranis attempting to bar their escape. Ultimately, they are brother and sister, life and death: each of them has both a kindly and a cruel aspect.”

2013 PB cover, which makes use of a single (very brief) appearance of a dragon to sell this as the sort of fantasy it isn’t

“Nothing is black and white, Westerly, in this long game we play,” Lugan says at an early point, which isn’t, I don’t think, a moral point, but one about learning to accept the apparently bad things as part of a life that will inevitably contain both the bad and the good, as well as many things in between. It’s a novel about learning to balance the threat of/fear of death and loss, and the other negative aspects of life, with at least the possibility of the positive (here, the promise of love as a balance to loss).

Ultimately, Seaward is a coming of age tale, taking both characters to the point where they must decide to return to the real world, with all its losses, perils, and difficulties, in order to either mature into a full life, or escape from harsh reality and remain children forever. As I say, it’s not, I don’t think, the sort of YA book that can be read for the first time as an adult — something I’d say is also true of Cooper’s Dark is Rising books, which also have too much passive-voice fantasy (“this must be”, and so on) for my full enjoyment. But, they’re not written for me, at least not the non-adolescent me I am now.

Comments (3)

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    It’s interesting how The Dark is Rising sequence is defined by a certain sensibility that seems to be largely lacking in Cooper’s other work (which tend to be solid but unremarkable) this being a case in point.

  2. Murray Ewing says:

    I haven’t read any of Cooper’s other work, but here the rather vague setting doesn’t help. With the Dark is Rising, she had the whole of British myth, plus very real landscapes, to thicken up the story.

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I’ve only read one other book by her – Dawn of Fear – which is really a memoir/novella and packs a punch mainly because of its penultimate chapter, but I was reading synopses of her later work a few weeks ago. Several had pretty generic plot lines (ie, historical ya with a time-travel twist etc) whereas The Dark is Rising is very much its own beast.

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