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.


The Authentic Voice of Wizardry

Sometimes I need a little reminder of why I read fantasy.

A Wizard of Earthsea, cover by David Smee

“He looked for a spell of self-transformation, but being slow to read the runes yet and understanding little of what he read, he could not find what he sought. These books were very ancient, Ogion having them from his own master Heleth Farseer, and Heleth from his master the Mage of Perregal, and so back into the times of myth. Small and strange was the writing, overwritten and interlined by many hands, and all those hands were dust now…”

(…from A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin.)

“Thou read the book, my pretty Vivien!
O ay, it is but twenty pages long,
But every page having an ample marge,
And every marge enclosing in the midst
A square of text that looks a little blot,
The text no larger than the limbs of fleas;
And every square of text an awful charm,
Writ in a language that has long gone by.
So long, that mountains have arisen since
With cities on their flanks — thou read the book!
And every margin scribbled, crost, and crammed
With comment, densest condensation, hard
To mind and eye; but the long sleepless nights
Of my long life have made it easy to me.
And none can read the text, not even I;
And none can read the comment but myself;
And in the comment did I find the charm…”

(…from “Merlin and Vivien” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Read it here.)

Tales of Zothique, cover by Jason C Eckhardt and Homer D Eckhardt

“Now, in all ways that were feasible, we interrogated the shadow, speaking through our own lips and the lips of mummies and statues. But there was no determinable answer; and calling certain of the devils and phantoms that were our familiars, we made question through the mouths of these, but without result. And all the while, our magic mirrors were void of any reflection of a presence that might have cast the shadow; and they that had been our spokesmen could detect nothing in the room. And there was no spell, it seemed, that had power upon the visitant. So Avyctes became troubled; and drawing on the floor with blood and ashes the ellipse of Oumor, wherein no demon nor spirit may intrude, he retired to its center. But still within the ellipse, like a flowing taint of liquid corruption, the shadow followed his shadow; and the space between the two was no wider than the thickness of a wizard’s pen…”

(…from “The Double Shadow” by Clark Ashton Smith. Read it here.)

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

The Dark is Rising, cover by Michael Heslop

“The window ahead of them flew open, outwards, scattering all the snow. A faint luminous path like a broad ribbon lay ahead, stretching into the snow-flecked air; looking down, Will could see through it, see the snow-mounded outlines of roofs and fences and trees below. Yet the path was substantial too. In one stride Merriman had reached it through the window and was sweeping away at great speed with an eerie gliding movement, vanishing into the night. Will leapt after him, and the strange path swept him too off through the night, with no feeling either of speed or cold. The night around him was black and thick; nothing was to be seen except the glimmer of the Old Ones’ airy way. And then all at once they were in some bubble of Time, hovering, tilted on the wind…”

(…from The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.)

“I have been in wastelands beneath the moon’s eye, in rich lords’ courts with the sound of pipe and heartbeat of drum… I have been in high mountains, in hot, small witches’ huts watching their mad eyes and fire-burned faces; I have spoken with the owl and the snow-white falcon and the black crow; I have spoken to the fools that dwell by thousands in crowded cities, men and women; I have spoken to cool-voiced queens…”

(…from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A McKillip.)

In the Land of Time, cover by Sidney Sime

“But as the feet of the foremost touched the edge of the hill Time hurled five years against them, and the years passed over their heads and the army still came on, an army of older men. But the slope seemed steeper to the King and to every man in his army, and they breathed more heavily. And Time summoned up more years, and one by one he hurled them at Karnith Zo and at all his men. And the knees of the army stiffened, and their beards grew and turned grey, and the hours and days and the months went singing over their heads, and their hair turned whiter and whiter, and the conquering hours bore down, and the years rushed on and swept the youth of that army clear away till they came face to face under the walls of the castle of Time with a mass of howling years, and found the top of the slope too steep for aged men. Slowly and painfully, harassed with agues and chills, the King rallied his aged army that tottered down the slope…”

(…from “In the Land of Time” by Lord Dunsany. Read it here.)


The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

The Dark Is Rising (cover)

The Dark is Rising, art by Michael Heslop

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.

Over Sea Under Stone (cover)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.