There was an endless variety of faces — gay, sombre, old, young, paper-white, jet-black, and every shade and gradation of pink and brown between — vaguely recognizable, or totally strange… [Will] thought: these are my people. This is my family, in the same way as my real family. The Old Ones. Every one is linked, for the greatest purpose in the world.
I was going to start my review of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence with the first in the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, because it holds a certain place of nostalgia based on its similarity to other much loved childhood fiction like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, both being about a group of absurdly normal siblings doing something important. But as I considered what I wanted to read to finish out 2017, a year full of darkness for so many people, the only book that seemed appropriate was The Dark is Rising. Because what’s more relevant than a book about how one person can fight back the darkness by finding strength in the love and support of family, friends, and a world that is fighting with him? Especially when it’s full of winter holiday cheer.
The Dark is Rising is the story of Will Stanton, the “seventh son of a seventh son” whose eleventh birthday falls on Midwinter’s Day (today!!). Will is a child surrounded by a loving family in an idyllic English town near the Thames river, with everything abustle as they prepare for Christmas. But Will is the last born of the Old Ones and he has a destiny far greater than anything he ever could have imagined. This destiny is a heavy one for a child of his age, but he is guided by the enigmatic Merriman Lyon through a series of lessons, to collect six crossed rings that, when combined, form an ancient weapon against the Dark. Some things Will must face alone, but for the most part, in what is one of the strongest elements of the story, he is buoyed by the people around him. This book somehow perfectly evokes the warmth of this love and is best read on a cold night, snuggled under a blanket with a cup of tea. Meanwhile, Will is a wonderful character and just enough of a blank slate that it’s easy to slip yourself into his shoes.
However, I should warn you that The Dark is Rising is a dark, often somewhat terrifying book. The Rider, the main agent of the Dark, continues to be a haunting figure, even in adulthood. Susan Cooper does an exceedingly good job of capturing the malevolence of the Dark, in scenes with swarms of attacking rooks, deadly cold, and threatened loved ones. If there’s any failing it’s that we never get a sense that the Dark is anything but a miasma of evil, as opposed to specific evils that are a true threat in our modern world. Though there are three characters that are described as evil, their actions are only threatening inasmuch as you know they are agents of the Dark. That said, the vague threats still ring true against the background of a family and town that is full of allies of the Light.
The entire The Dark is Rising Sequence is full of references to the myths of the British Isles, particularly the Arthurian Saga, but also much older things. But unlike the Prydain series, Susan Cooper is able to invoke these legends without seeming heavy handed. I say this while fully acknowledging that there is a lot of description and info-dumping (Will is literally given an info dump in the form of a book of Gramayre), but it’s balanced nicely against the action and the imminent threat of the Dark. One of the greatest aspects is how Cooper weaves everyday things together with the ancient, so that familiar locations, or even well-known songs, become a part of the ancient magic.
Of all the children’s series that I own, The Dark is Rising Sequence is the one that I revisit the most often. But I’ve had a hard time reading much of anything this year, so I was forced to pick just one book. And for the winter holiday season, you can hardly ask for a finer read than The Dark is Rising. It also captures the essence of the series perhaps better than any other edition. It’s not quite the beginning of the war against the Dark. It’s actually just one battle, but it’s the battle that sets the up the end game that plays out over the rest of the books. Furthermore, its ability to be so full of light and warmth during the darkest and coldest time of the year is such a perfect encapsulation of the holidays. But more than that, it tells us that there is hope during the dark times and, most importantly, that we, all of us, will beat the Dark together.
(I highly recommend checking out #TheDarkisReading on twitter and reading along through the 12 days of Yule, which began today, though the read-along began yesterday, Midwinter’s Eve.)
The Dark is Rising
Written by Susan Cooper
Originally published in 1973