Sunday, June 06, 2010

Book Review: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

Book: The Dark is Rising
Author: Susan Cooper
Published: 1973
Source: library

Who I Told I’d Read It: nobody really; this was the audiobook I was listening to while cooking and exercising and doing all the other things it's inadvisable to do with your eyes otherwise occupied.
Time: 2:40:06 (during the 48HBC)

Will Stanton is used to being overlooked and left behind. He's not bitter about it; that's just the way life is for the youngest of a very large family. But on the morning of his eleventh birthday, he wakes into a strange, still world. Inside his house, none of his brothers or sisters will wake up. Outside is not the familiar Thames Valley he's always known, but a snow-blanketed landscape from long ago.

When he ventures out into it, his true nature is revealed to him. He's an Old One, servant of the Light, last in a long line of immortal beings pledged to fight the Dark. And throughout the coming Christmas season, he alone must seek out the six Signs of the Light, that will aid them in their battle. Because if the Dark gets them first, there's no telling what evil will swamp the world.

I read this for the first time in fourth grade, and I can clearly remember the experience. I've never been a high fantasy girl, but The Dark is Rising was my exception. I marinated in this book and its sequels, soaking up the glorious language, the firm anchoring in the English, Cornish, and Welsh countrysides, and the underpinnings of Arthurian myth. It's probably the reason for my persistent Anglophilia. Returning to it, I wondered how the book itself would measure up to my memories.

This is a story of growing up fast and brutal, no question. At a time of year when everyone is permitted to be a child, Will must be an adult, making hard choices for himself and for the family that has always nurtured and protected him. Cooper is almost systematic about stripping away his protection. At different times, he sees almost every member of his family affected by his quest, turned from steady dependable anchors into fearful, helpless human beings in various situations that Will must then handle. It's something we all learn, but not in the space of three weeks. Caught between being an eleven-year-old boy and an immortal Old One, Will yearns to be one or the other, knowing that to fulfill his quest, he must balance both. His humanity is as important to the story as his magical powers, and Cooper keeps him (and us) from arrogance by inserting reminders of old, wild magic that are beyond either.

For sure, this is a book that couldn't have been written today. The Light is good and the Dark is bad and there's an end to it. Post-Watergate (which scandal was probably just beginning to break as Cooper was writing), we require a little more in the way of proof, and we also like to see a little more internal conflict in a person called to a great and terrible destiny. Will sees his duty and falls in line, without question. He has moments of weakness and doubt, but he doubts himself, never the Light nor Merriman Lyon, its representative. Additionally, I had problems with the women in the story, who all tend to be either silly (Will's sisters), evil (a neighbor girl who seduces a human ally away from the Light), or iconic (Miss Greythorne and the Lady). Finally, it's more than a little unlikely that the Six Signs would all turn up so handily close to Will's home.

But those are things you think about away from the grip of the story. Returning to this book after many years dropped me right back into my love affair with it. Maybe it's something about being so devoted to it when I was young, or maybe it's simply the power of Cooper's writing, but I felt all the old prickles of awe and meloncholy that it evoked in me twenty years ago.


Melissa said...

Interesting thoughts on the women. It always did bother me a bit that Jane was so shunted to the side.

Bibliovore said...

I hate to fall back on the old "it was the times" nugget, but there you have it. This series might be boy-centric because fantasy wasn't regarded as a girly genre (even now it's perceived as very testosterony) and "boys don't want to read about girls." Or perhaps Cooper just concentrated on characters who didn't have the pressure to be feminine on top of everything else. Girls, after all, were meant to be concerned with house and home, while boys had to take care of the larger world, and this is a very big world to be taking care of.

Even Meg Murray had a distressing tendency to scream and clutch in a pinch. Sigh.