SPOILER WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED. This writeup is a labor of love, not a teaser to try and get others to read the book. It is more a combination of nostalgia and literary analysis than a review, per se, so read this writeup at your peril if you have not yet read the book.
The Dark is Rising is the second in Susan Cooper's acclaimed series of children's fantasy novels, The Dark is Rising Sequence. Its central character is a young boy named Will Stanton, who, on the dawn of his eleventh birthday, discovers that he is no ordinary human. The book follows Will's journey from fear and disbelief to his acceptance of the awesome yet burdensome responsibility of great power.
One of the marks of a well-done fantasy story is a seamless blending of the magical and the mundane. Cooper does this with great skill in The Dark is Rising: letting bits of strangeness creep gradually into what begins as a perfectly ordinary overcast day in a small English village. Most of the story takes place in the modern era; The Dark is Rising was published in 1973, but it could easily occur anywhere between the 1950s and the 21st century. Some things -- family banter, the busy hum of a small town going about its Christmas business, the atmospheric wafting of familiar smells and carols through the house -- are as timeless as the seasons themselves.
The Dark is Rising is divided into three sections:
Part 1 - The Finding, in which Will's destiny and true nature is revealed to him. Here, we are introduced to most of the book's major characters, and to the general nature of the forces of good and evil in Cooper's universe.
Part 2 - The Learning, in which Will gains a deeper understanding of what it means to be an Old One -- an immortal guardian of mankind and vessel for the powers of good.
Part 3 - The Testing, in which the powers of the Dark wreak havoc on Will's small hometown village, and he is forced to engage his new abilities and cooperate with new associates in order to save his loved ones and neighbors.
Careful readers will note that strange things are happening right from the beginning of the book...the radio crackles whenever Will walks by it, rabbits shrink back in fear when he approaches to feed him, and wild birds go into a frenzy. Of course, Will and his brother James dismiss these events as coincidence -- after all, Will is just an ordinary boy. Will starts to awaken to the idea that the odd happenings of the day might have something to do with him when he receives an unusual birthday present from Mr. Dawson, a friend of the family.
"I have something for you."
He glanced briefly round the yard and withdrew one hand from his pocket;
in it, Will saw what looked like a kind of ornament, made of black metal,
a flat circle quartered by two crossed lines.
He took it, fingering it curiously. It was about the size of his palm, and quite heavy,
roughly forged out of iron, he guessed, though with no sharp points or edges.
The iron was cool to his hand.
"What is it?" he said.
"For the moment," Mr. Dawson said,
"just call it something to keep. To keep with you always, all the time.
Put it in your pocket, now.
And later on, loop your belt through it, and wear it like an extra buckle." (Cooper, 8)
The strange iron ornament marks the beginning of Will's first quest, and gives him a title to match his destiny: he is the Sign-Seeker. Throughout the book, he is to gather all six of the great Signs of Power, each forged in a different era, of different material. Looking for the Signs involves a combination of perceptive senses, determination, and being in the right place at the right time. Along the way, Will encounters numerous tests of courage, perception, and strength of mind. Cooper's highly evocative, descriptive storytelling makes The Dark is Rising worth an infinite number of readings.
Will seems a rather nondescript character at first, but it becomes apparent that he is simply introverted and a bit quiet. There is plenty going on in his head. Will is also insatiably curious about certain things, and will always investigate an unfamiliar situation rather than ignore or disregard it. While basically a well-behaved boy, Will does have the capacity for mischief -- he and his brother James are often cohorts in silliness and playful teasing.
The Stantons are a huge family: two parents, nine children, two dogs, and a smattering of rabbits and hens. Alice Stanton is the matron of the family: she comes from a long line of farmers, and is stubborn, tough, clearheaded and kind. Roger Stanton is a jeweler in the village; he is reminiscent of a gnome in some ways, with his intense attention to the quality and detail of his work. He can be distracted at times in an absent-minded professor sort of way, but he cares deeply for his family. The Stanton parents are very pleasant people; they seem very mellow, especially considering the nine children they are raising! They both share a jovial, if dry, wit that they seem to have transmitted to their offspring.
Stephen is the eldest child; he is probably in his mid-twenties, and a member of the Royal Navy. Max is a somewhat gruff art student. Barbara and Gwen are the eldest female children; they both seem rather gossipy and prone to nagging. Robin and Paul are teenage twin boys; Robin being muscular and interested in mechanical things, and Paul being something of a musical prodigy, especially on the flute. Mary is a silly, sometimes witty, fourteen-year-old who is somewhat preoccupied with her hair and figure. James is a twelve, mischevious, fond of food and singing. He and Will are very close, though James seems a bit more impish and prone to making snide remarks.
Outside the Stanton family (and perhaps with roles more critical than any family members besides Will), the most important characters in The Dark is Rising are the Master of Light known as Merriman Lyon, the Master of the Dark known simply as the "Black Rider", and a mysterious, ragged fellow referred to as "The Walker".
Merriman is extremely old -- in fact, he is said to be the first of the Old Ones, which could certainly put him at several thousand. He is a kindhearted, if a bit stern, master with the air and bearing of a professor. We meet Merriman in his various guises in each of the novels in The Dark is Rising Sequence; in this second book, his primary tasks seem to be that of guiding and protecting Will as he comes into his own as the last of the Old Ones, and of helping to keep the rising Dark at bay. Merriman is described as:
...a strong, bony head, with deep-set eyes and an arched nose fierce as a hawk's beak; a sweep of wiry white hair springing back from the high forehead; bristling brows and a jutting chin. (Cooper, 34)
Throughout the story, Merriman's relationship with Will seems rather like that of an uncle; the great Circle of Old Ones is very like a family, tied by the common destiny and power held by its members. He is both an authority figure and a confidante, primarily for those issues that Will must keep hidden from his family, lest their minds be broken by the will of the Dark.
One does not immediately get the impression that the Black Rider is as powerful a master as Merriman; he seems to be more of an agent for the powers he represents, sort of a liason between the Dark and the world of mortals. His first attempts to sway Will from the Light are subtle, and involve actions as simple of asking Will to have breakfast with him. Later on, the insidious nature of the Rider becomes apparent when he appears on the Stanton family doorstep on Christmas morning; it turns out that he has an alias -- that of Mr. Mitothin, a diamond dealer. Apparently, the Rider / Mitothin has been doing business with Roger Stanton's jewelry shop for several years. It seems likely that this "business" relationship was simply an attempt to get closer to Will, for both the Masters of the Light and of the Dark have been awaiting the birth and subsequent coming-of-age of the last Old One. The Rider is described as tall, given to wearing long, dark cloaks, and having longish red hair. His overall impression is one of strangeness, that of someone who ought not to be trusted; even his speech is marked by a peculiar accent Will learns is an indicator that the speaker is an agent of the Dark.
The Walker is a tragic, essential figure. He is first noticed by Will and his brother James on the evening before Will's birthday. The Walker wears loose, flapping, dirty, ragged garments and sports a long messy beard. He is assumed to be nothing more than an annoyance, a pitiful old tramp who probably would like nothing more than to get into your silver cabinet. However, Will's and the Walker's paths must cross, for the Walker holds the second of the great Signs of Power: the Sign of Bronze, which he has been carrying for centuries. Earlier in his life, the Walker betrayed the Light and was doomed to a long, dreary, pathetic existence as the bearer of the Sign. The account of the betrayal is, at least to me, somewhat disturbing, because I can definitely see why the Walker made his choice. The Light and the Old Ones who keep its power are granted eternal life and various forms of power; the Walker grew envious of this power and longevity after spending years as Merriman's liege man nearly five hundred years before Will's birth. Wouldn't it be mere pittance to grant the Walker, once known as Hawkin, a long life as reward for his loyalty? Sadly, some laws of the Universe are immutable, and some loyalties shall remain their own reward. Most mortal men require tangible proof of love, and Merriman perhaps assumed Hawkin's sensibilities far closer to those of an Old One than they actually were.
The Forces that Gather
Despite the fact that the Light are supposed to be the good guys in The Dark Is Rising, some of their practices and methods disturb me somewhat. Perhaps this is intentional: there is an air of, "We need to do these things, but to mortal men they might seem cruel or duplicitous". In a sense, this is the same thing that disturbs me about certain religious ideas -- the concept that certain things need to be done, and the means are sometimes beyond the comprehension of mere humans. Specifically, members of the Light must often lie, even to the ones they love, to protect them from information that presumably they wouldn't be able to handle. And mortals are sometimes used by the Light as tools, servants, or simply pieces of the puzzle. This bothers me a bit, because I like to know everything that goes on, and would much rather be privy to a painful, shocking, or amazing truth than be left in the dark for my own perceived protection. However, one way to look at the situation is that even the great Masters of the Light are merely vessels for the power of the Light itself: both mortals and immortals have a part to play, and the goal of vanquishing the Dark cannot be accomplished by one group or the other alone, but through cooperation. I just have difficulty getting past the fact that sometimes the Light will tell mortals to do things without explaining why.
Nevertheless, the masters and intentions of the Light are certainly kinder and more sincere than those of the Dark. The Dark is a selfish, insistent, nagging force. Throughout the book, they persist in attempting to sway Will from the Light, first through simply engaging him in friendly (if somewhat ominous) conversation, and when this fails, through all sorts of emotionally manipulative means. It is not entirely clear what the final aim of the Dark is...perhaps it is destruction of the world of men, but more likely, it is enslavement to some unspeakably horrible purpose. Most of all, it is the seizure of power that the Dark lusts after. The Light simply accepts that power exists, and searches tirelessly for means of channeling, interpreting, and organizing it appropriately. The Dark wants more power, and sometimes it seems as if their lust for it is barely contained.
Number symbolism in The Dark is Rising concerns Will's age and birth order. The number eleven has mystical significance in many cultures, as does the number seven -- and Will is the seventh son of a seventh son. It was once thought that a seventh son (or daughter) in a family would be blessed with second sight or occult knowlege of some sort, and that a seventh son of a seventh son was even luckier (or oddly fated, depending on who you ask!).
The importance of names is also brought to light in the story; Will has a dangerous encounter with a "witch girl" who goes by the common name Maggie Barnes. Merriman comes to Will's rescue, armed with an extremely powerful weapon -- Maggie's real name. To know the true name of any creature is to gave some measure of power over that creature; again, this is a motif found in numerous cultures and belief systems.
Cooper uses the very terms "Light" and "Dark" to mean "Good" and "Evil". This is an extremely common practice; for the forces of evil are said to operate in obscurity and shadow, and to be marked with impurity. Light indicates sincerity, goodness, and a cleanliness of intent. In most Western societies we wear white at weddings and black at funerals. Darth Vader is enrobed entirely in black, while Princess Leia is resplendent in flowing white gowns. Perhaps this is a simplistic and sometimes ill-used form of symbolism, but it extremely ancient and very convenient; everyone gets the idea of what you mean when you talk about the Forces of Light versus the Forces of Darkness.
The six Signs of Power that Will is sent on a quest to collect all have the same shape: a circle, quartered by a cross. This symbol is an extremely ancient representation of the powers of Light; it was probably first used by ancient Western Europeans and Native Americans as a sun-symbol. Later, the design was co-opted by the Celts, making it both a Christian and pre-Christian symbol. The Dark is Rising does not promote or teach any particular religion, Christian or otherwise. In fact, at one point in the book, an Old One explains to the rector of the small local church that the "crosses" on Will's belt are, "Very old...Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ." The battle between the Light and the Dark is as old as the Universe itself, and therefore is independent of any religion practiced by mortal men. These are critical, yet esoteric matters that few can have a hand in, but that many are affected by.
The following poem summarizes The Dark is Rising Sequence; the second stanza concerns the second book, describing Will's prophesied obtaining of the signs:
When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track.
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.
Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning, stone out of song;
Fire in the candle-ring, water from the thaw;
Six Signs the circle, and the grail gone before.
Fire on the mountain, shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.
Cooper employs elemental symbolism here; the idea that different forms of matter somehow are imbued with different flavors of power is another extremely ancient and culturally widespread concept. Each Sign was forged in a different age, of different material than any of its brothers. Yet they share the quartered-circle shape as well as the destiny of aiding the Light.
Continuing the theme of elemental symbolism, Will gets the beautiful snow on his birthday that he so longed for, but the fluffy blanket soon becomes an oppressive wall of storm and cold. Injuries, illness, and scarcity of the necessities of life make it clear that this is no ordinary storm, but an attempt by the Dark to close off and starve one of the most crucial, if unlikely, bastions of good in the world at that time: Will's village. Will, Merriman, and the other Old Ones must join forces to help the townspeople, and ultimately the world, survive this terrible onsalught.
I consider The Dark is Rising something of a holiday tradition, since I first read it right around my own eleventh birthday (which, like Will's, is a few days before Christmas). I will always associate The Dark is Rising with the scents of pine and cider, the mystical faery-sparkle of new frost, and a sense of awe at the power of the elements and seasons. This book is perhaps not the most original story ever written, but it is a brilliant assemblage of cultural and historical elements, primarily Celtic and English tradition and mythology. This book, and its companion volumes, sparked an insatiable interest in me regarding Arthurian legend and the history of the British Isles. I am nearly through my thirteenth annual reading of this book, and its capacity to delight the imagination has not faded in the least.
If you are another who has loved this book for years, hopefully reading what I have written here has brought back pleasant memories. If you are a lover of fantasy who has not read The Dark is Rising, and you've read this far despite the spolier warnings, hopefully you will find time to curl up under a blanket and disappear into the world of magic Susan Cooper has masterfully spun.
Cooper, Susan. The Dark is Rising. New York:
Collier Books, 1986. Text copyright 1973 by Susan Cooper.
Submitted for The Ninjagirls Christmas Special, since the book centers around the Christmas holiday and is a Christmas tradition for me.