I’m reviewing some of my favorite wintertide comfort books for the holidays….
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper was one of my childhood pleasures in reading fantasy. It was dark, horrific, enthralling and otherworldly. Also, very English, which is what Christmas time should be, in my heart of hearts.
What’s most interesting about the The Dark is Rising is that as I’ve re-read it as an adult, the glory of what Cooper accomplished here grows. It is fundamentally a fantasy novel about a boy who discovers that he is a reincarnated “Old One” and that he has a role to play in a centuries-long battle between the Light and the Dark. Ok, so far so good…. and in the hands of a lesser writer, this would be a trite piece of throwaway fantasy.
However, what Cooper does with this basic plot is to invest our hero — Will (great name for a novel focused on free will and choices) — with so much human verisimilitude, and family issues that he is a fully fleshed human being before he ever encounters anything otherworldly.
Then when the supernatural begins to intrude, it touches Will’s life in small ways — not overt, not too much. Just strange beggars who seem lifted out of the middle ages, and symbols that mean something, but he’s not sure what. And then, in a culminating chapter of perfect wintertime fantasy, Cooper crafts a morning on which every thing is frozen in white snow, even Will’s family (caught in a deep sleep). On this morn, when Will wakes, he walks out of his house into a snow-covered Middle Ages, where the struggle between Light and Dark is overt and very real. And here he begins to encounter the truth of his new reality.
The beauty of Cooper’s work here is that she never uses the word “magic,” never has the lazy writer’s device of a simple McGuffin, and never makes any of this high fantasy into something easily explainable.
After Will begins to find out his destiny, Cooper then adds layer on layer of subtle updates that demonstrate how true evil worms its way into the hearts of those Will loves and holds dear. The stakes are high here… this is not a fantasy world that one returns from, as one jumps from a wardrobe, to find your world unchanged. No, this is a fantasy world with consequences on the family Will holds dear, and Will’s secret life cannot affect them, without disastrous consequences. Will must make choices between family, loyalty and what is right, and the moral grayness of the choice is pitched exactly right for an adolescent reader trying to understand the complexity of the adult world. It’s still pitched exactly right for me as well.
Society briefly breaks down under the weight of a horrific snowstorm, and the people are forced to flee to the Manor House…. a wonderful device to show how the story is gradually stripping the modern world down to the base requirements for life. Cooper uses the ancient Celtic roads, the idea of a Lord (or Lady) protecting their people, and the ancient tradition of the Wild Hunt to wonderful effect in her novel.
Cooper’s invocation of ancient British traditions I think is echoed today in Susanna Clarke ‘s masterful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.
And I have never read a better fantasy description of the Wild Hunt than Cooper’s haunting moonlit-driven winter hunt.
Writers as varied as Michael Chabon and Neil Gaiman have cited Cooper as an influence, but I do not think either of them have captured the magic that Cooper puts between the pages of this well plotted, precisely written book.
One of my favorite winter-time novels. The beginning is a little slow… but keep going, it’s worth the journey. The sequels to this book are well written, but are not as chock-full of good ideas and flashes of brilliance.
Even as I’ve become a writer myself, I hearken back to Cooper’s simplicity and genius for inspiration and for winter-time solace.