Susan Cooper’s classic Dark Is Rising Sequence holds a fond place in many a child’s heart, and the hearts of many adults who read the books in their youth. My wife Alexa is one of them. Recently the series came up in conversation with a friend of ours, who is also a big fan, and I decided I would give it a shot. Alexa already owned all the volumes in a vintage boxed set from Collier Books, so I didn’t have to look far.
I started reading 1973’s The Dark Is Rising, not realizing it’s actually the second book in the series, not the first (that honor belongs to Over Sea, Under Stone, which was published almost ten years prior). But that’s okay, because The Dark Is Rising focuses on a completely different set of characters from the first book. On his eleventh birthday, Will Stanton discovers he is an Old One, an immortal guardian whose job is to fight off the Dark using secret magic. Several other people in town turn out to be Old Ones too, like a local farmer and an eccentric rich woman, and they set Will on his quest to find the six magical Signs that will stop the Rider and his fellow agents of the Dark from…well, ruining everything, I guess. It’s not really explained what the Dark will do. But with a name like the Dark, you know it’s got to be pretty bad, right? (At one point the Dark forces attack the rich woman’s manor house with apparitions of giant ice candles that seem to come closer and closer, but it’s never revealed what will happen if they get too close. That’s the extent of the danger.) Also, Will has something like ten siblings, and they all squabble constantly, except when they’re singing carols at Christmastime, and they’re all excellent singers though Will is the best. The Old Ones even give him time off from his quest to go caroling because, you know, it’s Christmas. It’s very much that kind of book.
I think, had I also been eleven when I was introduced to the story, I would have been caught up in it instantly. But as an adult, I think my window of opportunity for enjoying it has closed. Will is very much the hero of a YA fantasy from the early 1970s in that he doesn’t actually do much. He is simply led from location to location, with the first hundred pages or so taken up with Will looking at various things, people, and places that have been revealed to him now that he has come of proper age to be an Old One. (Eleven strikes me as young for assuming such a heavy mantle, especially with the name Old One attached, but perhaps it wasn’t such a glaring issue in the 1970s.) Later, as Will takes on his quest, he again remains passive, basically led to the places he needs to be by his Old One mentor, Merriman Lyon, and then having the hidden Signs pointed out to him. His only job seems to be to then pick them up and take them, at which point the Old Ones cheer that he has found another hidden Sign, even though they pretty much found it and pointed it out for him. It got to the point where I was starting to wonder if the whole thing was an elaborate trap for Will, that if he collected all six Signs something terrible would happen to him, but it’s not that kind of book. Instead, he’s just a terribly passive hero. Still, I could see how this might resonate with young children, who are used to relying on adults for guidance and explanation. But as an adult reader I much prefer heroes who actually do things, who take a more active part in their destiny, and so The Dark Is Rising only left me frustrated.
Not that there isn’t much to recommend the novel. Some of the imagery is striking — an ancient Saxon king’s funeral boat rising out of the Thamas during a flood, for instance — and Cooper plays with some very strong archetypes and mythologies. Will’s two mentors, Merriman and the mysterious Lady, could just as easily be Merlin and the Lady of the Lake. They might even be revealed as such in later volumes, but I’ll never know. After The Dark Is Rising, I’m not all that interested in reading the rest of the series. I wish the window hadn’t closed, of course, but it has, and I find my interest returning to adult fiction once more.