Roots and Beginnings: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper
In the “Roots and Beginnings” series (title swiped from Tolkien; if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best) I’ll be checking in on a semi-regular basis to talk about the works that helped jumpstart my lifelong love of the literature of the fantastic. I’d like to start with The Dark Is Rising Sequence by Susan Cooper.
As a kid I tended to prefer off-model fantasies like this to books that were more directly indebted to Professor T. I’m not sure why. Could it be that I understood the principle of diminishing returns even then? At any rate, while I never touched Brooks or Jordan I nevertheless remained firmly planted in the fantasy section of the local library, and this series in particular stuck in my memory long after I read it. I re-read the whole thing a couple years ago and was struck by how much of the “action” consisted simply of a series of revelations and recitations of the rules that secretly governed the two warring sides in a light-vs.-dark magical war dating from the dawn of time and structured around the Arthurian legends, mostly of Wales. In lesser hands this would be a disappointment — after all, characters standing around lobbing infodumps at one another is not usually such stuff as dreams are made of.
What made the series work is its enormously evocative sense of place and of season. The Dark Is Rising is the second book in the series and the first one I read (Over Sea, Under Stone never made it into the YA section, I’m afraid), and it takes place before, during, and just after Christmas in a quiet English village. I’ve never experienced a quiet English village at Christmastime or any other time, but Cooper makes me feel that I have: a snow-covered, numinous world of ancient carols and repurposed paganism, kindly vicars and icy candlelit windows, holly and “In the Bleak Midwinter,” holidays in honor of saints and holy men during which the world beyond draws nearer to our own.
Thinking about it now, this is what appeals to me about Christmastime in general, despite my thoroughly lapsed Catholicism. The holiday season is nothing more or less than a collective decision by society to transform itself. Suddenly everyone’s wearing red and green. Suddenly the music on the radio is redolent of sleigh bells and strings. Suddenly you drive around your neighborhood and it’s lit up like Lothlorien. Suddenly you’re thinking about giving everyone you care about presents just to make them happy. Suddenly the social imperative is kindness to your fellow human beings. Whatever your objections to commercialism, or to the religious component or lack thereof, this is nothing more or less than a massive work of magic, isn’t it? We’ve taken the everyday world and made something new and exciting out of it by sheer force of will. What a brilliant idea to harness this for your story of a boy chosen to turn back the Dark.
The rector stood up, his smooth, plump face creased in an effort to make sense of the incomprehensible. “Certainly it has gone,” he said, looking slowly around the church. “Whatever–influence it was. The Lord be praised.” He too looked at the Signs on Will’s belt, and he glanced up again, smiling suddenly, an almost childish smile of relief and delight. “That did the work, didn’t it? The cross. Not one of the church, but a Christian cross, nonetheless.”
“Very old, them crosses are, rector,” said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. “Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ.”
The rector beamed at him. “But not before God,” he said simply.
The Old Ones looked at him. There was no answer that would not have offended him, so no one tried to give one. Except, after a moment, Will.
“There’s not really any before and after, is there?” he said. “Everything that matters is outside Time. And comes from there and can go there.”
Mr Beaumont turned to him in surprise. “You mean infinity, of course, my boy.”
“Not altogether,” said the Old One that was Will. “I mean the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or today or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level. Yesterday is still there, on that level. Tomorrow is there too. You can visit either of them. And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for. And,” he added sadly, “the opposite, too.”
“Will,” said the rector, staring at him, “I am not sure whether you should be exorcised or ordained. You and I must have some long talks, very soon.”