Every year, as a Christmas present to myself, I re-read the work of one of my favourite childhood authors. It's a kind of gift of wonder and magic to myself, a reminder of the time when being given books for Christmas was my greatest joy.
This tradition began with my decision a few years ago to re-read the works of Susan Cooper, a British author who was born on 23 May 1935. The five books in ‘The Dark is Rising Sequence’ are among my most treasured books from my childhood. I have the old Puffin paperbacks, which cost my aunt $2.75 each when she bought them for my 11th birthday. I have read them so many times they are battered and creased and faded. Here is a brief precis for those of you who have never had the pleasure of reading these wonderful books:
Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in the series, and was written by Susan Cooper in response to a publishing contest organised to honour the memory of Edith Nesbit, one of the great Golden Age children’s writers. She did not finish the manuscript in time to enter, and the book was subsequently turned down by more than twenty publishers, before being accepted by Jonathan Cape and published in 1965.
It tells the story of Simon, Jane and Barney who go to Cornwall on a holiday with their family and end up being caught up in a quest to find the lost Holy Grail. Drawing on Arthurian mythology but set in contemporary times, the book introduces the children’s Great-Uncle Merry, a professor at Oxford who ends up revealing mysterious powers. The book is more like an old-fashioned mystery than a traditional fantasy, except with eerie unsettling moments of darkness and magic, particularly towards the end.
The second book in the series, The Dark is Rising, was published in 1973. It tells the story of Will Stanton, seventh son of a seventh son, who turns 11 on Midwinter Eve, and finds his safe and comfortable world threatened by strange and eerie events. For Will is, he discovers, an Old One, destined to fight on behalf of the Light against the ancient and malevolent forces of the Dark. Merriman Lyon – the character of Great-Uncle Merry – returns as the Oldest of the Old Ones, and becomes Will’s guardian and mentor. Will needs to find Six Signs if he is to defeat the forces of darkness this midwinter and help fulfil a mysterious prophecy:
“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 old.
Power from the Green Witch, lost beneath the sea.
All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.”
Of all the books in the series, The Dark is Rising is my favourite, perhaps because it was the first I ever read, perhaps because of the vividness of the setting (a small snow-bound English village that seems outwardly normal but is still shadowed with magic, menace and danger), perhaps because I loved the idea of an ordinary boy who finds himself the carrier of an extraordinary destiny. The book as a ALA Newbery Honor Book in 1974, and is often named on lists of the best books for children ever published.
Greenwitch, the third in the series, brings Simon, Jane and Barney back to the little Cornish village where they had discovered the lost Holy Grail. Jane watches an ancient ritualised offering to the sea and makes a wish that then helps the Light unlock the secrets of the Grail. Greenwitch is the favourite of many female readers of this series, because the key protagonist is a girl and she triumphs not because of any battle of strength, but because she is compassionate and empathetic.
The Grey King, the fourth book, returns to the point-of-view of Will. He wakes after a long and terrible illness with no memory of his role as an Old One and at risk from the forces of the Dark who seek to strike him own while he is vulnerable. Sent to Wales to recuperate, Will meets an albino teenager called Bran who has a strange dog like a wolf. Guided only by snatches of memory, Will and Bran must find the golden harp that will waken the Sleepers under the hill. This is my favourite second of the series, again because of the setting – the wild mountains and moors of Wales is brought so wonderfully to life – and also because of the sense of the great struggle between the forces of good and evil. The Grey King won the 1976 Newbery Medal.
Silver on the Tree is the final book in the series, and brings Will and Bran together with Simon, Jane and Barney and their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry. They are searching for a magical crystal sword which will enable them to cut the mystical mistletoe, the ‘silver on the tree’, in the final battle against the Dark. Drawing on Welsh mythology and stories of a drowned land, the suspense is heightened by the presence of a hidden enemy, someone who is trusted but betrays them in the end.
It was truly wonderful to re-read this series, which had such a powerful shaping force upon my imagination as a child.
Want to read more about my lifelong love of Susan Cooper and her work?