Susan Cooper: The Dark is Rising series

“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….”

Grey Walker wrote this review which ran first on Green Man Review.

When I was a teenager I often repeated these lines to myself as a kind of charm. It wasn’t that I expected them to make something happen; the words were a “happening” in and of themselves, and just saying them put me into the middle of it. They were a door into Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising cycle, one of the most compelling stories I had ever read. The story compels me to this day, and I continue to re-read it every few years.

The Dark is Rising cycle is composed of five books: Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch, The Grey King, and Silver on the Tree. Of the five, The Dark is Rising was a Newbery Honor Book, and The Grey King actually won the Newbery Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in children’s literature. While I do not value books simply because they win awards, the fact that Cooper’s books have won them tells me that many other people have found them as compelling as I have.

The first book in the cycle, Over Sea, Under Stone, begins with three children, Simon, Jane, and Barnabas Drew, who are on holiday in Trewissick, a sleepy Cornwall village. With them are their parents and a mysterious family friend named Merriman Lyon, whom they know simply as “Great-Uncle Merry.” The Drew children’s discovery of a real treasure map takes them on an exciting, frightening quest to discover a grail that has been hidden for over a thousand years. They are opposed by sinister enemies, but find unexpected help in Great-Uncle Merry, who turns out to be more powerful than they ever knew, an agent of what he calls “the Light.” By finding the grail, they win the first battle in a great war that is beginning all over England between the Dark and the Light.

The Dark and the Light, you see, are ancient enemies, and the Dark has chosen this time in the second half of our century to begin its last great Rising, to defeat the Light and subjugate the human race forever. In the second book in the cycle, The Dark is Rising, we meet another key fighter in this great war, Will Stanton. Will is turning eleven, and on his birthday he discovers that he is the last-born in the Circle of the Old Ones, servants of the Light. Another Old One, Merriman Lyon, teaches Will the knowledge and skills he needs to win for the Light the next battle of the great war. Will finds the six Signs, objects of power that the Light will use in the final confrontation to defeat the Dark; he also awakens Hern the Hunter to harry the Dark to the ends of the earth. 

Will and the Drews meet in the third book in the cycle, Greenwitch. The grail has been stolen, and Great-Uncle Merry brings Simon, Jane, and Barney back to Trewissick to recover it. They are dismayed to discover, however, that Great-Uncle Merry has brought another boy with him, someone named Will Stanton.

Convinced that Will will get in the way, they attempt to leave him behind as they set out to recover the grail. Will, of course, has come to Trewissick to join his master, Merriman, in helping the Drews with their task. In the end, the Drews realize that Will is perhaps just as powerful as their great uncle. But first Jane witnesses the ritual making of the Trewissick Greenwitch, a powerful but lonely creature who gives Jane an important key to the message of the grail in return for Jane’s friendship.

The fourth book is The Grey King. Will goes on a lone quest to Wales to find a golden harp whose music will awaken six Sleepers, warriors of the Light. When he arrives, Will meets a boy named Bran who agrees to help Will with his task. To find the harp, the boys must open the ancient green hills of Wales on the old Day of the Dead, now known as Hallowe’en. They are harried by the Grey King, a Lord of the Dark who has his stronghold on the Welsh mountain Cader Idris. While on the way to awaken the Sleepers, they uncover secrets about Bran’s past that link him to Arthur Pendragon, another great Lord of the Light.

In Silver on the Tree, the final book in the cycle, Will, Merriman, and the Drews return to Wales, where together with Bran they begin the final battle with the Dark. Will and Bran journey to the Lost Land, a legendary country that was drowned off the Welsh coast, and take from there a crystal Sword, the last great weapon of the Light. Then the Six of them take the Sword and the Signs in a race against the Dark to the Chiltern hills of England, where stands the Midsummer Tree. And there, by Pendragon’s Sword, the Dark falls.

Susan Cooper has said that she wrote Over Sea, Under Stone without intending to write a sequel. Sometime later she conceived the idea for the whole Dark is Rising cycle. She sat down, wrote the last page of the last book, and then wrote all of the four remaining books in about six and a half years. She wanted to create a series of books that would develop the great theme of the struggle between Good and Evil, Light and Dark. To accomplish so large a task, she chose some characters who were wholly human and some who were something a little more than human, and she placed them in the great ghostly company of legend.

It is this ghostly company that gives Cooper’s epic story its power. As she says, Wales and Cornwall and even Will Stanton’s Buckinghamshire are haunted by a long and misty past of history and myth. Cooper directly acknowledges her debt to the Mabinogion, and to the writings of Robert Graves and Walter de la Mare. However, she also remembers that, growing up in the places that form the settings for her story, she was immersed in Welsh legend, and in the stories of King Arthur and all the ancient folk beliefs about Hern the Hunter and the Greenwitch and the Brenin Llwyd, the Grey King. They were a part of her daily landscape and conversation. She heard tales about the Lost Land –an ancient Welsh version of the Atlantis story — and learned about the magical properties of trees and the powerful forces that were released on Hallowe’en, Christmas Eve and Twelfth Night.

The Dark is Rising series is dense with the riches of Cooper’s mythopoeic heritage (my thanks to the Mythopoeic Society for such a wonderful word). Will’s adventures feel freighted with significance because they take place during the twelve days of Christmas, or, later, at Hallowe’en. The six Signs take their power from the primal elements of which they are made: wood, bronze, iron, fire, water, and stone. The grail, the golden harp, and Pendragon’s crystal sword awaken echoes of other old stories, old songs. Because we, the readers, have heard snatches of the old lore before, we feel their significance. 

Perhaps the strange creatures from folklore affect us most of all. Herne the Hunter, with his stag’s horns and his Hell Hounds, gives us a thrill of wonder and a shiver of fear. (See Jo Morroson’s review of Jane Yolen’s The Wild Hunt for another perspective on Herne the Hunter.) So does the Greenwitch, woven by night of fresh-cut green branches and then cast into the sea at sunrise. And the Grey King, with his creeping breath of cold mist on the hillsides, turns our shiver into a shudder of pure dread.

As if this were not enough, Cooper catches at our hearts by tying into her epic the most beloved strand of all, the legend of King Arthur. Merriman Lyon, as you might guess, was long ago Arthur’s trusted advisor, and the power of the Light takes the characters backward and forward through time, so that Arthur’s deeds and his mission directly affect their own. In The Grey King this effect is felt most strongly, but the whole cycle bears the impress of the truest of Britain’s kings.

In our time, folklore and legends are often relegated to the children’s section of book stores and libraries, along with fairy tales. So also is Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. But although her protagonists are all children with the exception of Merriman, the tasks they undertake and the wonders and horrors they face have the ageless quality that is the hallmark of all great stories.

I am not the first adult to want to have my own children chiefly for the pleasure of sharing with them the great stories that can be found in “their” books. There is nothing so wonderful as being with someone who is encountering for the first time a character or scene from a story that I deeply love myself. But whether or not you are a child or have children to read to, please give yourself permission to venture into their section and find The Dark is Rising. And when you reach the part of the story where Will hears the music of the Doors for the first time, you might let me know, so that I can share the encounter with you.

All five of the books in The Dark is Rising series are still in print, and should be available from your local or online bookstore. Copies can also frequently be found in used bookstores and at public libraries. I recommend that you try to find one of the old hardcover editions of the cycle in order to see the dust jacket art. It is an eerie collage of photography and painted artwork that truly suits the story.

Visit Susan Cooper’s Wales.

Over Sea, Under Stone (HRW, 1965)
The Dark is Rising (HRW, 1967)
Greenwitch (McElderry, 1974)
The Grey King (Atheneum, 1975)
Silver on the Tree (Atheneum, 1977) 

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