I've spent a delicious few days reading the first two of 'The Dark is Rising'
sequence, and decided I'd throw down a few of the thoughts that have struck me this time around. Not a review as such, just some things that wafted through my head as I read.
I should mention that there are **spoiler alerts**
First up, 'Over Sea, Under Stone'.
1. This, of all the five books in the sequence, is the only most firmly rooted as a children's book. Also, while many of the pieces for the subsequent books are set in play, it seems to me that Cooper is still learning her writerly licks. I wonder how old she was when she wrote it ...2. "Great-uncle Merry walked along beside them in silence, very tall, brooding, his face lost in the shadows. With every long stride he seemed to merge into the night, as if he belonged to the mystery and the silence and the small nameless sounds."
This gorgeous description showcases Cooper's gift with words, and perfectly sums up the mysterious figure known to the three children at the heart of the book as Great-uncle Merry. His full name is Merriman Lyon. It's Barney, the youngest of the children, who realises at the end of the book who he might really be (the clue's in the name).
3. Cooper has a gift for portraying snapshot moments that stick in the memory. In this book, for example, the moment Jane and Simon turn to see dark figures lit by the moonlight up at the standing stones on the headland they have just left, is truly creepy.
4. I liked the fact that the children get scared quite a lot, and have to battle their very understandable fear. It works to enhance their ultimate courage.
5. Landscape, landscape, landscape. A sleepy Cornish fishing village in high summer, its cliffs and seascape, are core to the plot and the atmosphere.
And next, 'The Dark is Rising'.
This is my favourite of the series, and was actually the first I read, way back when. It's also likely that this book was responsible for instilling in me a love of using weather to enhance mood and story. There's a clear step-up in writerly technique in this book, with Cooper ironing out extraneous adverb-usage and tightening her storytelling. At its heart lies a perfectly-paced quest, in which all the pieces fit together just so.
Also, gorgeously creepy cover, or what?
1. This time around, the part of the story that really grabbed me was the subplot around the tragic character of Hawkin. Foster-son of Merriman Lyon from the thirteenth century, he is taken out of his own time in order to play a pivotal role in Will (the MC's) story. His reaction to what he is required to do, and his subsequent betrayal of Merriman and the Light, is that of a character of complexity and depth.
2. And speaking of Merriman, am I the only person who finds him frightening? Always did. While he's a key agent of the Light, and first among the Old Ones, he can also be grim and distant and intimidating, with his "fierce, secret face." He's like a combination of Gandalf and Saruman.
3. This is the main book of the series in which the time of year and the weather are particularly significant. Set between Midwinter and Twelfth Night, when the power of the Dark is at its greatest, this is a book of snow storms and fearsome cold, sent and used by the powers of the Dark to gain their foothold on the winter-locked country. The atmosphere of encroaching cold and growing fear is perfectly evoked, and deliciously shiversome.
4. For a relatively slim children's book, this one has a wide cast of characters, from Will Stanton's enormous, mayhemic family to the local Old Ones, agents of the Dark, and other village folk. It's striking how successfully Cooper creates pen-portraits of each one.
5. I still love the use of the Hunting of the Wren in the story. It's one of those ancient British traditions that's so strange it always makes me wonder where its origins lie.
6. In fact, Cooper has successfully bound together traditional folklore tropes and strands of old, old history to creates a new mythology that's utterly convincing. It goes to show that if you weave your invented world/magic system with threads of real, historically-rooted facts, it helps create a depth and resonance it might otherwise lack.
7. Perhaps one of the reasons why this book appealed to me so powerfully when I was a sprog was that it is full of things I was already falling in love with - ancient British folklore and Dark Age history, with echoes of the Anglo Saxon Sutton Hoo ship burial in the King of Ice and Fire. It's no coincidence that I went on to specialise in Dark Age history for my degree, with a focus on the pagan Anglo Saxons. It probably also explains why the era never entirely ceased being bound up with magic for me, despite three years studying it as an archaeologist and historian. What can I say? 'The Dark is Rising'
marked me for life!