I loved Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) when I was a child. At the time it was a stand-alone story. The rest of the books in the sequence weren’t written, or even conceived, until long after this first one was published. So I came to its sequel, The Dark Is Rising (1973), only this year, as an adult reader. I’ve forgotten all but the bare bones of the first book, except that it rapidly drew me in and introduced me to the legend of Arthur and the Grail quest.
I identified with Over Sea, Under Stone partly because it was set on the south coast of Cornwall in a landscape very familiar to me from summer holidays: my mother’s family live in that part of the world. The Drew children visit their great uncle Merriman Lyon for a holiday and stumble on a local mystery. So far, so children’s adventure…But then it gets deeper, turning very satisfactorily into a battle between the ancient powers of Light and Darkness.
I featured The Dark Is Rising on my recent wintry reads post and can’t imagine tackling it on a hot summer holiday. The action this time takes place over and around the winter solstice. Cooper grew up in Buckinghamshire, England – vividly depicted in The Dark Is Rising – but conceived the book while cross-country skiing through woods in Massachusetts, where she has lived for many years; and I think those surroundings make their mark on the novel, too.
I do like this cover on my recent Vintage Classics edition, even with the slightly worrying South Park vibe of that orange-coated figure in the snow! It’s suitably chilly and the rearing horse and rider plus the sinister rooks hint at all the right story elements.
This time the family is the Stantons, with their rather unlikely ten children, partly because Will has to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a rare and chosen person. On the eve of his 11th birthday strange things begin to happen and Will’s ordinary, busy family preparations for Christmas turn so much murkier. The walls between his familiar world and a much older one grow thin and permeable. Shapes shift, Will travels in time and place, and meets The Old Ones who show him things and grant him knowledge almost overpowering to such a young boy. He discovers he has a key role – whether he wants it or not – in the endless fight between the forces of good and evil, light and dark. Merriman Lyon is again a vital figure, striding through the landscape full of ancient wisdom. Other Old Ones are strange versions of Will’s own neighbours, their own powers fiercely tested by the fight. Elements of British myth, like Herne the Hunter, are skilfully woven into the story to give it a wild, weird texture.
I know this is a very admired story, but coming to it now I found two problems with it, one large, one small.
Will is the kind of protagonist writers are warned against creating – he is very passive. (Passive protagonists can be annoying to identify with; the reader may just want to give them a kick up the pants.) The role of the Old Ones is to educate Will and, if they can, protect him. He is given visions. He is shown things, told things; when he’s unsure what to do next he’s told to wait and he will know, instinctively, or creatures will come out of the dark and the snow to lead him. And they do. He’s handed about like a parcel. Sure, sometimes he has to battle his utmost, but I never felt in doubt that he wouldn’t overcome, or have the right vision, or be saved by outward influence – even in the climactic fight. He doesn’t ever have to solve a problem himself, by his own ingenuity. Call me a cynical old adult, but I just didn’t engage with him enough as an active character to really worry for him. Perhaps if I’d read this book as a child I would have been swept along with Will’s journey and not felt the loss of narrative tension.
The only time he has any real agency, where I felt a charge of tension, is early on. Will has been shown he has to power to make fire, and like a typical young boy decides to test it out on a walk home down an out-of-the-way alley. His totally understandable experiment draws the attention of wicked forces, confusingly disguised as a local farm girl. This isn’t just wafting and drifting and going with the mythic flow. It’s Will making a unilateral decision and finding it’s a mistake. But then Merriman appears to save him and tell him a bit more useful stuff! And vanish again.
The other problem is a lesser one but niggling. It’s the girls.
Will has five brothers (another died as a baby) and three sisters, a big jolly household where dad works as a jeweller and mum keeps things going at home in their country cottage. Ten kids is pretty unusual for the early 1970s, and a non-Catholic family, but hey ho. The eldest, Stephen, Will’s hero, is away in the navy and sadly never does show up, though a significant gift arrives from him. All the boys, from adult Stephen down to Will as youngest, are lovingly drawn. They are talented: Paul plays the flute beautifully, James and Will are good singers, Robin’s mechanically-minded and ‘an excellent footballer’, Max fixes things. They willingly help with fetching the logs and the Christmas tree and sweeping snow. There’s jolly banter and sibling goodwill. They are described in a way that makes you think they’d look a rather attractive bunch to outsiders, and they’re unfailingly cheerful, charming and communicative.
Now, anyone who’s raised – or been – an adolescent boy – would you say that particularly those last three words are the first you’d pull out of the descriptive bag? Teenage boys can be charming, cheerful, helpful, and communicative, of course. But that’s truly not the default setting.
On to the girls. My feeling is that Cooper chucked in three girls just so that there weren’t only the seven necessary boy siblings – oh, and to give someone for Will to rescue. I found it hard to distinguish Gwen, Barbara and Mary. I found it hard to recall their names. We first meet them just before a noisy family mealtime, and how are they described? First sight of Gwen: patiently setting the table. Mary is ‘plump’, and listening to blasting pop music on the radio. She pouts when told to turn it off. Barbara is ‘sixteen and superior’ and tells someone to shut up. We learn that Gwen cooks whole meals for the family. Mary sniffs, and tosses her long hair. (She does this a lot, once described as being smug about it!) Already my resentment is building up. I don’t know about Will time-travelling, I feel as if I have time-travelled into the 1950s or some era when young women’s typical range of behaviour was seen as pouty, peevish, sulky, bossy, and shallow. The eldest’s natural role seems to be kitchen doormat. I’m really disappointed to find such lazy stereotyping from a woman author, writing this in the early 1970s. I was a teenager by then and I find this depiction very old-fashioned. Why can’t they be as skilful and talented as their glowing brothers?
I feel there is a real discrepancy in the way the boy and girl characters are treated. Even when they’re thinly drawn the boys are more positive. Big Max is ‘muscular’, practical, has an actual girlfriend in Southampton whom he writes to (basically he’s full of testosterone). Gwen, also interested in the opposite sex, rejects the carol singing trip to stay in and wash her hair, just in case she’ll see a certain boy the next day. We learn this from a catty remark of Mary’s. (It might be meant to be friendly teasing rather than catty, but since all that’s gone before is couched in terms of flouncy pouts and sniffs, I’m cued to think badly of her.) So poor Gwen, unlike manly Max, seems a bit vain and silly, and Mary’s always stirring it.
The girls don’t have much to do in the book, and little time to redeem (for me) those first slyly negative impressions. But Mary resurfaces to be put in jeopardy by the forces of darkness and Will’s tough task is to fight them for his sister’s life. Since he doesn’t seem to have a particularly significant relationship with her – he and Paul share much more page time and sympathies and some dramatic and lyrical scenes – I found this quite arbitrary. She’s a cipher Damsel in Distress. Is it because she’s female that Will feels even more the pressure to be heroic?? After her rescue she doesn’t recall a thing, is dismissively offhand about events, and is made to giggle twice in the space of a page. Great.
Which takes me back to Will’s passivity in the face of all the strange learning and ancient rites and battles. I just know he will triumph somehow. I didn’t worry about Will and I couldn’t bring myself to care about Mary, at all.
And yet in other children’s books, in the face of far less elemental pressures, I have worried in agony, holding my breath and clenching my hands, for characters who have to be brave and go that huge extra step to rescue a friend, or an animal, or even their enemy. I’ve fully engaged with their challenges and dilemmas. Why not with Will Stanton? Maybe Cooper’s mythic elements are too big for my tastes, and Will just washes along with it all like a branch in the thaw-flooded River Thames.
I have to say I did really enjoy the wonderful scene-setting, the dramatic weather and geography of the Thames Valley that Cooper obviously knows so well. Visually it works well. Some of my favourite scenes involved Will trekking through the brutish winter weather, harried by sinister birds or vague but looming threat; and, in contrast, those indoors in the firelight and candlelight with mysterious old Miss Greythorne at Huntercombe Manor. I like the layers of myth in the landscape and when we see how modern names and routes hark back to ancient ways and knowledge; because I love learning this sort of thing about little patches of English countryside and cityscape and it’s nice to see that detail in a children’s book.
But overall I was disappointed at not meeting Will Stanton as a convincing hero I could totally cheer for.