‘The Dark Is Rising’ by Susan Cooper

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.

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper Vintage Classics 2013

 

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.

Wintry reads from classic children’s books

We’ve finally had some wintry weather. Nights are still long, evenings quickly dark.  It’s time to keep warm with the slipper-boots/duvet/sleeping furry animal of your choice, and sink into a good book.

In winter I like to read wintry books. I might enjoy sunshine and luxuriant leafiness on screen – it serves the same uplifting function as going for a walk in bright winter sunshine – but I really don’t want escapist summery books at this time of year.

So here are some recommended reads from classic children’s books. Snow definitely included:

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, Vintage paperbackWill Stanton is the seventh son of a seventh son and turns eleven on Midwinter Day. He always hopes for snow on his birthday. He gets his wish, along with a whole lot of strange and sometimes terrifying experiences, as this is time of the year when The Dark is very strong and the Old Ones who protect the world have to work hard to resist its evil forces. The setting in the rural Thames Valley that Cooper knows so well is stunning – snow, floods, Very Bad Stuff, all taking place over Christmas and New Year.

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston (1951)

More snow, more floods, more magic, and dollops of heart-warming love, when amazingly-only-seven-years-old Tolly goes to stay with his grandmother for the Christmas holidays in her ancient haunted house. Magical illustrations, too, by the author’s son.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis (1950)

Snow is the default weather for Narnia as far as I’m concerned. Because how do we enter Narnia for the first time, in one of the most striking fictional openings ever? Pushing through a wardrobe stuffed, not with any old clothes but fur coats, and then into the wintry wood (snow-laden fir trees in Pauline Baynes’ iconic illustration) to find a faun in a red woollen muffler.The lamp post in Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes

‘What with the parcels and the snow it looked just as if he had been doing his Christmas shopping.’

Since in Narnia it’s always winter but never Christmas until the Pevensie children get involved, this makes a perfect winter read.

 

 

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

The opening pages establish what a disagreeable, spoilt and emotionally-neglected child Mary Lennox is, full of colonial snobbery and certainties. She arrives at gloomy Misselthwaite Manor in a rainstorm. It’s the season for fires in the bedroom and porridge for breakfast but there doesn’t seem much room for hope. The moor stretches bare and dreary beyond the window. Mary ventures into the garden only to find it wintry and bleak. But gradually ‘the Magic’ unfreezes everyone. Spring follows winter. A thoroughly warming tale.The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

For a very quick wintry read, there’s always Pooh Builds A House, the first chapter in The House At Pooh Corner by A A Milne (1928). In which Eeyore is very polite – or is that passive-aggressive? – about mislaying one house and Pooh and Piglet try to do a good deed by building another. Eeyore sinking under the increasing weight of his coating of snow is a sight to behold. I think he should be beatified as the patron saint of sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

 

My inspiration: blizzards and baddies, amongst other things…

 

It started with a comic. A whole bag of them, in fact. I was 8 or 9 years old and a friend passed on a heap of back numbers so that, instead reading one issue and having to wait a week for the next, I could feast. It was there I found The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by the incomparable Joan Aiken…

 

I recently wrote about this book for The Guardian, and why it – and its utterly glorious sequels – really inspire my writing. You can read the whole piece here.

The magic of Green Knowe

The Children of Green Knowe – Lucy M Boston (first published 1951)

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston cover illustration by Peter Boston Faber paperback

Another read just perfect at this time of year, and especially in this year’s weather. It’s winter and the land is flooded. The rain is unceasing, rivers have burst their banks, lanes have turned into rivers, meadows into lakes. Sound familiar? But if you’re cold and fed up and worried about logistics, fantasising only about a fortnight in Antigua, step into Lucy Boston’s magical world instead.

Tolly, born in steamy Burma, is sent for the Christmas holidays to stay with his as-yet-unknown great-grandmother at her ancient family house, Green Knowe. This is a story where all the dividing lines are ambiguous, not just those between water and land. The magic of Green Knowe is not the ‘ordinary’ sort with wands and spells and wishes, it’s this permeable, malleable divide between present and past, real and imaginary, animate and inanimate, wild and tame, inside and outside, myths and ghosts and people. It’s also a book that is suffused with the love that seems to radiate out from Mrs Oldknow: love of home, of animals, of dear people and old dear objects. And in her and the gardener, Boggis, it has two heroic characters who are far from young, perhaps because Lucy Boston was in her 60s when she began writing.

Mrs Oldknow and Tolly get to know each other slowly, weighing each other up, although Tolly is immediately drawn to the special atmosphere of the house, with its strange layout and old artefacts. There are the tangible comforts of a fire, candlelight, homely food, which always make a welcome appearance in a children’s book when well done. Tolly is given permission to roam, and he discovers that everything in the house and its unusual garden, filled with topiary and bounded by water, has a story. Old toys and musical instruments, birdcages and paintings hark back to the people – and animals – who lived there in the past and who are not so far from those who live there now. Their stories are slowly and hauntingly revealed. This is wonderfully imagined for those who, like me, love old houses and the idea of layers of the past remaining in their fabric. (Do look at my recent post on ‘Thackers‘ manorhouse in Derbyshire.)

As Tolly explores he sometimes feels lost and alone, and encounters genuinely terrifying aspects to the place, involving walking trees and old curses.

In fact, Green Knowe is based on Boston’s own beloved house, The Manor, Hemingford Grey, in flood-prone Cambridgeshire, built in the 1130s. It’s not a huge house, but the water all round makes it seem like an island, a castle. On his arrival, Tolly has to be rowed up to it across the flood. Then deep snow falls in time for Christmas, and Tolly and his great-grandmother make a very long walk to attend the midnight church service. It’s unusual to have a hero as young as seven in a book of this kind, and Tolly’s stamina and independence (we first meet him travelling across country alone by train) feel quite strange to the 21st century reader. I’m not sure how realistic it was even for the mid-20th century child.

This is another world (see Narnia) which wouldn’t be the quite same to me without the striking original monochrome illustrations by Lucy Boston’s son Peter, which enhance the uncanny aspects of the tale.

One of my favourite passages is the enchanting scene where Mrs Oldknow butters Tolly’s hands and shows him how the wild birds come down to feed from them. This would have been quite magical enough for me as a child – my ideal was to be like Dickon from The Secret Garden – but I didn’t discover this book until I read it to my own children. I’ve yet to catch up with other books in the Green Knowe series, but I have two more waiting on my bookshelf.

Narnia – where it’s always winter but never Christmas

The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe C. S.  Lewis

Ok, so it’s the last day of 2013 but Twelfth Night isn’t here yet so I can still get in my other Christmassy book. It was the first of the Narnia Chronicles I came across as a child, therefore the right place to start my re-reading. The young man behind the counter in the Age Concern shop where I bought it recited their proper sequence to me in a solemn voice – clearly a fan. But blow the recommended reading order suggested by C. S. Lewis! The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe was the first he wrote. It was published in 1950, and The Magician’s Nephew (the creation story of Narnia) didn’t appear until almost last.

This book was read out loud by my class teacher in junior school, in the precious 15 minutes at the end of every school day when we could just sit and listen to a story.* I must have sought it out afterwards to relish by myself. The copy I read then had this joyful cover art by Pauline Baynes, whereas my current one – still with the evocative Baynes illustrations inside – has a very different feel on its cover (by Julek Heller).

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis cover art by Pauline Baynes Puffin books

I was surprised to find that what I remember as an epic is quite short, just 200 small pages with plenty of pictures. It’s fast-paced and the tension keeps up. After a quick and absolutely classic set-up – parents ditched (actually they don’t even get a mention, the children are just sent away from London ‘because of the air-raids’), despatched to rambling country house, adult supervision largely removed – Chapters 2 and 3 contain the stand-out scenes which cement this story in my mind: Lucy’s encounter with Mr Tumnus and Edmund’s with the White Witch. The good/evil dichotomy is convincingly established. And we’re introduced to the icons of LWW: the snow, the lamppost, the Turkish Delight. I’m convinced that at least half my love of Turkish Delight springs from this scene. It’s shown as the ultimate desirable food, and yes, it did used to come at Christmas in a round box, tied with ribbon, and there was never enough. I don’t think chocolate or toffee would have worked nearly so well.

Another surprise is that Mr Tumnus, so fondly remembered as a major player, has a very small part in the action. After Chapter 2, he doesn’t appear again until he’s discovered, turned to stone, in the Witch’s palace, and then doesn’t do much at all.

In fact, quite a few aspects of the book were thinner than I remember. This is a beloved classic of children’s literature, but it’s not perfect. I don’t think I ever felt Lewis created very interesting characters, but as an adult reader this was really noticeable. Edmund is the only one with any complexity, if you can call it that, and only because he’s not straightforwardly nice. Early on we learn that he is ‘spiteful’ and prone to telling lies. Poor kid, he’s already gone over to the dark side before the Witch begins her work!

But somehow Lewis makes his actors memorable – animals more often than humans – without giving them much substance. Although it’s Lucy’s story – she is the good, active force that starts it off – she and Susan are soon pushed into very conventional girl roles: caring, loving, healing (Lucy’s bottle), calling for assistance (Susan’s hunting horn), and definitely not fighting. ‘Battles are ugly when women fight,’ says Father Christmas, handing Peter his sword and shield. As if they’re not ugly when men do. Lewis was a young soldier in the First World War; surely he must have known this?

He dwells only briefly on the fighting, unlike the film version where the final battle goes on at length with all the usual CGI thwacks and grunts and even more ‘protect the girls’ business than in the book. I had to turn back a page to check the Witch’s fate, as Lewis almost skips over this momentous event. The grisliest scenes concern the Witch and her mob taunting Aslan at the Stone Table and are really harrowing.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis Puffin papaerback cover by Julek Heller

Julek Heller’s cover illustration

Peter is assigned the traditional role of the oldest brother: sensible, responsible, and required to be brave. At least he’s allowed to admit he doesn’t feel brave. It’s all very conventional, as if Lewis doesn’t want to give the four children much thought, or simply wants them to represent clear good/bad roles. There is a very strange passage – all stiff upper lip and ‘don’t mention the war’ – when Aslan has a talk with the repentant Edmund which we’re not allowed to overhear but ‘which Edmund never forgot’. If it’s that blinking memorable, why can’t we benefit from it too? I demanded petulantly. Then Edmund shakes hands with his siblings and Aslan instructs them, ‘There is no need to talk to him about what is past.’ And they don’t. I expect as a child I saw this as a fair-enough response to an awkward situation, but at this distance it just feels really constrained and emotionally illiterate. But we are in the 21st century now!

The children’s speech is strikingly banal, too, and of its time, apart from the olde-worlde-speak they develop at the end because that’s how princes and princesses must talk! (If this is a joke, it goes on a bit.) I did wonder if I’m just used to much quirkier, smart-mouthed characters in modern children’s fiction, but then Oswald Bastable, William Brown, Dido Twite, and even for younger readers Pooh Bear, have a joyous command of language and their speech tells us a lot about the inner workings of their minds. There is some gentle humour in LWW but it tends to come from the non-human characters.

So what remained of the book I loved as a child, and read at least twice? The wonderful fairytale feel of a land where it’s ‘always winter but never Christmas’. The thrill of the thaw when it comes, along with the tinkling bells on Father Christmas’s sleigh. Deep magic and deeper magic are pretty persuasive. Aslan remains impressive, and, although it struck me as an odd mix of borrowings – and the internal logic not quite sound – I found the mash-up of characters from European folktale, Greek myth, Victorian Christmas, and jolly British wildlife endearing. But most satisfying was still the idea that by hiding in a wardrobe you might accidentally find yourself in another world: that really grabs the imagination. After all, it could happen to anyone, couldn’t it?

* Maybe ‘reading for pleasure’ wouldn’t be such an alien concept if the school curriculum allowed this unheard-of luxury to all primary school children, every day. It was a much-needed wind-down time, let teachers share their favourite books without any demonstrable learning required, and turned us on to new stories. Or let us just daydream, which is no bad thing.

Wolves still rule

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken Vintage Classics children's book

The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken.

I read this as a child. I read it to my kids. I read it again recently and the magic is still there.

It’s full of my favourite ingredients for a period adventure: a happy quota of orphans and absent parents, an evil governess, resourceful children and wily adults, and tons of snow. Joan Aiken’s 19th century parallel universe revels in Victorian invention – according to her the Channel Tunnel, far from a 1980s vanity project, was really built in the early 1800s. It’s through this tunnel that the hungry European wolves come tearing in search of food!

There are also wonderful contrasts: freezing cold and warmth, hunger and hearty food, terror and comfort. Sylvia lives in great poverty with her old aunt in a Park Lane attic, while in isolated Willoughby Chase her cousin Bonnie has everything a child could wish for, including her own toyroom with a dolls-house large enough to get inside and with real canaries nesting in the roof. But Bonnie is a good-hearted child, and anyway it’s not long before all this is snatched away from her, in a reversal of fortune and test of character that follows one of the best traditions of children’s literature.

My favourite character is Simon, who lives a gloriously self-sufficient life in the woods and raises geese. He walks his geese from Willoughby Wold to market in London, a journey that takes two months. They leave in the snow and arrive in the April sunshine. The trip is also a daring escape for Sylvia and Bonnie and they are helped on their way by Mr Wilderness, who provides a memorable meal of porridge, eaten with ‘brown sugar from a blue bag and dollops of thick yellow cream provided by Mr Wilderness’s two red cows, who stood sociably outside the kitchen door as breakfast went on’. As well as the thrills and spills, it’s this kind of fond detail that I love in Joan Aiken’s stories.

The only element missing is Dido Twite, Aiken’s brilliant sarky, snarky, sneaky anti-heroine, who does not make an appearance until the next book in the sequence, Black Hearts In Battersea. I can’t wait to meet her again.