Before there was J.K. Rowling and a certain bespectacled young wizard there was Susan Cooper and Will Stanton. On the surface Will looks like any other 11- or 12-year-old boy, but he exists in two separate worlds. He is the last of the Old Ones, a circle of magical men and women who exist throughout the ages of the world fighting a constant battle against the powers of the Dark.
In the five books of her Dark Is Rising sequence, Susan Cooper depicts a desperate battle being waged under our very noses against powers that would create a world of fear and hatred. Drawing heavily on British myth, tradition, and history, with heavy emphasis on Arthurian lore, Cooper’s Old Ones make use of the magic that is buried in our past.
Traveling back and forth in time, observing such rituals as the hunting of the Wren, witnessing the invasion of Wales by the English (proving that the powers of the Dark can wear many faces) and observing the construction of a Roman amphitheatre in England, readers are given a history of the British Isles that is remarkable for its unconventionality. With both Herne the Hunter and Arthur Pendragon playing roles of vital importance in the fight against the Dark, Cooper makes it possible to believe in the existence of myth even amid the bustle of the 20th century.
We first meet young Will in book two, The Dark Is Rising, (from which the sequence derives its title) on the eve of his 11th birthday. The seventh son of a seventh son his birthday on Midwinter’s Day will not only signify another year passing for Will, but act as his birth into his heritage as an Old One, a warrior for the forces of the Light in the constant struggle against the Dark.
Will is the last of the Old Ones to be born, because it is in his time, the 20th century, that the last great rising of the Dark has been foreseen. All through the ages of men there have been great risings, indeed there have been times when it would appear the Dark has been triumphant. (They weren’t called The Dark Ages for nothing.) But in order for them to obtain complete domination they have to win through in our modern times and complete their circle of power, just as the Old Ones must win through to join their circle of protection against the Dark throughout the ages.
Until Will’s time the Old Ones have fought a holding action, keeping the Darkness at bay. Will’s task is to gather things of power that the Light may use to finally drive the Dark from the world. He will not be alone in this task though. The first of the old ones (easily seen as Merlin), Merriam Lyon in our world, is there to teach and guide him as much as possible, but it’s four other young people around his age that will have key roles in assisting him.
Barney, Jane, and Simon Drew are regular children on holiday with their Great Uncle Merriam in the fishing town of Treswick in Cornwall England in the first book of the sequence, Over Sea, Under Stone, and they recover the first thing of power. An ancient Celtic Chalice that is the key to deciphering a scroll that will provide the Light with vital information needed to help overcome the Dark.
The first time they and Will meet is in book three — The Greenwitch — in which the four work with Merriam to recover both the Chalice and the lost scroll. Back in the same village of Treswick that everything started for the Drews in book one, Cooper incorporates one of the old fertility rites of the Cornish coast into the storyline.
The Greenwitch of the title is a construct of Hawthorn and Rowan branches made into a giant figure, weighed down with rocks, and offered to the sea in the springtime to ensure good fishing and crops. As the fishermen head out to sea, the women of the village gather on the headland to build the Greenwitch. When the men come home in the morning, safe and with their holds full of fish, they join the women on the headland and push the offering out to sea.
With the reluctant help of the Greenwitch and the White Goddess of the Sea, Tethys, the Drews, Will, and Merriam are able to recover the Chalice, the scroll, and decipher the secret writing on the cup. The next stage of Will’s journey will be in the oldest part of Great Britain: Wales.
The power of the Dark can’t directly harm or kill an Old One, but it can use a variety of forces against them. At the beginning of The Grey King will is beset with a fever that comes close to killing him. Although he does recover in the end, he discovers that he’s forgotten the instructions the Grail had given him for completing his task in Wales.
But when his mother suggests he visit an old family friend who lives in Wales he starts to remember snippets. It’s in Wales that Will meets the last of those who will take a role in the fight against the Dark. Bran is an almost albino boy (Bran was the name of the white Raven in Welch) with a mysterious past. Abandoned by his mother into the care of a man not his birth father, he’s lived the life of an outcast with his only friend being his dog Cafall.
What neither Will nor Bran know is that Bran is the legitimate son of Arthur Pendragon, brought forward in time by Merlin at Guinevere’s request because she fears that Arthur will not believe the child to be his because of her affair with Lancelot. As the heir of Arthur, Bran also inherits the mantle of leading the fight against the rising tide of darkness in his century.
As Will completes the circle that began with Merriam, Bran completes the circle of human champions that have stood for the Light in the battle for domination. His father was not able to completely defeat the Dark, only buy some time. In the Grey Kings Will not only has to awaken the mysterious Six Sleeping Kings who will be needed for the final battle against the dark he must awaken Bran to his true nature.
For in the final quest and battle depicted in Silver On The Tree Bran must be Arthur to Will’s Merlin. In this, the final chapter, Barney, Jane, and Simon join them, and again have a role to play in ensuring the Lights success. It is Jane who is able to receive a vital message that sets Will and Bran off onto their final quest into the mysterious drowned world off the coast of Wales.
What makes these books so special, at least in my mind, is the obvious love that Susan Cooper has for her material. That’s not just for the story and characters she has created, which are both wonderful, but the historical and mythical material that is a vital element of this story. It shows in the manner in which she makes the information integral to the story, thus to the lives of contemporary people.
She makes legend and history come to life, and without cheapening or sensationalizing it, makes it something exciting. History isn’t just something that happened long ago, according to her story, but is an ongoing adventure, only awaiting a reader’s presence as an observer to come to life.
While other fantasy writers for young people might shy away from concepts and ideas, content simply with telling a story, Ms. Cooper plays around with the concept of time and space by having all events happening at all times for the Old Ones. While Will and Bran are in battle with Dark in the 20th century, Arthur is fighting in his time, the Welsh king is fighting his losing battle against the English in his time. The past, present, and the future are always ongoing in this never-ending battle and there is always a part to be played, no matter how small, insignificant, or futile it might feel.
Susan Cooper is very careful not to ascribe one way of being, whether religion, lifestyle, or society, to either side in her conflict. It is a battle that transcends human belief systems and culture. By utilizing imagery and stories from our pre-Christian past, and tracing the roots of current beliefs back into the murky depths of time, she frees the battle against evil from being exclusive to any one people.
The Dark lives in our mistreatment of others out of prejudice and hatred. It lives in our willingness to not make an effort, or to sit back and say “it’s not my responsibility”. In opposition, even a small act of kindness on one person’s part can offset malicious intent; thus are the battle lines are drawn.
Over the course of the five books in The Dark Is Rising sequence Susan Cooper takes her readers, of all ages, on a journey into the mythic world of Great Britain and an exploration of human nature. That may sound overly ambitious for a fantasy series geared to young people, but she carries it off with grace and elegance. If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading these works before, than you have missed out on a great treat. They are well written and beautifully told, and are a perfect antidote to Harry Potter withdrawal and anticipation.