The Dark is Rising By Susan Cooper – Technique and Content in Children’s Literature

Synopsis: “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.” Will Stanton turns 11 and learns from Merriman Lyon, the Lady, and Circle of Old Ones, that he must find six Sign symbols and battle the Black Rider, blizzard and flood.

 

For the writer: Have I said Susan Cooper is an exceptional writer? Yes, I have. Please read For the Writer: Under Sea, Under Stone. But I will say it again; Susan Cooper knows how to tell a story well.

From her choice of vocabulary to her ability to succinctly draw a character, SC distinguishes herself as a skilled technician in a number of ways. I will highlight a few of here exceptional skills.

SC employs wonderfully descriptive language and combines words in original combinations that evoke rich images. Here are a few examples:

                    Will looked at him in speechless gratitude, and managed a watery smile. p.18
                    He realized that the sun had risen at last out of the sullen bank of grey cloud. p.23
                    Martin tugged the big metal bell-pull, whose deep clanging always filled Will with an obscure alarm… p.86

Stick in your thumb and pull out a plum; the book is rich with original descriptive parts of speech.

SC knows how to use literary devices. We meet a mysterious character early on who is only identified as The Walker. Along with him comes the ominous phrase oft-repeated, The walker is abroad…p.17  She is, as in a Greek Tragedy, sending a harbinger of grave things to come. In plain literary terms, SC is foreshadowing a convergence of ancient powers, signalling a great struggle between light and darkness.

Speaking of foreshadowing, SC employs a long and very real snowstorm as a literary contrivance to produce suspense, and a heart wrenching sense of impending doom. Where I live, snowstorms are a dime a dozen, but accumulation and the cold still infused a sense of an ever-growing danger that was aiding the dark and stone-cold antagonists.

SC does not forget to explain how Will is able to communicate with the rider and Merriman in an old language, which Will has perceived as English, helping the reader over any possible stumbling block.

SC gives her protagonist a clear goal, which as a quest, is easily understood by the reader. No matter how complicated the journey the task is plain; Gather the six symbols. p.143

SC also tells an interesting story intermingled with a song. p.116

SC is adept at language. The book is not that long, yet its reading impresses as a much longer book. That is because SC does not waste a sentence; she packs them with information, description and reflection. It is efficient and precise as a good poem, yet remains as prose throughout. Listen to this quick description of Miss Pettigrew

…for Mrs. Pettigrew, the widowed postmistress, who dyed her hair with tea leaves and kept a small limp dog which looked like a skein of grey wool. p.85

Technically executing clear, grammatically efficient and suspensive sentences is where SC shines brightest.

Holding the lump of wood high so that everyone could see, she began to take blackened pieces from it as though she were peeling an orange; her fingers moved quickly, and the burned edges fell away and the skeleton of the…[omitted] was left: a clear smooth circle containing a …[omitted]

I would like to move on and make a general comment on the content of The Dark is Rising. Psychology Today has this to say about her work.

“Susan Cooper is one of the few contemporary authors who has the vivid imagination, the narrative powers, and the moral vision that permit her to create the king of sweeping conflict between good and evil that lies at the heart of all good fantasy. Tolkien had it. So did C.S. Lewis. And Cooper writes in the same tradition.”

I submit that regardless of how skilled the author, or the genre in which she writes, or how magnanimous her intentions, or how committed she is to disguising it, the underlying ideology, or her overarching worldview will be evident in her work. I do not think Susan Cooper has any wish to disguise the fact that in the Dark is Rising Series, she is extolling the power and distinguishing features of pagan mythology, in this case some hybrid form of neopaganism. It is somewhat ironic, by the way,  from a content point of view, that Psychology Today praises Susan Cooper on the same breath as C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, fantasy authors who most decidedly wrote out of the Christian tradition. From a technical standpoint PT’s assertion is, as I have highlighted, true. But if you wish to measure the work based on its content; if you are a reader interested in exploring the Christian faith through fantasy, then this series may not be to your liking. It unambiguously hobbles Christianity. In The Dark is Rising the Christian Church is characterized as a limp, impotent cleric, who has no real part to play in the struggle between good and evil.

In The Dark is Rising, the protagonist and his family attend church on Christmas Day. I thought, while I was reading, this will prove interesting, since I had already begun to suspect that the power by which Will, Merriman and the Old Ones live and fight the rising tide of darkness, was not the power which comes from being inhabited by the Holy Spirit of Christ. In fact, SC makes that abundantly clear in her chapter entitled, with duly noted irony, Christmas. While protagonist Will is attending a Christmas service in a small Anglican Church, he becomes alarmed when he senses the dark’s presence. Surely the darkness cannot enter here, he wonders, transgressing the sanctity of his church, and during a Christmas Service, one of the high points of the Christian calendar. I have lived long enough to know that the buildings of Christendom and its people are not exempt from succumbing to the dark, but SC makes her declaration, not against the failings of frail Christians, nor against stolid diocesan property, but Christianity at its essence: the Word of God.

In this author’s experience the Word of God holds great power as demonstrated in its proven ability to strengthen failing hearts, its authority over lies, its capacity to deeply resonate within mind and spirit, its competence in being a guide for living and loving, its authority over the dark and temptation, its ability through the Holy Spirit to enliven dead imaginations and its simple pleasure in making one think. For me, according to my experience, the Word is the Living Word. How does the gospel of John put it…?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

But in The Dark is Rising SC challenges this most basic assertion of the Christian Faith. Actually, challenges is not precise. She, or rather the Old Ones dismiss it as irrelevant and anemic, in a rather patronizing manner.

…a church was a kind of no man’s land; since no harm could actually enter its walls, no warning against harm should be necessary. Yet if the harm were hovering just outside . . .

The service was over no, everyone roaring out “O Come. All Ye Faithful” in happy Christmas fervour, as the choir made their way down from the gallery and up to the altar. Then Mr. Beaumont’s blessing went rolling out over the heads of the congregation: “. . .the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost. . . .” But the words could not bring Will peace, for he knew that something wrong, something was looming out of the dark, something waiting, out there, and that when it came to the point he must meet it, alone, unstrengthened.

Will was right. The dark did come in great power… But as one of the Old Ones declares…

“Poor brave fellow [speaking of the rector’s attempt at standing against the dark force.],” said John Smith in the Old Speech. “This battle is not for his fighting. He is bound to think so, of course, being his church.”
“Be easy, Reverend,” said his wife in English…

Will and the Old Ones take their stand against the dark assault…

It was the strength of the Circle of Old Ones that held him [Will] fast now…

The Old Ones anesthetized the shaking rector of the church and after a battle with the Dark, the stupefied rector is awakened. He praises the Lord for the dark’s abatement and takes notice of the encircled crosses slung on Will’s belt….

[Reverend Beaumont speaking.]
“That did the work, didn’t it? The cross. Not of the church [referring to the crosses framed in circles], but a Christian cross, nonetheless.”
“Very old, them crosses are, rector,” said George unexpectedly, firm and clear. “Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ.”
The rector beamed at him. “But not before God,” he said simply.
The Old Ones looked at him. There was no answer that would not have offended him, so no one tried to give one. Except, after a moment, Will.

In true conciliatory ecumenism, Will responds with how everything that truly matters exists outside of time in a place where all things live…

Tomorrow is there too. You can visit either of them. And all Gods are there, and all the things they have stood for. And,” he added sadly, “the opposite, too.”

But in the end, it is the circle of Old Ones and the power which they yield that is singularly effective against the rising dark. One must read the whole chapter to appreciate how supercilious the Old Ones are in regards to the Christian Church and the feebleness of its representatives and foundational scriptures.

Weighing technique and content is an author’s job. Writing fiction is, is it not, a quest at some level after truth; so content matters when measuring the merits of someone’s work.

Here is a saying: But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! Something to ponder from the humble Christian scriptures.

 

JPT

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