In the last of the Really Like This Book podcast script catch-ups about King Arthur, I’m reading a very old favourite, the series of fantasy novels by Susan Cooper called The Dark is Rising. There are five, and the earliest one – Over Sea Under Stone – is most definitely a children’s mystery quest. Simon, Jane and Barney Drew are helped by Merlin to find the Holy Grail in a Cornish cave. The second is the key novel of the five, written for an older readership: The Dark is Rising itself, where on his birthday Will comes into full membership of a company of guardians of the earth against the Dark. Again, it’s a quest story, where Will is helped by Merlin. The third, Greenwitch, takes Will to Cornwall where he meets the Drew children, and helps them, with Merlin, retrieve a certain something from the pagan wicker man thrown into the sea each midsummer, which the forces of the Light need to combat the Dark. Notice the capital letters. The fourth novel, The Grey King, is a much darker story, set in Wales and dealing with racism and bigotry, where Will meets King Arthur’s son, a Welsh boy called Bran who is an albino. The last of the series, Silver on the Tree, has Will, Bran, and the Drew children back in Wales, on another quest, all bound up with Welsh mythology and flights through time to prevent the Dark from rising all over the world.
These are 1970s novels, yet there is something very pure about Cooper’s writing that makes her fiction undatable. One of her earliest novels, Mandrake, was written in the 1960s, and, apart from the obvious changes in technology, could be read unremarked for its dystopic vision today. Her strange and dark coming-of-age novel, Seaward, is a perfect evocation of bereavement and adolescent feelings, and again is impossible to date: it could have been published last year or thirty years ago, you just can’t tell. All her fiction seems to be about quests, characters who have suffered loss looking for something to put the world back together again, and usually they manage it. She is an eternally hopeful novelist.
The Dark is Rising novels are linked by Merlin, who is really only ‘revealed’ as Merlin towards the end. He is Merriman, Great Uncle Merry to the Drew children, an imposing and friendly university professor, and a friend of their parents, but they never quite work out what he is a professor in. In Will’s books, he is Merriman the butler, working for an elderly and stern old lady living near Will’s Buckinghamshire village, but when Will meets the Old Ones of the Light (more capital letters), Merriman is his guide and the old lady is part of the circle. In the two last novels there is much less of Merriman and much more of Bran, because just as Merlin was King Arthur’s guide and counsellor, and friend, Will has the same relationship with Bran.
Bran is an interesting creation. He’s the son of King Arthur, brought forward in time by Guinevere with Merlin’s help, to keep him safe, because she and Merlin know that Arthur will not believe in his royal parentage, what with all the bother about Lancelot. (Rather a moralistic message to send children about their tragic love triangle.) So Bran grows up as the much-loved son of a Welsh shepherd, who also loved Guinevere when he took her and her baby in from the storm. Cooper was brave to make Bran albino. It’s not a very common condition for fictional characters because it is so visual, hard to keep in mind when you are reading about him but not seeing him, and that is undoubtedly the point. There is nothing about albinism that affects the mind, yet Bran is a damaged child, highly sceptical about his mystical fate, hut willing to accept it as a reason, however far-fetched, for his essential difference that has caused the bullying and unpleasantness he has endured in this remote Welsh community. Being different is one thing, but looking different, all the time and inescapably, in a very conventional and rigidly Christian society, with views about apparently illegitimate children, is very hard. Bran is a highly prickly character, and The Grey King and Silver on the Tree are full of the resentment he feels towards all of society, aimed at Will initially as Will tries to get through his barriers and make friends. Once they start their quest and Bran realises that he has a place in this new parallel world of magic and hidden secrets, things go better, until the unpleasantness of the ‘real’ world intrudes, and bullying returns. Cooper is exceptionally good at depicting the viciousness of hate brought about by resentment of difference. By using the metaphor of the Dark versus the Light, the attacks on Bran become part of the way we can understand what the Dark really is.
Before, in the series, it was enough to know that if Merlin was for something, then those against Merlin were automatically bad. There was no need to see the badness, to realise what the Dark could do if it had power over people. A hint here and there, about throwing a child into a river, for instance, was enough, because that is conventional, that’s what storybook villains do, they just threaten and the good guys will stop them doing it. But in The Grey King, and in Silver on the Tree, death happens, and betrayal on a terrible scale is revealed. And it is shocking, because these things – and I’m not going to spoil the novels by telling you exactly what I’m talking about, so you’ll have to take my word for it – these things really matter to understand the immensity of the struggle Cooper is writing about. We all understand that the stories of Arthur and Merlin are about power and rightness holding back the might of evil times, and we all understand the convention that in fantasy stories it simply doesn’t matter that the protagonists can be children. The age of the protagonists is irrelevant in stories that draw on myth and enact metaphorical struggles, because qualities of character, and a sense of right and wrong, make the difference. Dressing up the essential battle with heroic names and things of power and rituals and quests are good for exploring ambiguities in the story, and good for developing the parallel story of a child growing into an adult. But outside this, what Cooper is writing about (along with hundreds of other YA and fantasy authors), is simply the tipping balance between right and wrong, and the battle to stop the wrong taking over the right. In a different genre, thrillers are about this – protecting the thin line between civilisation and anarchy – and they have nothing to do with the supernatural. All fantasy fiction is about this, whether it’s queens or wizards or humans or elves.
So what do the stories of Arthur have that make them so enduring, in Susan Cooper’s novels? Why does it work so well, that Merlin can be a professor and a butler, and train his pupil Will to be the last wizard of the Old Ones left on earth to keep an eye on the Dark trying to get in? If you accept these stories as part of the Arthurian canon, you accept all the Arthurian canon with them. In this shared world, all the detail and back story are assumed to be known and understood, so we don’t have to be told why Guinevere was so afraid for Bran, we know enough that she has reason to be afraid. Cooper never mentions Mordred’s name, but we’d know which side he was on. Arthur is the great king and Merlin is the great wizard, and these archetypes are enough to rest any amount of stories on.
One last thing: the Welshness in these last two stories is done spectacularly well. The Cornwall and Buckinghamshire of the first three novels are just places, they could be anywhere in rural England, but the Welsh landscape and mountains and small roads and railway lines of The Grey King and Silver on the Tree are unforgettable. Cooper wraps all this up in Welsh legends and names that will be unfamiliar to those of us who weren’t brought up there, which magnifies the strangeness and mystery. These are marvellous novels, heartily recommended.
Postscript. A film was made of The Dark is Rising in 2007, and I couldn’t manage to get through even the trailer. Will has been made American, and even though Dr Who has grown his hair to become what looks like a creditable Rider, and Ian McShane looks quite good as Merriman, it looks like a Harry Potter rip-off with extra, unwanted, hormones. I don’t think I’ll be bothering with it.