About 18 months ago I wrote about Susan Cooper’s five-novel sequence called The Dark Is Rising. If published today they would be classified as children’s / YA fantasy fiction. In the 1960s and 1970s when the five individual novels first came out – my editions are the slim 1980s Puffins with tight leading and a small font size, about a quarter the thickness of today’s fashion for fat paperbacks – they were simply children’s fiction, marketed alongside Nina Bawden, Roald Dahl and Stig of the Dump. The sequence captured the imagination of a generation of children, now aged fifty-something, but the books were by no means universally known: barely any of my friends knew about them. There was a film a few years ago, that may have boosted sales of the reprints, but I don’t know anyone today who reads them, except the people flocking to join Robert Macfarlane and Julia Bird’s Midwinter reading group (#TheDarkisRising #TheDarkisReading), scheduled to begin on 20th December, which is when the Dark came rising in the eponymous second novel. See Julia’s blog for more information and background links.
I’ve reread them all in a week (they don’t take long), and I have notes. (The following will make no sense if you haven’t read the novels, sorry.) My first observation is that Cooper developed her original children’s novel – Over Sea Under Stone (1965) – with its sequel The Dark is Rising for an older readership. Over Sea Under Stone is most definitely a children’s adventure quest, the eldest of the three children still being primary school age, with parents and other responsible adults to be got out of the way before the adventure can begin. In The Dark Is Rising (1973), the protagonist Will is about to turn eleven (two years older than I was when the book came out) but he reads as a teenager, with considerable agency and self-awareness that the plot explains by his special status as a supernaturally-endowed being (basically, a young but ageless wizard). The ages of the child characters in the three successive novels also feel far older than they actually are, and a hint of pubertal awareness shimmers underneath some of their relationships in the last novel, Silver on the Tree (1977).
Even though Cooper was consciously writing four of her novels for young people of the 1970s, feminist consciousness-raising is not a part of her project, which feels odd for novels written during second-wave feminist politics. She uses the Arthur Ransome (and Enid Blyton’s) model for girls in children’s adventures, where Susan’s role was to cook and worry about wet socks, and Titty had insight only through her emotions. Jane, the only girl in Cooper’s central cast, is a nurturing, emotional, worried mother figure. She does occasionally have agency, she has a pivotal plot role in Greenwitch (1974), and she does spot clues and solve puzzles almost as often as the boys. But the way she operates as a character in the plot is traditionally gendered: concern, feeding her brothers, and screaming, whereas they run, act, shout, explore. They go into the cave to look for the grail, she stands shivering on the wet rocks outside with the end of the string to guide them back. Will’s elder sister Barbara has the potential to become feminist, I think, as will the shrieking young women making wishes on the Greenwitch on the Cornish headland at midnight. But even in Greenwitch, the novel that comes closest to gender equality in characters’ participation, Will tells the Greenwitch that men construct it ritually every year, right after we have read a whole chapter about the women doing the making, in an explicitly females-only all-night pagan celebration of a local tradition for women.
Cooper includes other aspects of 1970s England as overt plot elements that enhance the novels’ themes. The racism in Silver of the Tree, combated by role models in Will’s family, reflects the central idea of good versus evil, embodied in the desirability of liberal values. The Stantons are small-business middle-class village dwellers, know their classical music and read The Observer, yet in The Dark is Rising Mr Stanton has a residual antagonism to Merriman as a foreigner, and resists the feudal echoes of emergency hospitality in the village manor. The anti-English antagonism of the Welsh hill-farmers in The Grey King is an echo of contemporary nationalist politics, and the use of Welsh in this novel and in Silver on the Tree is a quiet statement of regional autonomy that fits in beautifully with the magical politics. Contemporary society is challenged. Owen Davies is an unhappy single parent, traumatised by the disappearance of the woman he loved; Bran is an isolated, socially suspect child because of his physical difference; Caradog Prichard attempted to rape Bran’s mother. Nothing is simple because humans are not simple.
Cooper’s set-piece fantasy episodes are still impressive, and influential. In Will’s immersion in the Book of Gramarye, in The Dark is Rising, she anticipates the experience of modern interactive enhanced learning through virtual reality. In the Lost Land in Silver of the Tree she puts Will and Bran through an immersive experience that blends riddle-solving and bravery, a mythic phase in their quest that she developed in a later novel, Seaward (1983), into an adolescent coming-of-age endurance test. The railway journey that follows is clearly the basis for the beginning of Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, possibly also the model for all the railway journeys to Hogwarts: J K Rowling was a magpie collector of classic moments in children’s fiction, and she too is a fifty-something reader.
These novels are white-centric and Western-centric. Cooper allows the magical Circle to extend around the world, across nation and colour and culture, yet when it comes together for the second and last time in Silver on the Tree, messages are sent by the Old Ones of the south and the Old Ones of the Islands via a puzzled but reliable representative of Her Majesty’s Navy: a colonial echo if ever there was one. The Lady of the Old Ones calls herself a universal figure, but she is white and aristocratic, an elderly Virgin Mary rather than the archetypal mother-goddess she is supposed to represent. This rereading has made me more uncomfortable about The Dark is Rising. But I still admire the novels greatly, and enjoyed reimmersing myself in their stately pace of events, the unmatchable, undateable dialogue, the flights of fantasy imagination that set the pattern for so much British children’s fantasy writing in my youth.