Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising

Cooper 1In 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.

cooper 6These 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.

cooper 2Bran 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.

Cooper 3Before, 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.

cooper 4So 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.

cooper 5Postscript. 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.


Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave

stewart 1We’ve reached the point in this recap of Really Like This Book podcast scripts about King Arthur when we really have to talk about Mary Stewart. She died in 2014, which came as a shock to me. I had been living in the same time as one of my favourite authors, and never had the gumption to write her a letter? Fool. I wrote a humble obituary instead.

Mary Stewart wrote a magical series of five Arthur novels, starting with The Crystal Cave, and the life of Merlin. The following four are The Hollow Hills (in which Arthur grows up and comes to his kingdom), The Last Enchantment (the early years of Arthur’s reign, still struggling against the Saxons), and The Wicked Day (the story of Mordred, given a rather sympathetic twist). The fifth novel, The Prince and the Pilgrim, I haven’t actually read, and I didn’t even know it existed until I started researching this pod. I think this must be because I bought the other four novels in one go, and this last one was published after that, and I simply didn’t notice. I’ll have to go and buy it now, * but I do know that it’s about the finding of the Holy Grail.

stewart 2My favourite is The Crystal Cave, which I first read lying fully dressed in a sleeping-bag, in a tent in mid-Wales, in the March snow, desperately trying to finish the book before the light went, or my torch battery went. That was the first and last time I went on a camping holiday of my own free will, and The Crystal Cave did a lot to make the experience bearable, by taking me away from it completely. It was completely unputdownable, and still is, for me. Part of its attraction is that it isn’t about Arthur as such, but about the events led up to Arthur being born. I’m quite aware that Arthur is a myth and a fantasy in many forms, but for simplicity I’m going to pretend he was a real person, because in the world of this genre he is, and because it saves me writing a lot of conditional ‘might haves’.

Merlin also did not come first: before Merlin and Arthur were King Uther, who was Arthur’s father, and his elder brother the High King Ambrosius, who was Merlin’s father. They are crucial to ground the story of Merlin, because it is so completely unknown. Mary Stewart makes a terrific job of placing him in a historical lineage (Ambrosius is mentioned in something more reliable than Gildas, I think), and within a Roman military tradition.

stewart 3Merlin doesn’t know who his father is, and nobody else does either, because his mother, a princess in south Wales, has refused to let anyone know. It’s assumed that he must have been the devil, since she comes from a decent household. Merlin grows up in his grandfather’s palace, which is a patched-up ruin of a Roman villa, in Carmarthen. He is bullied and picked on, but is resilient, and clever at getting out of the way. He finds a cave in the hills nearby, and meets its owner, a hermit called Galapas, who becomes his supplementary tutor. The cave releases Merlin’s magic, which he knew he had in a vague sort of way, since he has inherited his mother’s second sight. As Merlin gets older, he becomes more aware of the politics of his world, and the threat of war that is always lurking on the horizon. The usurping High King Vortigern has invited the Saxons in to defend his kingdom, and has to pay them more money each year to keep the land safe from other invaders. A rival force, led by his sons Vortimer and Katigern, is becoming a threat, and the small kings of Wales, Merlin’s grandfather included, have to be wary about which side they choose. Merlin’s uncle Camlach is also a danger, since Merlin is a threat to his inheritance. All this boils up into murder and destruction when the old king dies. Merlin is partly kidnapped and partly helped to escape, and sails to Brittany to find the near-mythical war leader Ambrosius.

stewart 4The story really takes off when Merlin, a twelve-year old boy, is facing down suspicious troops and a very angry Uther in a barn in a frozen field in France. He’s seen a vision of a bull-killing, which he doesn’t understand at all, but which the reader will spot as a ritual from the worship of Mithras, the Roman soldier’s god, and cognate with Christ. Ambrosius arrives, instantly recognises Merlin as his son (but doesn’t mention this to anyone), and takes him into his service. Merlin trains as an engineer, a military doctor and a singer, and learns a lot about druids. There’s a lot about gods and goddesses in Merlin’s world, and I find it interesting how Stewart slides her meanings about. Goddesses are always evil and dark, which is the kind of traditional and patriarchal thinking that led Marion Zimmer Bradley to rework the theology in Arthur’s world, in her The Mists of Avalon. Merlin serves a god with a small g, who is the source of his visions and his magic. He is received as an initiate into the worship of Mithras because as his father’s son it is politically necessary, and also because it is important to have close connections with other men whom he meets in the Bull Cave. It’s unclear whether Merlin believes in Mithras as a god in his own right, or just a manifestation of THE god. Above all else, Merlin is interested in belief, and investigates it wherever he goes. All knowledge is good, but all beliefs are not so good. He is polite about Christianity, because a God is a god, after all, but it is not where he places his belief.

stewart 5Ambrosius is creating a new Roman army for the takeover of Britain, his rightful kingdom, since Vortigern killed his elder brother Constantius. When the army finally invades, Merlin goes over first to collect information, and to find his mother. She’s now safe in a nunnery, but they are both collected by Vortigern because Vortigern is having trouble building a fortress that keeps falling down, and wants Merlin, as the well-known son of a devil, as a druidic sacrifice. Merlin prophecies Vortigern’s defeat instead, and the invasion begins. Merlin is a human who has seizures of Sight, but otherwise his influence is derived from common sense, logic, complicated mathematics, and a lot of luck. He is also unafraid, because he has seen his death, far in the future, and so there is nothing for him to fear in the here and now. This makes a big difference to how one regards dangers and threats. Stewart’s storytelling is tremendously exciting because she uses simple, matter-of-fact narration that contrasts with the importance and drama of what is happening.

stewart 6The important part of the novel, of course, is how Merlin engineers the birth of Arthur. This part is all taken from that truly jaw-dropping fantasy work, a 12thC historical chronicle by Geoffrey of Monmouth called the History of the Kings of Britain. Many, many poems and stories about Arthur were derived from this, including Malory, until the 19th century, when Tennyson’s poem cycle The Idylls of the King rather took over as the Arthurian source du jour. Geoffrey’s account, or story, because it is not a history but a shameless patchwork of event and myth, is used by Stewart faithfully, embellished where there are gaps, and where she needed to link Geoffrey to the Roman military legacy. So because Merlin knows that Arthur will be the greatest king England has had, he knows that it will all go according to plan. Trouble is, he doesn’t see all the details, so although getting Uther into the bed of the virtuous Ygraine, Duchess of Cornwall, is fiddly and difficult, it is possible. Unfortunately, Merlin doesn’t foresee the death of the Duke of Cornwall, which King Uther sees as Merlin’s failure, and shoves the blame onto him. The king also rejects the baby to be born, leaving him safe for  Merlin to take away and hide until he is needed.

But all that is in the succeeding novels. The Crystal Cave is about Merlin, and Merlin’s relations with his servants and friends and relations, and it is a mighty fine story, highly readable, engaging, delightful, thrilling, daring and utterly absorbing. For invention and plausibility alone Mary Stewart would be worth reading, but she’s also completely faithful to the Arthurian story in these novels in a way that gives them new life, and keeps the important, central themes intact.

* I still haven’t bought it. I will, I will.

Merlin versus the vivisectionists, in C S Lewis’s That Hideous Strength

Th copy I grew up reading, always terrified me, but perfectly true to the story.
The cover of the copy I grew up reading, always terrified me, but perfectly true to the story.

Today’s letter in the Really Like This Book podcast scripts recap is L, and I’ve gone straight to Clive Staples Lewis. Along with much of the western world, as a child I was deeply into his Narnia stories. As I got older I found them less satisfying, because too many questions kept being thrown at me by the plots, the characters, and transparency of Lewis’s intentions. I don’t like being preached at, and his preachings were rather obvious. Then I found that he’d also written three science fiction novels, so I was straight into them. The first in the trilogy, Out of the Silent Planet, is very H G Wells, but that was fine, I liked it. The second one, Perelandra, was much more mystical, philosophical, with less action, and an awful lot of talking: I didn’t like that so much. The third one, That Hideous Strength, was totally unlike the others, and strangely like a grown-up and far more complex version of the best of the Narnia books. And I loved it, and still do.

A fine early cover
A fine early cover

Decades later, I can now see that That Hideous Strength has quite a lot that I might not like. It is grossly patriarchal, very Christian, and uses a homosexual character in an annoyingly stereotyped way. On the plus side, it is very very angry about wanton vivisection. It mixes its literary influences shamelessly. It is also a terrific ‘university’ novel, an accurate portrait of academic obfuscation and petty interdepartmental plotting. Lewis worked in university departments all his life, and we can tell that he doesn’t like moral cowardice, intellectual dishonesty or unthinking modernisation for the sake of change. In That Hideous Strength he equates the advanced sociology of the NICE (more on that in a moment) with Nazi eugenics, which seems a bit steep until we remember that this novel was published in 1945, and that the existence of the extermination camps were first revealed to the world from 1944.

A rather less fine cover: good art, bonkers captions
A rather less fine cover: good art, annoying captions

There is a lot of anger in this book, aimed mainly at those who deny their true selves, and who act selfishly. The plot begins with scenes in the house of a young married couple, Jane and Mark Studdock. He is a lecturer in sociology at Bracton College (not a real place), and wants to get on. He is ingratiating, only too keen to be taken up by the ‘right’ people. He begins to be drawn into the progressive movement called NICE which will ultimately destroy the college for its own ends. Jane, who would prefer to be a college lecturer as well, is stuck at home playing housewife and trying to work on her PhD thesis. She has begun to have disturbing dreams, where she is effectively seeing the future, or the present, while she sleeps, and she goes for help to a doctor she’s been recommended to visit, near Bracton. There she meets Ransom, the man who, in the earlier novels of the trilogy, has travelled to Mars and Venus and has met the guardian spirits of the planets, and who is effectively God’s emissary for earth.

The head is quite good, and also the landscape. Pass.
The head is quite good, and also the landscape. Pass.

The religious element in That Hideous Strength is hard for non-believers to accept, because it requires an appreciation of a voluntary or involuntary religious surrender of will to a higher power. If you’ve experienced this, you probably have a better insight as to how Lewis handles this aspect of the novel. The rest of us can just accept it as part of the story. A further, Gothic or medievalised element in this novel is that, because of her dreams, Jane is now able to find out where Merlin (yes, that Merlin), has been sleeping all these centuries. She must lead her new friends to him before the NICE reach him first. Lewis writes a particularly good imagining of what such a man of magic and power from the Dark Ages might be like if he awoke in our effete and mechanised times: he is mistaken for a tramp, but he behaves like a warlord and a savage.

Mark, meanwhile, is frustrated and miserable by not having anything meaningful to do. He finds that a friend has been murdered after trying to leave the NICE, and by this terrifying threat he is persuaded, rather too easily, to write dishonest newspaper articles about a riot in the town that has yet to happen. He is blackmailed into staying at the NICE headquarters, where his bills are increasing weekly. In effect, he is a prisoner in an enchanted castle, while Jane is out leading a heroic quest. Mark is surrounded by very peculiar members of the NICE who all seem to be obsessed with a head. This is some kind of symbol, until he sees the head, which is indeed a human head, of an executed murderer, now reanimated and speaking, and giving orders.

Yes; this scene. It haunted my dreams for years, and now I find it online?
Yes; this scene. It haunted my dreams for years, and now I find it online?

At this point in the novel I am always reminded of the Lindsay Anderson film from the 1960s, O Lucky Man, which starred Malcolm MacDowall, because it too featured a horrible prison-house that practiced vivisection on animated heads, and had a similarly druggy, dream-like atmosphere. But Lewis’s novel is seriously Christian: Mark is only able to release himself from the spell of academic intimidation and fear because he refuses to stamp on a crucifix. He may be a sociologist with no proper education (Lewis clearly did not think sociology was a proper subject), but he has respect for a religious symbol of suffering. And so he escapes, trying to find his way to Jane. She is safe in Ransom’s house, being visited by planetary influences.

Cover art chosen by someone who hasn't read the book. Craters?
Cover art chosen by someone who hasn’t read the book.

This is the part of the novel I always liked best, where Lewis draws on his training as a medieval scholar, and uses the poetry of Spenser to evoke fantastical mystical happenings. When the spirit of Mercury descends upon earth, the magic of tongues and wit comes with it, and the people in the house find themselves indulging gloriously in eloquence and sparkling wordplay. When Venus approaches, the married couples are whispering together, the women waiting for their husbands are thinking fond thoughts, and even the animals are pairing off and going out into the garden. When Mars arrives, the kitchen is filled with bravery and courage, and the people are resolute in their commitment to the cause. And so it goes on. Merlin receives his orders from God, via the planetary spirits (this really is a confusion of spirituality), and the NICE are about to receive their doom, in a particularly bloody and violent way.

Fab 1950s cover.
Fab 1950s cover.

In between these episodes at the NICE and in Ransom’s manor, which are respectively the locations of evil and good, the town of Bracton is being infiltrated by thugs. There is an outbreak of petty crime, inexplicable fights in the streets, windows are broken, a woman is screaming, and before the town knows it a riot has broken out, being fought by people they don’t recognise. Jane is caught up in this and is taken prisoner by the NICE chief of police, a masculine woman called Fairy Hardcastle, who is a crude portrait of sadistic lesbianism. She tortures Jane for information about the manor, and Jane only escapes because the riot gets out of hand. This episode, and Fairy Hardcastle’s later anticipation of an evening’s entertainment in the cells with a new and fluffy female recruit to her forces, is chilling in its automatic assumption that ‘unnatural’ women are automatically bad.

Intrusive lettering, good background
Intrusive lettering, good background

All the women in this novel are to marry and breed, and their rightful place is with their husband. This part of the story has always been the hardest for me to understand, because I am a child of the sixties and was a feminist from my teenage years. I simply cannot comprehend how Lewis could assign authority and intellectual activity to one sex and child-rearing domesticity to another. I just have to assume that, since he attended an all-boys’ school, and lived in all-male colleges for all his adult years, even if he had an alleged long-term affair with the mother of a friend, Lewis knew nothing about women when he wrote this novel. He writes some female characters with respect, but always with the assumption of male authority over women as a God-given norm. Fairy Hardcastle is part of this belief, and it dates the novel badly.

However, despite that, That Hideous Strength is still a great novel. It is written with imagination and wit, with impressive scholarship worn lightly, and in the voice of an Oxford don who can talk to anyone at their own level.  Lewis’s anger at the wrong things in life is a challenge as well as endearing. He feels passionately about so many things in this novel. Reading the story is as invigorating as being in a gust of wind, even if we don’t agree with everything he says.