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.


Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern-Bearers

sutcliff 1This novel of King Arthur from the Really Like This Books podcast scripts catch-up is Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern-Bearers. It begins as one of her Romans in Britain novels, the books for which she is best known, a sequence that traces different periods of Roman rule in Britain, linked by the transmitted family heirloom of a glass ring engraved with a dolphin. In The Lantern-Bearers Aquila is a Roman centurion, visiting his family on their farm in what we now call Sussex, which has been in the family for generations. (Readers of earlier novels in the sequence will know who bought the farm, and who lived there before.) He’s one of the native British officers: after over 300 years of Roman occupation, the island of Britain has contributed generations of soldiers to the Roman army. He receives word unexpectedly that his legion is being pulled out of Britain, along with the rest of the army, and realises that if he goes, he may never see his family again. He goes back to barracks at Rutupiae, or Richborough, as it is now called, on the south-easternmost tip of England, and gets his men ready for boarding ship. But he doesn’t go with them. He becomes a wilful deserter, and allows the last ship to leave without him. As a farewell, he lights the great beacon at the fort to shine out while the Roman Empire leaves Britain for good.

sutcliff 5After that, he goes home. His father, blind but still a soldier at heart, is pleased but also not pleased; it isn’t so good to have a deserter in the family, even if it means deserting to protect one’s native country. The family settles down, but now that the Romans have gone, the Saxons come back, and one autumn night, the farm is attacked, and everyone is killed or taken as slaves. Aquila gets knocked out in the very violent struggle, but he sees enough to realise that while his father is dead, his sister Flavia has been captured. In a state of shock, he is taken to Jutland as a slave, and spends several winters there, learning the language and learning to be worth less than nothing. Sutcliff does a tremendous job of conveying the extreme psychological damage Aquila has suffered. Since he is shut off from his own language – Latin – and only able to speak Jutish, and because he is a brutalised slave under barbarian control, he loses his ability to be open, to remember freedom, and internalises his anger and hurt, destroying the boy he had been.

The time comes for his owner to return to Britain for a great meeting of Saxon leaders, and Aquila is taken too. While he’s in the Saxon camp, he accidentally meets Flavia again: now the property of a Saxon warrior, and with a baby of her own. They are totally miserable at her continued captivity, because she will not leave her baby son, or her husband, even though she and Aquila regard slavery under the Saxons as the ultimate in degradation. She helps Aquila escape and he gives her the family dolphin ring. And so he gets away, more tormented than ever.

artwork by the immortal Charles Keeping
artwork by the immortal Charles Keeping

Now we come to the Arthurian part. After a jump of several years, we meet Aquila again as the cavalry leader in the war band of Ambrosius, which the very young Arthur is just desperate to join. And now it all clicks into place. This is a retelling of the Arthur story which connects a what-if counterfactual speculation with historical post-Roman fact, and builds in all sorts of attractive ideas about the rebuilding of the defenders of Britain as a guerrilla force resisting the invading Saxons, year by year. It’s also a cultural argument, linking Roman civilisation, and advanced techniques in military strategy, tactics, discipline and techniques, with the heroism attached to the Arthurian legend. Not that Arthur is just another local-born amateur legionary, oh no. In The Lantern-Bearers he is a royal child, a golden boy and a natural horseman, a young man that everyone wants to follow because he is charisma personified. He’s also a nice person, honest and loyal and kind.

sutcliff 4This is fine when Aquila is his cavalry captain, because Aquila is content to serve under Arthur’s uncle, Ambrosius, because then he doesn’t have to think. He is still horribly traumatised by his years of slavery, and does not speak willingly to anyone. Ambrosius wants to build more alliances with the small kings in Wales and the west, and so he asks Aquila to take a wife from these provinces. Aquila is not at all interested in women, or marrying, but he does what his leader asks, goes to visit Cradoc in Wales, and almost at random asks him for his younger daughter Ness. The choice is bizarre, since he has hardly noticed Ness, and her elder sister is much more beautiful. But Ness was cross at Aquila’s arrogance and unfeeling contempt for their poverty, and somehow that stuck in Aquila’s mind. So Ness left her home to become Aquila’s wife, and a cold, miserable and lonely few years she had of it, since he paid her hardly any attention, and treated her calmly and coldly as a housekeeper rather than anyone he had a relationship with. But small things began to happen, and he began to miss her when she was not waiting in their cave or their hut with all things ready for his return. When he had, most unusually, to go and look for her in the woods, one autumn evening, he found out that not only had she been in love with someone else, but that man has just been killed in battle. What a mess Aquila has made of their lives. Ness has their baby, not long after, and so Aquila now had a son of his own, who he named Flavian, after his father, the first time he’d told Ness his father’s name. Flavian grows up, and Aquila struggles to become human again. His son is not a natural defier of authority, but he hero-worships Arthur, and through the story of the younger men we get the beginnings of the Round Table, and the rehabilitation of Aquila.

sutcliff 6The Lantern-Bearers is a harsh novel, because it’s about what war and captivity do to the psyche. It’s also about using authority wisely, and accepting when to fight a battle and when to leave things alone. Arthur is a good minor character, and we look eagerly for all the elements in his life and character that will turn into his legend much later. But the men of the story are the important ones, because this novel is also about resistance to invasion, a very British theme.

Sutcliff did write another Arthur novel, called Sword at Sunset, but it’s nothing like as good as this one. This retelling of the Arthurian legend works best when she’s got her feet in Roman Britain, looking forward at the murky unlettered middle ages to come, when very little was recorded and a short life and a violent one was the norm for most people. When I was writing this podcast script, I was also reading a truly excellent, revisionist work of history, Robin Fleming’s Britain after Rome. This turns on its head the old idea that after the Roman Empire broke up and Britain was abandoned, there were waves and waves of invading Vikings and other fierce Norsemen from Scandinavia, flooding over Britain like a tide of blood. This apparently did not happen, and the archaeology proves it. What did happen were slow accretions of settlements in different areas for different reasons, which seems pretty much like common sense. Towns were abandoned and farms became the main settlement unit. Christianity disappeared, and then came back again.  All of which makes sense when reading The Lantern-Bearers.

Hilda Vaughan’s The Soldier and the Gentlewoman

Vaughan 2

The Soldier and the Gentlewoman, originally published in 1932, puts a pitchfork in the romantic notion that soldiers returning from war would find a willing wife and a grateful village waiting for them. Hilda Vaughan writes a disturbing defence of the woman’s right to inherit the family estate, and disrupts the social niceties by showing what could happen when such a woman – in this case the vengeful, obsessive, angry and ignored daughter of the house – organises her own fate, like a man-eating spider. Nothing and no-one will take from her the estate and the valley for which she has laboured all her youth.

Gwenllian Einon-Thomas is nearing forty when the war ends and the death of her brother hands the Plâs Einon estate – her home, her heritage –  to an unknown cousin who doesn’t even live in Wales. Captain Dick Einon-Thomas has survived the war, and is a decent sort of chap, but he is not the hero we might expect. He comes from Streatham (not a very nice suburb of south London), because his father married down, to the Einon-Thomas family’s fury. Class is a problem for Dick, since he knows he ought to belong where his father came from, but his mother’s background makes him all too vulnerable to bullying, even if he does appreciate fine china (aesthetic tendencies are a code for innate upper-classness). His first appearance shows him resentful and ruffled by the knowing attitudes of the village men in the Green Dragon pub, the night before he visits his inheritance. He’s desperate to not feel in the wrong place, which has been his experience as a young officer from not quite the top drawer throughout the war. He is not local, doesn’t know the names or the pronunciations they bandy about when they bother to speak English, and he is angrily aware that he is being flattered for somebody else’s benefit. The hero of a novel should never feel unsure or uncertain, so that’s the first rule in romantic fiction broken.

Hilda Vaughan
Hilda Vaughan

What about the women? Captain Einon-Thomas meets the three Einon-Thomas ladies for luncheon at the big house. The widow of the dead Squire is uninterested though pleasant, clearly already living her new life on the Riviera. The married sister has the friendliest smile and the warmest handshake, but she doesn’t live there, she follows her husband who’s about to stand as a Labour candidate in the 1919 elections. The third sister, Gwenllian, offers her hand: ‘it was cold and glossy, and narrow, like a serpent’. Brrr.

But Gwenllian warms up when Dick blusters in protest at the very idea of a Labour candidate, and actually invites him back for lunch so she can give him a private tour of his property before the lawyer arrives. He’s pleased but surprised, though doesn’t fool himself that she’s suddenly fallen in love with him. It’s probably their shared Unionist politics: ‘She was, after all, so much older than himself’. Dick is the fly, and Gwenllian is the spider, and the estate and its people are the web. He does not escape, because she will do anything to keep her hold on her land. She was once in love with a man who waited for her for a year, but he sailed for India when she would not leave the estate while her uncaring father was dying, and then all she had was her younger brother’s charity.

the original cover
the original cover

Vaughan’s skill in allowing us to feel sympathy and horror for both Gwenllian and for her doomed husband Dick – yes, her age somehow did not matter – makes this novel uneasy and compelling. Gwenllian is not an out-and-out monster, since we can empathise so much with her thwarted yearnings, but can we condone everything she does? This is a beautifully written novel, truly a Welsh Women’s Classic, and uncomfortably clear-eyed about people’s motivations. We never lose our first impression of Gwenllian as a snake.

Hilda Vaughan, The Soldier and the Gentlewoman (1932) (Honno Press, 2014), ISBN 978 1 909983 11 3