So - knowing I had a review slot coming up, I went into our local Waterstones to see what I could find. There were lots of beautiful and interesting books - but no single one that stood out and demanded to be bought (apart from more pirate books for my grandson for Christmas). I know, I know - there must have been stacks, but it was just that kind of a day - grey, rainy, dismal, dull.
Many of you will have read it - it's a classic, and it actually feels presumptuous to talk of reviewing it. But there may be some of you who haven't - so this is for you.
But it's also for me. There are very few books that I read even twice, yet this sequence of five is one I come back to over and over again - usually around Christmas time. Only one of the books is set at Christmas - the second one, which gives the sequence its title, yet somehow it seems the appropriate time - This is the time, and this is the reader, to paraphrase from, I think, the third book, Greenwitch. I'm interested to explore why I like it so much.
The story follows a classic fantasy arc: the forces of good - the Light - are fighting against the forces of evil - the Dark: and for the most part, the defenders of the Light - and of the whole world - are a group of children, headed by Will Stanton, who is not only a boy, but also one of the Old Ones, figures of immense power who have protected human beings through the ages. The first book, Over Sea, Under Stone, written in 1965, does not feature Will - and the story gains much more power when he does make his appearance, in the second book, The Dark Is Rising - but it does introduce the Drew children, Simon, Jane, and Barney - and Merriman Lyon, also known (to the children) as Gumerry, and as Merlion. Merriman is tall with white hair and deep-set eyes, and he's a dewin, a wizard - so you can guess which mythical figure he derives from. The Arthurian echoes are strong - in fact, in a sense, the sequence is a reworking of the story of Arthur. But it doesn't feel like that. It feels as if this is a story about the very recent past - the 1970s - and about some apparently ordinary children whose world, for a time, collided with an equally real but usually hidden world of myth and magic. So when you read it, you too can enter that world... and in the dark days of a grey winter, who wouldn't want to go there?
Susan Cooper writes beautifully. She manages to make the dialogue between the children sound natural (though it may seem a little dated to modern children... would it bother them, that Will and the Drews are from the sixties and seventies, that there are no mobile phones or computers? At what point does something stop being dated and become simply historic? A question for another post, perhaps) and she also manages effectively the switches to the more formal speech of the Old Ones. Her descriptions of magic are, simply, magical: here, Will's older brother, Stephen, has just seen something which Will knows will be too much for his mind to cope with. So he casts a spell, to make him forget.
'Stay still,' Will said softly. 'Don't hurt them. Stay still.'
Stephen paused, one arm raised apprehensively before his face. Over and around him the tiny moths flurried, round and around, wheeling, floating, never settling, drifting down. They were like infinitely small birds fashioned of snowflakes; silent, ghostly, each tiny wing a filigree of five delicate feathers, all white...
If you go to her website, The Lost Land of Susan Cooper, and read her biography, you will see that the books, particularly the last four, arise out of a tremendous homesickness she felt for England and Wales after she moved to America. Perhaps that's where the power arises: out of a longing for something which is lost. That sense of longing reappears again and again: Will's longing for Merriman and the Lady, Owen Davies's longing for Gwen, Arthur's longing for his son, Gwion's longing for his old friend, and for the return to himself of his king. Susan Cooper writes also of how as a child she was aware of the Battle of Britain raging overhead, as she read everything she could get hold of. She developed, she says, 'a very strong sense of us and them, of good and evil, of Light and the Dark.'
I've only touched the surface of what makes these books work so well: there's so much more that could be said. But that's enough for now: I'd love to know what other readers think. And if you haven't read them yet, you have a treat in store!
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