I have a lot of respect for so-called children’s fantasy novels because in so many ways they have laid the foundations for the wider fantasy genre to flourish. The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia are probably the first and most famous examples of fantasy books for children and both their setting and plot have influenced many an author who has since gone on to write for a more mature audience. Later series, like the Wizard of Earthsea and more recently His Dark Materials, have blurred the distinction between fantasy novels for children and adults while pushing the envelope of the genre in clever and challenging ways, inspiring a whole new generation of authors to create weird and wonderful worlds for readers to discover. With my own personal interest in myth and folklore, some of my favourite novels as a child were those that blended fantasy and reality, featuring an interaction between the mundane modern world and an ancient realm of unsleeping magic and darkness. These included the Snow Spider novels of Jenny Nimmo, Alan Garner’s brilliant quartet of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor and The Owl Service, and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence.
In The Dark is Rising and the other novels in the sequence Susan Cooper weaves a story where the everyday mingles with the supernatural. The five books in the series are full of secret codes, strange prophecies, the legend of King Arthur and a centuries-old conflict between the power of good and the forces of evil. The main characters are three ordinary children who discover an ancient map in Cornwall in the first book in the sequence with the help of their ‘Uncle Merry’ (Merriman Lyon, a character whose name and actions strongly recall the wizard Merlin); a not so ordinary boy called Will who learns that, as a seventh son of a seventh son, he has an important destiny to fulfil; and a strange albino named Bran, in whom the warring forces of good and evil both take a strong interest. “When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back”, the old saying goes, and accordingly it is these six characters whose journey we follow in the course of the novels.
The Dark Is Rising sequence depicts the struggle between the forces of good, called The Light, and the forces of evil, known as The Dark and is based on Arthurian myths as well as Celtic and Norse legend. The key novel in the series is the second one, in which Will learns that he is an Old One, destined to wield the powers of The Light in an ancient struggle with The Dark. The novels are full of startlingly original ideas, the Old Ones being one example of this. Ancient and immortal, the Old Ones are mystical beings who possess great magical power. They are found in all parts of the world and are of many races and cultures. Capable of performing many seemingly impossible feats, including freezing time and controlling the elements, they serve The Light in the war against The Dark. The two factions struggle to determine the destiny of mankind; while The Light fights for freedom and free will, The Dark fights for chaos, confusion and the subversion of man’s agency.
Cooper clearly knows her British and World mythology inside out and in The Dark is Rising sequence makes use of several old legends such as The Wild Hunt, the Holy Grail, Herne the Hunter and The Grey King in new and innovative ways. Although I personally learnt a lot about Welsh and Old English folklore in particular through the novels, they never feel dry or like a history lesson. As a reader you are constantly engaged with the story and identify fully with the characters, who are all basically normal people with everyday concerns, despite the fantastical adventures that they have. Even the more unusual and powerful characters, like Merriman Lyon, are depicted in a very human way – they can make mistakes like anyone else and are far from all-powerful or all-knowing. Unlike many series, each novel can be enjoyed on its own but I would definitely recommend reading them from start to finish for an even more satisfying reading experience.
Cooper’s sequence is a clear influence on the Harry Potter novels and, with all the attention that they are getting at the moment, she deserves some of the same regard. Although The Dark is Rising was turned into a feature film a few years ago it was, quite frankly, a lamentable effort with bad acting, poor special effects and, most unforgivably, virtually nothing to do with the novels! The movie unsurprisingly bombed at the box office so we will (perhaps fortunately) be spared any further big screen outings but I still retain a fervent hope that one day it will be turned into a television series in the same vein as the classic BBC adaptations of The Box of Delights, Elidor and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. The Dark is Rising in particular, which is set around Christmas, would be the perfect thing to watch at this time of year. With the days getting colder and the nights getting longer there is perhaps no better occasion for the ancient struggle between the Light and the Dark to be enacted on the small screen!