Re-reading The Dark Is Rising

February 18th, 2007

An excellent way to spend a snowy weekend! I think it’s been a good 13 years since my last re-reading of the Cooper books, but I read them so many times before that that I really hadn’t forgotten much. It was still a delight to immerse myself in a mysterious, haunting world—a world still connected to the good, earthy pleasures of large families and fresh-baked bread and “Good King Wenceslas.”

I mentioned in my previous post that, overall, The Dark Is Rising sequence is not particularly friendly to Christianity. As I recall (and I have to admit, I remember many images and symbols and characters from the books, but my memories of their doctrine is a bit fuzzy), most of that comes across in The Silver on the Tree, the last of the five books. There are hints of it in some of the other books as well, but any discerning Christian reader should still be able to appreciate the books for their writing style and their evocation of a mythic world.

Will Stanton, the 11-year-old protagonist of The Dark Is Rising, is the youngest of 9 children born to a family in a small Buckinghamshire village. He is, however, as even his siblings realize “a very old eleven.” Not only is he mature for his age, but, as he learns on his birthday, he is actually one of the Old Ones, a group of people who serve the Light and protect the world from the forces of the Dark. Eleventh birthday, discovering you’re someone more special than you knew . . . sound familiar? Remember that Cooper wrote these books a good twenty-five years before the first Harry Potter appeared.

There is, of course, a lot of appeal in this kind of character, especially for a bookish child who often feels older or somehow different from his or her peers. You recognize yourself in Will, you think, “Oh, there IS a reason I don’t fit in—I have a special calling”—not that that makes you think you need to go around collecting the Signs of Power and learning the Old Speech. When you’re older, you may be able to apply that feeling to being called to life in Christ—and I have to admit that I’m more excited about being called to life in Christ when I read about Will Stanton than when I read the words of the Apostle Paul (though I also recognize that if I hadn’t read Paul, I might not be able to appreciate Will’s calling as much). 

In spite of their simplistic names, the Light and the Dark convey a much deeper, more convincing sense of good and evil than anything in J.K. Rowling’s books (which is why it’s all the more puzzling that Cooper decides to collapse the categories of good and evil by the end of the series). In The Dark Is Rising, the Dark has no power on its own to hurt human beings, “but they can encourage men’s own instincts to do them harm.” And that’s how evil really seems to work, even when it’s not embodied by tall men on black horses.

The most heartbreaking character in the novel is The Walker, a man torn by conflicting allegiances to Dark and Light (so, you see, it’s not all dualistic). He’s sort of a re-working of the myth of the Wandering Jew, without all the anti-Semitic associations. Even though I didn’t remember his exact words, I remembered for years the sense of anguish that accompanies his interactions with Merriman Lyon.

And then there’s that sense of beauty beyond this world—a dimension totally lacking from the Harry Potter books. When Will’s brother is allowed to play an ancient flute with a marvelous tone, he fumbles in his attempt to describe the beauty of it. “There was an ache in his voice and in his face that something in Will responded to with a deep, ancient sympathy. An Old One, he suddenly knew, was doomed always to feel this same formless, nameless longing for something out of reach, as an endless part of life.”

That’s C.S. Lewis’s Sehnsucht, right there! It makes me ache just to read about it.

There is one scene in the book in which it’s implied that the church is weak and powerless against the Dark, and that Christ is simply one way of talking about a much older power existing in the Light. This makes me squirm a lot, but there’s so much else in The Dark Is Rising that feeds my soul.

I was thinking just this morning: Susan Cooper was born in England in 1935, and she grew up during the war years. In fact, she would have been close to the same age as the fictional Lucy Pevensie. What if she had had a chance to peer into the wardrobe? I don’t exactly know what I mean by that, but there it is.

Entry Filed under: Books, Movies

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Dormouse  |  February 18th, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    Huh. Now, I admit that b/c of my own issues with Silver on the Tree, I’ve only read it once or twice, and don’t fully remember all of it. But I never felt that she collapsed the difference between the Light and the Dark. Saying that the same coldness exists at the heart of each…that’s not saying they’re the same. I always read that as implying that the utter distance from humanity inherent in both sides of the war means they are both equally alien in the end. While I don’t feel that way about Christ or even God, I do have that feeling towards angels. It’s probably why I’ve always been so afraid of angels. They aren’t warm beings. They’re cold and distant and ultimately terrifying, and I don’t get the sense in the Bible that they really care all that much about people. And that, for me, is Cooper’s Light. They’re on the right side, but they’re not necessarily in touch with humanity itself.

    As far as that church scene in The Dark Is Rising…I admit that at first I was taken aback. How could the Dark attack them in church? But the church is a human institution, subject to human failings, and so of course it must be vulnerable. As far as Christ’s position as one way of talking about the Light, I didn’t see that as much different from L’Engle’s stance in A Wrinkle In Time, where Jesus is equated with other learned teachers in holding back the Shadow. And L’Engle *is* an explicitly Christian author.

    Oh, and–beauty…a dimension totally lacking from the Harry Potter books–I don’t know if I agree with that completely. Certainly Rowling’s world doesn’t have the haunting majesty of Cooper’s, in part, I think, b/c Cooper’s is explicitly linked to a past we can claim as at once familiar and alien, but for me, Rowling’s world creates *wonder*–and that is a quality that I can never discount. (Cooper has wonder, too–all the best fantasy novelists do. But what I think attracts me to Harry Potter so much is that every book embraces and enlarges that sense of wonder, which most series can’t do for me. Even Narnia, after The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, lost some of its magic for me.)

  • 2. theotter  |  February 18th, 2007 at 7:43 pm

    Like I said, it’s been a good 13 years since I’ve read Silver on the Tree, so my memory may be fuzzy.

    As far as the Christ thing, I think I was actually thinking of L’Engle (and that one line is something I’ve always wanted to excise from A Wrinkle in Time, I admit–it also doesn’t seem consistent with L’Engle’s writings elsewhere about the uniqueness of Christ’s Incarnation). What it says in The Dark Is Rising is actually this:
    “‘Very old them crosses are, rector,’ said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. ‘Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ.’
    The rector beamed at him. ‘But not before God,’ he said simply.
    The Old Ones looked at him. There was no answer that would not have offended him, so no one tried to give one. Except, after a moment, Will.”

    And then Will says something about time which I quite like and which is quite consistent with the Celtic Christian view of time. What I object to isn’t Will’s response or the fact that the Dark attacks them in church–there’s nothing about the place of a church building itself that makes it less vulnerable to demonic activity–in fact, it may be all the more attractive. But, in my experience, protection comes from prayer (the prayer of those past as well as present, and possibly even future), which has been portrayed in this scene as ineffective and misguided. That’s what makes me squirm here, the condescension towards the rector (not that I haven’t met some stupid rectors in my time–and he does seem stupid, given that he doesn’t reply that Christ as the Second Person of the Trinity (not as the Incarnate Jesus) was present with God from the beginning of eternity)–but his faith itself is portrayed as futile.

    I knew you’d disagree about HP! :) It does make me laugh, but it has yet to inspire me with wonder.

  • 3. Dormouse  |  February 19th, 2007 at 10:34 am

    Hee! And I knew you’d expect me to disagree about HP. We’re so predictable. :)

    As far as L’Engle…hm. I never thought of that line as diminishing Christ’s uniqueness. I guess I can see that, but nothing in the line seems to me to have anything directly to do with the Incarnation, and everything to do with his teachings? I don’t know. I need to think about that more, b/c now my mind is seeing both sides with equal clarity.

    I need to go back and reread that passage from TDIR now. Hm.

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