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.