Don’t ever break bread with the stranger on the black horse….
by Gordon Campbell
The antlered horseman on the cover of The Dark is Rising is a depiction of Herne the Hunter, a folk legend particular to the region of Buckinghamshire in which Susan Cooper set her classic children’s novel. Herne does good work in Cooper’s tale, yet he is usually seen to be a portent of bad tidings – particularly for the Royal Family who owned the vast Windsor Forest through which he would ride on his wild hunt at the head of a pack of demon hounds, with a horned owl and other faerie creatures streaming in his train. Herne’s white hounds also crop up in Wales within a different tradition of pre-Christian Celtic mythology – called the Mabinogion – as the pack of Arawn, one of the old British gods of the netherworld.
In other words, Cooper consciously mined the rich veins of tradition lying just beneath the mundane surface of modern England. That’s one reason why the representatives of dark and light ( that confront each other throughout her tale ) keep on making cryptic references to things not seen, but imminent : “This night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” Not a cheery verdict for a young chap to hear, on his eleventh birthday.
The framework of myth, ritual, and folklore permeates every aspect of Cooper’s story, incidentally offering some handy tips for readers to keep in mind : ie, don’t ever break bread with the forces of darkness, and never accept a ride on their horse. Be aware of the past, which is ever present to those who can see its mark. Herne the Hunter for instance, not only cropped up in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Further back, he has been linked to an older pagan tradition that leads in a straight line back to the horned god Woden of the Norse sagas, and less directly to the Erl-King of Germanic folk lore, who was celebrated in the Goethe poem about the Erl-King that inspired Schubert’s great song about him.
Given these tangled skeins of story and tradition, it is hardly surprising that one of Susan Cooper’s professors of English at Oxford was a certain J.R.R. Tolkien – who had a few ideas of his own about the cauldron of story, and the links between language, the power of names and the foundation stones laid by the Norse sagas.
After finishing her degree, Cooper did journalism for a while and then married an American and settled in the United States. As well as writing acclaimed novels for children, Cooper has written extensively for film, television and the theatre, often in collaboration with the actor Hume Cronyn, whom she married a few years before his death. Now 75, she still lives in the United States. Yet Cooper wrote The Dark of Rising and the loose sequence of five novels to which it belongs, out of intense feelings of homesickness ten years after leaving England : “ I was married,” she told one interviewer, “ I had teenage stepchildren, and two babies of my own. But it was all the Englishness that wrote those books, I was going home in my head…”
In a later account, she wrote:
“ I set that book The Dark Is Rising very precisely in the countryside of Buckinghamshire, in the part of England where I spent my early childhood and as I sat there in my American study all sorts of visual details came jumping out of my head that I hadn’t remembered for thirty years; a certain manor house with a garden where a great wave of daffodils used to bloom in early spring, a certain little Saxon church called St James the Less, a certain noisy rookery close to it, a certain old lady who was in a local sweet shop and used to dye her hair with tea,..And because memory and imagination each have their own two-way connection with that part of the unconscious mind, some things came out – without my even recognising them until they were there…”
Memory, childhood, tradition : shards of a recovered past. In the same account, Cooper wrote of how in her novel she had depicted her young hero, Will Stanton being attacked by dark forces while walking on an unpaved, tree-lined track – which is explained in the book as being part of an ancient grid of positive forces. The incident had been inspired by a childhood path that Cooper and her siblings used to call “Tramps Alley” after the old hobos who used to camp there. In the book, Will’s mentor Merriman scolds him for using such a commonplace name for such a sacred road. While writing, Cooper suddenly recalled that her parents had always urged her to use the path’s proper name :” Old Way Lane.”
Years later, Cooper was driving in Buckinghamshire through the same region where the novel was set, and where she had spent her childhood. It is a a part of England now buried, she wrote, ‘in concrete roaring roads.’ She pulled over. After a while, she noticed a small sign on the little paved road next to the motorway from which she had just exited. The trees were gone, and everything looked different, “But the sign said ‘Old Way Lane.’’
As mentioned, The Dark Is Rising belongs to a sequence of five books but the stories are so loosely related – Will Stanton does not even appear in the pallid series opener, Over Sea, Under Stone – that nothing important is lost by focusing on the quite self-contained title book.
It begins with Will facing a tough outlook on the eve of his eleventh birthday. Flocks of malevolent ravens are wheeling around in the sky. An old tramp, beset by the ravens, hands over to Will a kind of amulet, the first of several elemental signs that he has to collect, to help foil the gathering forces of The Dark. On paper, this probably looks like standard fantasy story fodder. J. K. Rowling fans may also be wary of a book published in 1973, but featuring a boy who bears a distinctive scar from an encounter with the Dark, but who gets to learn from a wise teacher how to develop his latent powers, and thus save the world from the forces of Evil.
Any accidental similarities to Harry Potter though, are superficial. The problems readers may have with The Dark Is Rising are likely to arise elsewhere. Characterisation is not Cooper’s forte, nor – I’d guess – of much interest to her here. What she is exceptionally good at is evoking mood and menace, and a dreamlike sense of place – the cosmic backdrop for the clash between the vast and impersonal forces of good and evil. A lot of mythical traffic piles up in the course of the narrative and at times, the story becomes creepily Gothic in tone. It comes down to taste, really – if you want fully rounded, warm and identifiable characters this book will not be your cup of tea. Moreover, because evil is afoot in the real world the story moves between fantasy and humdrum reality in ways that are disconcerting on some occasions, and deliberately banal at others. Like any outing with Herne the Hunter, Cooper’s book is a wild ride.
While Will never quite comes alive as a believable figure – it is really hard to be a convincing eleven year old and an eternal Old One at the same time – he serves well enough as a fulcrum for the plot. For similar reasons, some critics have carped at the fairly predictable triumph of good over evil, but that seems like quibbling. The triumph of virtue is surely the point in a book like this. It certainly was for Tolkien, who believed that ‘eucastrophe’– ie, that sudden ‘turn’ in the plot, to a moment of transcendental joy – had a crucial role to play in how faerie stories were meant to unfold, by offering us a glimpse of consolation and redemption. Good triumphs in the end because it must. On that score, I don’t have much problem with the way that Will and his family escape from the worst of their trials. Those trials certainly do pile up (bad ravens, Black Riders, evil milkmaids, epic snowstorms etc) to such an extent, that the ultimate victory doesn’t seem lightly earned.
In conclusion, I’d make the case for The Dark Is Rising on the basis of the several terrific set pieces that the book contains. The pattern to each of them is quite similar. Cooper sets up a mundane reality – a rosy-cheeked farmgirl meeting Will along a forest path, a congregation worshipping at church, the Stanton family sharing a lovely Christmas morning together – and then she introduces a presence that pushes the setting into the realm of nightmare. Uneven it may be, but The Dark is Rising is a book not easily forgotten.
Footnote: This essay drew upon interviews and reviews contained in the Children’s Literature Review.