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The Dark is Rising sequence - part two

Part I is here.


In the comments to the earlier post, [personal profile] arcadiaego pointed out that Greenwitch feels like an attempt to counterbalance the sexism of the two previous books. I'll drink to that.

The first thing I noticed is that it's a very short book compared to its predecessor, and I like that Cooper doesn't seem to have felt the need either to make the books of uniform length or to make each longer than the last seemingly for length's sake, or because demand for the book puts pressure on the edting process. Both are tiresome tendencies I've noticed in modern YA (see also: watering down what should be a single meaty book to create a trilogy) and it's a relief to read books that are simply the length they need to be in order to tell the story. Greenwitch's brevity is particularly notable because it brings together the Drew children from the first book and Will Stanton from the second, in a situation that naturally provokes wary possessiveness in the Drews - their Great Uncle Merry has brought this stranger on holiday with them! A lesser book would have escalated hostilities and drawn the four children into protracted sniping while the reader's frustration grew at how they ought to be working together against the Dark. Thank heaven this is not that book.

While the book makes clear that Will's ordinary life has carried on after the upheaval of TDIR, when Merriman shows up it's like flipping a switch, and Old!Will is on duty. The Drews note that in some ways he is more like an adult than someone their age, and gradually their suspicion of him is overcome because he reminds them - Jane particularly; the book is mostly from her point of view - of their great uncle. If they seem oddly content not to be privy to all the Old Ones' secrets, perhaps it's because when they do encounter the Dark it's always disturbing - there's another mind control saga for Barney, Rufus the dog is kidnapped, and there's an eerie encounter on the beach. I get a sense that they'd rather not know all the ins and outs of evil, particularly since it's obvious that the lack the power to fight it directly. I guess it's a bit like being a human in the Marvel or DC worlds who has more than passing acquaintance with the superheroes: they may be good friends, and dazzling to have in your life, but there's only so many times you can turn up at their apartment and find Galactus has stepped on it before you quietly wish their lives - and by extension, yours - were more normal.

Will's education as an Old One continues with a visit to the undersea realm of Tethys, which is a bit spoilt for me by its implausibility - there's some nice descriptions of the bizarre creatures of the deep, but it's weird that Cooper doesn't seem to realise that those things are adapted to survive under enormous pressure, whereas Will and Merriman are not. Okay, so beings who can manipulate the space-time continuum might be capable of generating a force-field to protect themselves from underwater pressure (apart from anything else, they're managing to breathe down there, which does suggest they carry their own atmosphere with them), but it's odd that it's not acknowledged, and that seems like another consequence of the magic not being systemised. Cooper seems more interested in categories of magic than in any one category's internal logic, so we get emphasis on how, as well as the Light and Dark magics, and the High Magic that governs them (was Tethys a representative of the High Magic, or also governed by it? she seems to be on a stratum above the Light and Dark...), there is also Wild Magic, whose definition I unfortunately can't remember, but which can be summed up as "folk horror-type shit" and which seems to me the most interesting of the lot, and which ties in with Jane's experiences.

Jane becomes the central figure of the book, and is both the first of the Drews to have a little patience with Will's appearance in their midst, and the only one who, because she's female is invited to the town's traditional, women-only festival, the making of the Greenwitch. The women spend the entire night by firelight outdoors, building a wickerwork effigy weighted by stones. It's interesting that Jane is invited but not Will's uncle's American wife (this return of Uncle Bob from the US seems like one of those things orchestrated by Merriman/the Light, in that Merriman and Bob are acquainted and everyone thus ends up on holiday together in the Cornwall location from the first book) - the characters suggest that this is because Jane is at least English, and the aunt a foreigner.

There's a queasy, racist moment here when the aunt admires the fact she's excluded because she dislikes the fact that indigenous tribes in the USA allow outsiders to watch their rituals (it's my understanding from other reading that this isn't actually true - I mean, you'd expect circumstances to vary by tribe, area and ritual...). She's got this weird, entitled feeling about it - like, how dare the tribes turn their own rituals into what she seems to consider a tourist trap. Never mind that the colonial legacy of white people in the USA will have served to impoverish many indigenous people, limit their recognition and participation in society, and maybe they invite people in precisely because a) they need the income and b) they want to increase understanding of their culture...

Jane's experience of the Greenwitch ritual rings very true - she doesn't really know what to expect or do, so experiences a mixture of self-consciousness, boredom, excitement, and transcendence. She dozes through part of the night, as any kid might when kept up so late. The Greenwitch is well presented as a figure with its own powerful aura (it seems odd to use "it" rather than "she", but the book does), and Jane's response is what makes the book, both plot-wise and for me as a reader: she's drawn to the Greenwitch and empathises with a sadness she feels must be its portion: "I wish you could be happy," is what the whole book turns on, because Jane's reaching out emotionally to the Greenwitch is both the magic that triggers part of the problem the kids need to solve, and the source of the ultimate resolution. In that sense, the book's very of its time, and some readers today may perceive this as gender essentialism and find it trite (as I know [personal profile] lunabee34 and [personal profile] thelastgoodname did when, in book 5, The Lady found a special bond with Jane, seemingly just because the're both female), but I would guess that it's a heartfelt response both to criticisms (that must surely have existed then) of sexism in the earlier books, and to cultural forces at the time (1974). It seems to be an expression of the force by which women celebrated traits considered traditionally female, and therefore weak, as strengths.

Jane is also the character who gets to witness Will and Merriman go about their Old One business late one night - on one hand it's not great that she's the passive observer, but it's also from this night - one when the Wild Magic is abroad in the village, and the past bleeds through into the present with a full cast of ghostly ships and crew - that her inspiration comes on how to treat with the Greenwitch and save the day for the Light. Subsequently, the blossoming understanding between Jane and Will is touched on, and you get a sense that had this been written today their connection would have been played for romance. It's as well that it isn't - Cooper was frustrated by the choice of the film adaptation of TDIR to age Will up, because she regarded it as key to her story that the events take place before puberty, and I tend to think that it indeed would have worked less well if any two characters had a romantic bond. When personal development happens for characters in this series (as with Will's sad realisation about what he can't share with Stephen in Silver on the Tree), it's entirely in the service of the Light, not their individuality. As we'll learnin future instalments, their individuality doesn't much matter...

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