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The Dark is Rising sequence - part one

I read The Dark is Rising (the novel) a few years ago because it seemed right up my street: Christmas, folklore, mythology, Christmas-specific folklore and mythology... you get the idea. My feelings about it were mixed (see below) and I gave away my copy, which I later regretted, so I was happy when R turned up a slipcase with all five books in the sequence. This Christmas I decided to read them all in order, and while my feelings are still mixed, I enjoyed the series more than I'd expected to, and it's given me a lot to think about.

When I picked up Over Sea, Under Stone, the sinusitis had already hit, so I was in just the right mood for something that felt old-fashioned and reminded me of the sorts of adventure books I'd read as a child. It's markedly more childlike in its scope than the rest of the series, though this isn't a criticism - it's the inevitable product of the book having been written for a competition commemorating the legacy of E. Nesbit, rather than conceived as the beginning of a series of any mythological or moral ambition.

If you want the sort of story where children range far and wide in freedom, meet a charming and clever dog, eat enormous teas with lots of fresh cream and solve mysteries with the help of a kindly benefactor, you could happily read this book in isolation. Of course, the price of period social settings is that you also get period racism, though it is undercut, as [personal profile] lunabee34 and [personal profile] thelastgoodname observed in their reviews, by the way the book highlights that children will parrot concepts like "rude natives" without having the first idea of what they actually mean. But that's not a refutation of said racism, either.

Probably Barney is the kid who gets the most personality here - he's the dreamer, the King Arthur fan, and he's also the one who gets kidnapped and/or mind-controlled several times during the series, perhaps because he's sensitive or perhaps because, as the youngest, he makes the most poignant victim when in danger. Simon's your standard slightly irritating older brother, and Jane starts out as one of those girls in old-fashioned books who are a bit complainy in what feels a shallowly sexist way, but she gets more character development later in the book (I enjoyed her expedition to the vicar's house) and particularly later in the series.

Great Uncle Merry - or Merriman Lyon, or, as Barney figures out, Merlin - is the sort of avuncular old man I have a weakness for in stories like this; he'll become more morally complex and faintly disturbing later on. For now, his role is to show up conveniently when the kids would not otherwise get out of danger. This is cosy and reassuring, and I'm not so sure that's a bad thing in the sort of book this is trying to be. You can tell it's supposed to be a serious enough headfuck when the vicar turns out to be an imposter and an agent of the Dark - the idea that a purported vicar could be a bad person disturbs the children and, in a 1965 world where clergy sex abuse scandals had yet to surface and churchgoing was much more central to British life, was probably the most disturbing bit of the book for a lot of readers on publication.

What saves the book from banality is that there is something genuinely disturbing about the pseudo-vicar's mind control attempts on Barney, and the attitudes of other Dark adults. Merriman tells the children enough about the war between Dark and Light for events to have weight beyond the imminent danger to the children - I think we're already told in this book that the Dark can't harm them directly (otherwise Great Uncle Merry would seem a much more suspect character for involving them), but there is a sense of historical sweep and the uniqueness of the chance they have to find the clues that I did feel the stakes were satisfyingly high.

All of that said, though, it takes The Dark is Rising to create enough ambiguity to make the series really compelling. Unfortunately, that ambiguity will largely go unexplored in canon, but we'll come to that.

I found that my problems with TDIR this time round were pretty much the ones I'd had when I originally read it:

1. Will lacks agency. He finds out he's an immortal Old One, and the knowledge of magic and lore is effectively downloaded into his brain by psychically speed-reading a grimoire. Thereafter in the series, when he needs the knowledge, senses and powers of an Old One, it feels rather as if another character - let's call him Old!Will - takes over, with a different style of speaking that I found frustrating. It would have been more satisfying if more of Will's learning process had happened before our eyes, both for its own sake and because we could have felt that this changing persona was the result of his self-discovery as an Old One. I wonder if Will's training takes place in this way because Cooper's built the book around the Christmas season, and a lot of action has to happen between the Solstice and Twelfth Night, but as I said, it makes you feel you're missing something. Plot-wise, there's such reliance on fate that Will just seems to have to hang on there through some unpleasant incidents, go through certain motions, and he'll find the Signs (the Macguffins of his quest), because he's meant to.

2. In Will's family of nine siblings, the girls get less definition than the boys, activities are markedly gendered (boys go out with Dad to fetch the Christmas tree and the Yule log, girls stay in and make paper chains - admittedly, this should be Will's job, but it doesn't help the overall atmosphere of "boys do the important, exciting things while girls sit at home"), and the most defined sister is lazy, moany and sulky. Unfortunately, that's based on her behaviour, not just an attempt to view her from the perspective of her 11-year-old brother. It's always weird reading this kind of casual, sloppy sexism from a female author.

It's also a disappointing lapse because the Stantons are likeable overall, and Cooper creates a believable family whose history and interrelationships feel lived-in. I found myself picturing their house's layout as identical to that of a (not quite so) large family I knew when I was growing up. There are touching scenes like Paul's moments of connection with Will (also introducing the idea that, even among ordinary people, some have a high degree of sensitivity to the powers and realms the Old Ones know intimately), Mrs. Stanton telling the story of the son they lost, and the intimiations of how much Will admires Stephen, whose room he inherited when the latter joined the Navy.

3. I like mentor/pupil relationships, and while Merriman's sternness is in contrast with his warmth towards the children in OSUS, he of course has reason to expect more from Will, and his gradual thawing as Will lives up to those expectations is nicely handled. What's more disturbing is Merriman's relationship with Hawkin, his liegeman from medieval times who, because of his bonds of loyalty and Merriman's fatherly role in his life, has agreed to protect the grimoire with his life... which will last for centuries. The man's been driven half-mad by the burden and the isolation of getting immortality without the power and perspective enjoyed by the Old Ones, and of course, he is swayed by the Dark.

It's part of an unsettling pattern in the books regarding working class characters who do the Dark's bidding - see also the boy and the cook/housekeeper in OSUS, and the maid from the farm bordering the Stanton place in this book. But Hawkin is the ultimate example because his relationship with Merriman makes it virtually impossible for him not to take up a terrible burden, and when he fails to resist the Dark, it feels like this is both inevitable and a terrible moral failing, which feels unfair. Going beyond the question of class, who are these Old Ones who can love someone and bind that person to them, and put them in that situation? Is Will to be expected to handle people so ruthlessly? And how does this make them different from agents of the Dark? The book almost feels like it's going to explore this moral ambiguity, but doesn't go there, and in the end the best Hawkin can hope for is the release of death.

Having said all this, I would rather the ambiguity about the agents of the Light was there than not, and it's obvious fodder for fanfic. There's a lot else implied by Will's status as an Old One that I'd like to see tackled by fic - whether he too is to be immortal, what this will mean for his relationships with his family, and what form immortality will take. Now his Old One powers have been triggered, is he supposed to be 11 forever? Surely not. Do they just age really slowly? Do they stop visibly ageing at a time of their choosing? Is their whole appearance a glamour? (You can see the convenience for Merriman, who maintains a reputation among ordinary mortals as an eminent archaeoogist, of looking like a stately-looking older white man.)

It's possible that the Old Ones suffer from that common fantasy genre failing of being a bit over-powered: they can move through and outside of time, in a way that would seem godlike in its scope if we didn't see that the most powerful of them, The Lady, fades away from exertion and must rest in order to join the others in pushing the Dark back at the end. The magic system is never spelled out, and I suspect hasn't been worked out in any systematic way at all - we know that things can burn without being consumed, that once invited in the Dark is in ur house, abusin ur hospitality, and that will and fear are key factors to master, but the magic very much serves the needs of the plot rather than the plot being driven by the limitations of the magic system.

Where the book unquestionably succeeds is its atmosphere, both in the way the natural world turns from friend to foe, and in the bleedthrough of other historical eras and figures out of myth and legend. I've mentioned that I'm a sucker for Christmas folklore, and there's plenty here, from the protective uses of holly to Herne the Hunter's appearance on Twelfth Night. There's an otherworldly carol-singing scene that veers from Christmassy to threatening, and when the snowfall becomes a danger in itself, the whole town feels convincingly at risk. Also, since I last read the book, I've actually visited Buckinghamshire and explored the Chilterns, Eton and Windsor a bit, so I enjoyed both being able to visualise the locations in the book and to map the fantasy onto the places I now know in real life. But the writing is evocative enough that the places and times depicted can live in your mind regardless of personal experience.



( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 1st, 2017 03:02 am (UTC)
I'm a little wary of reading this when I love these books - I've even read them all recently - and they've been a formative experience so take this with a grain of salt I guess, haha.

Over Sea Under Stone definitely feels very different to the rest of the series and I had no idea it was for a competition! That explains a lot. It has its own charm though.

Will's sisters bother me too. :( They are all much more underwritten while Will clearly enjoys spending time with and admires his brothers (though it's reasonable that Will would be closer to his brothers) - Paul and Stephen especially. I totally hear you on how the most developed sister is just cranky and moany.

Oh, Hawkin. I am with you. The biggest difference between me reading it as a 10 year old (or around there - I know I was under 11 because that's the critical age) and later is that I absolutely side with Hawkin. Merriman put impossible demands on him and essentially cursed him to go on for hundreds of years without rest or friendship because of it; he let Hawkin carry the burden without apparently telling him he could have death at the end, which by that point was probably Hawkin's only solace. To me, plus the agonizing choices that some of the characters make, sort of make the Light a not entirely good force, or at least, not a sweet force - maybe for the general Greater Good, but certainly mowing down smaller people in the way. To me the relationship between Will and Merriman became less interesting - the most interesting is probably the one between Hawkin and Merriman.

I think Hawkin's one of the most prominent aspects of the books that rather imply that others know better for you - the other is the infamous ending. Which I am still mad about. Even though I love the books. Someone was saying to me that Cooper was reacting against (and fantasizing a better outcome) for the shell-shocked soldiers coming back from WWII, where forgetting would probably be a mercy. It's an incredibly unfulfilling trope in general as far as I'm concerned (I'm not a sf/f reader so the characters can ~~it was all a dream~~) and probably is reinforced because the books go to some pains to say that the Dark can't harm them, so it's not like they don't want to keep the memories. They really do.

I actually don't mind so much the magic's not spelled out! I love a magic system but it can totally get bogged down in details, esp if the author becomes sort of belaboured in actually laying out all the details (Brandon Sanderson I'm looking at you). It suits the historical/mythological sweep that the magic isn't gone into much depth. It just is - sort of elemental. A lot of the magic draws on common fairytale convention anyway, and you get this sort of over-explainy thing when people try to hard to explain why you have to invite someone in in order to let them use their magic etc.

I love the carols bit. And I love so much of the winter bits - like when Will wakes up and realizes he's been transported back in time and all the buildings are gone - just the wide expanse of forest, covered in snow, and the river the only break in the trees. It's so wonderful.

To me, the other part where the mythological part falls is the reliance on English history. It didn't bother me as a kid (which probably says how much British fantasy literature I consumed as a kid, despite living in NA and inadvertantly reading a lot of that too) and it wouldn't bother me as an adult either, except that there are clearly Old Ones from everywhere. Stephen's in the West Indies and a man there gives him the mask, when they're on the train they show up, and it's just weird that it's so focussed on Arthur and such when other countries are included. I think it'd be easier to ignore if other countries weren't included, actually. So much of the book is British history and mythology focused that it's weird that other nations are involved. There are other flashpoints in other countries, and other mythological figures that surely are more important to them.

As far as I can tell, the fandom seems to be 99% Will/Bran fix-it, which I'm not interested in. Insert whining here haha.
Feb. 9th, 2017 09:38 pm (UTC)
Sorry to be so long responding to this - it arrived just when my infection peaked and I didn't have a lot of braincells to play with!

I'm really more horrified by the thing with Hawkin the more I think about it; there's a trust and inequality so embedded in being someone's liege-man... Merriman's own position in society will be exactly why he can't see that - or, if he sees it, it's not enough for him to be repulsed by the idea of even asking that of him - was there seriously no other way?

I find the theory about Cooper reacting against what happened to the WWI soldiers interesting, but I agree that it's too much to take from them, especially when they don't even get a choice. I mean, as much as I like the fact that John Rowlands in Silver on the Tree was offered the chance to choose whether to keep his memories or not, the fact he asks the Lady to decide for him shows that he finds it an imposition to have to decide at all, given the enormous consequences that either choice could have. Fairer to let people live with their extraordinary memories - especially since, in the end, as awful as some of it has been, it's not on the scale of what the soldiers went through. I feel like, without direct reference to that kind of trauma, it feels like a disproportionate response to wipe their memories wholesale, especially since they'll have grown and changed by going through those things.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )