'The Dark is Rising' is both the name of a series of five novels, originally written for children, and of the now classic, second novel in the series. This book was the subject of an 'online' reading group (on Twitter) initiated by the accomplished nature writer, Robert Macfarlane last Christmas that brought it to my attention. I finished the last in the series yesterday with one of those releasing sighs where deep satisfaction and tender disappointment are mixed when you 'finish' a reading experience haunting and well made.
Like all good children's literature, it can (and ought) to be read by adults for enjoyment and profit. Here for multiple reasons.
First of which is that she is a gifted nature writer. In a few deft strokes she can describe a place vividly, accurately and even when she steps into the fantastic a solidly, real world is before you. But her nature is a place of the uncanny too - of the natural wonder of its giftedness as well as its ability to transport you into new states of mind - heights and depths. The Dark (in The Dark is Rising) precipitates a deepening ice grip to help claim (and demonstrate) its victory and you start with a winter in the Buckinghamshire countryside but as the screws turn you descend into a prospective icy hellishness, carrying forward all the natural conditions of a winter, but made eerily, threateningly other. Nature is one of her principal characters.
Second her's is a nature interwoven with history, folklore and myth, rooted in places, of England and Wales principally. You could enjoy the books simply reference spotting (though no reference is made that is not thoroughly imagined as part of the unfolding story). Here is Arthur and the Grail, here is Lyonesse, the sunken kingdom off the coast of Cornwall and here is Herne the Hunter and his hounds.
Third, it is a fictional fantasy world with a simple, consistent and robust architecture. You have the everyday world of its young protagonists, worrying whether their next meal will arrive on time, through which runs the unseen battle between the Light and the Dark and under both is the space of the High Magic (the oldest, primordial tradition that is literally 'amoral' (or transcendent to the moral) and serves neither the Light nor the Dark but does set the laws of their encounter.
The Dark is fascinating because though its human agents can coerce, at several points one or other of the children are snatched in brief episodic kidnaps, the Dark itself cannot harm unless the subject either of their unguarded consciousness or own volition consents. Nor is the world ultimately rescued in any act of violence (redemptive or otherwise) but by symbolic act rooted in the greatest bond of all that is love and affection. This is consciously offered as a progression from the past - where Arthur fought the Dark literally at the battle of Badon, the children outwit and out love the Dark in this our world. The true magic is the hallowing of the heart's affections (though this being a British novel such loving is always more better shown in low key acts than emoted or said)!
Fourth, Susan Cooper, the author, plays with time. The children move through it, events connect in non-linear ways, adjusting remembrance of the past changes both it and the future, all of time is always present, presence, and nothing is ever lost in a 'disappeared' past because all is eternally present. There was no wonder in my mind when discovered, simultaneously, that Cooper has written a study of J.B. Priestley (and edited his selected essays) one time haunting writer acknowledging another 'time haunted' one (to use Priestley's own description).
And, finally, and necessarily, Cooper creates characters about who you care - most especially Will Stanton, the eleven year old protagonist of The Dark is Rising who discovers, on his birthday, that he is an "Old One", one of the aged guardians of the Light, and how that reality sits with his childhood self is fascinating. A childhood self that is always, rightly imagined in my view as both vulnerable, maturing and yet gifted with seriousness. I was reminded of Jung's discovery, at a similar age, that he was not one but two personalities and that the second was immeasurably older and wiser than the first. It is deftly crafted and wholly believable and you care what happens to him next on his journey as you care for the unfolding story as a whole.