Hands up who read this sequence? And who then only managed to read it once? I swear I read all 5 books several times a year. The set is one of my go-to reads in times of sickness, stress or general fed-upness (see Comfort Reading). Usually, I read The Dark is Rising and think I won’t read all of them. This just proves that I’m an idiot who will never learn, because I am drawn in every time, and I always read them all.
But The Dark is Rising was the first one I found and it remains my favourite. I don’t remember where it was or what age I was, but by some fortunate alignment of the stars it landed at just the right point in my life to hold me entirely in thrall. So of course, I went looking for more of the same, and instead of the usual disappointment that there was no more of the same, found there were 4 more books. Heaven!
The main driver of the overall story is that there are two forces in the world, the Light and the Dark, and in the mid 20th century the Dark is rising for one final battle. In order to defeat the Dark, the forces of the Light must complete various quests to gather several objects that will be needed for the fight. So far, so cliched I suppose, but this central premise is all mixed up with much of the Arthurian story, as well as some Celtic legends (the Lost Lands at Gwynedd in Wales) and English folklore (Herne the Hunter and the Wild Hunt, the ritual making of the Greenwitch). Think about all that for a minute, and you’ll realise that it’s not all happy, easy stuff. The legend of Arthur is a gut-wrenching tragedy for a start (discounting the Mists of Avalon, which was heartbreaking in an entirely different way).
Since the series is what is now known as YA fiction, the protagonists are all children. They are Simon, Jane and Barney Drew, whose mysterious godfather Merriman Lyon gets them involved; and Will Stanton, who on his 11th birthday discovers that he is one of the Old Ones of the Light, to whom falls the responsibility of fighting the Dark. There is also Bran Davies, the strange Welsh boy who has his own destiny to fulfil along the way. Not all the children appear in all the books, but together they and Merriman are the Six who must be at the final battle.
The adventures all happen during school holidays, and the children therefore inhabit the world I remember from school hols, when adults were largely peripheral and as long as you were back for meals, no one paid overmuch attention to what you were up to in the hours in between. There’s plenty of magic and adventure, and enough danger and fear that it used to keep me on the edge of my seat. There is real sadness, betrayal and loss, and at times it was more than I was ready to handle. I remember that I had to grow into the series: Over Sea, Under Stone was fine, as was The Dark is Rising. I struggled with Greenwitch, which for years was my least favourite until I suddenly appreciated that it was Jane’s chance to have a bit of the action. I don’t think I even made it through The Grey King the first time I tried, and Silver on the Tree was even more scary (OMG, the Afanc) as well as terribly, horribly sad (John Rowland’s choice? Sob.) Still, there was enough to draw me back again and again. Basically, each of the books is an excellent story, and the writing is great. And I learned from them.
Of course, I lapped up the mythology and folklore. But also along the way I learned basic Welsh pronunciation and bits of history and above all, the principle that individuals have responsibility for their own actions and must face up to the consequences of their choices. It’s not that the books preach at all, but the Light-Dark duality is not entirely clearcut. Not all of the people on the side of the Dark are recognizably evil. Some of them are ordinary enough, with the small, everyday weaknesses that we all have. Still, Cooper displays a certain implacability that refuses to allow these characters to weasel their way out by claiming that they were misled or possessed. They are held in the balance against yet more ordinary people who will decide to act for the greater good, setting aside their own hurt, disappointment or bitterness to do so. The books are magical throughout, but it is, finally, not magic that wins the day.