Book Review: “The Dark is Rising” by Susan Cooper

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The Dark Is Rising
by Susan Cooper

This 1973 Newbery Honor Book is the second book in the sequence of the same name, which began with 1965’s Over Sea, Under Stone.

On Midwinter’s day, Buckinghamshire lad Will Stanton turns eleven years old. The youngest child in a large family, he has little idea that he is also the last-born of the immortal Old Ones, who lead the forces of the Light in their age-long fight against the Dark. Weird things begin happening on the eve of his birthday, but just as Will is learning of his true destiny, the Dark begins to rise in earnest during the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Helped by a handful of other Old Ones, and hindered by betrayal and outright attack from the powers of darkness, Will must find six magical signs and unite them together before Twelfth Night, when the Dark will wage its last and greatest attack on the world.

“Uncle Merry” from the first book returns as an Old One named Merriman Lyon, who (among others) helps Will find the signs of iron, bronze, wood, stone, fire, and water that he needs to hold back the Dark. Meanwhile a red-haired, blue-eyed Rider in Black menaces Will and his family at every turn… a strange, tormented Walker is abroad… the powerful Book of Gramarye waits… and Will discovers the ability to travel through time, plus other exciting powers.

Though Cooper distinguishes these powers from magic or witchcraft — which, when it’s actually genuine, is a tool of the Dark — she does not go as far as to explain where the magic of the Light comes from. We only know that it is as old as the world, or older; that it is eternally at war with the Dark (otherwise known as Evil); and that one of its great heroes was King Arthur.

And again, although Cooper presents us with a tale that resonates with biblical imagery (especially the moving betrayal and fate of Hawkin) in a way that constantly reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s tales of Narnia and Space, her outlook is not distinctly Christian; she seems to lump all religions, gods, and what they stand for together in one category, and to set the powers of the Light beside them as something else altogether.

English folk-mythology, Arthurian legend, British family drama, and classic “Good guys ride a white horse, bad guys ride a black” metaphysics join here in a tale of suspense and terror, beauty and wonder, holiday cheer and meteorological nightmare. Plus it has scenes that will remind Alfred Hitchcock fans of The Birds and Diana Wynne Jones fans of Dogsbody, not to mention a family so large (including twin boys) that it makes the Burrow seem sparsely populated.

So from the standpoint of “concerned Christian parents,” it is an ambivalent story. You’re just going to have to read it yourself and make up your own mind. But from the standpoint of an mind-engaging, thrilling fantasy-mystery-adventure with a terrific battle between good and evil, there can be no question. Cooper has it nailed.