This year Christmas has crept up on me; I have been sick, twice, one with shingles and the second time with a bad cold. My daughter has been sick with a nasty viral infection. Our two lovely bunnies got sick and succumbed to myxomatosis which was a loss none of us were prepared for. I took it upon myself to make some Christmas gifts, which was both fun and yet time consuming and strangely disconnected from Christmas. So I’ve approached the week before Christmas feeling like Christmas wasn’t happening at all. Then I remembered my desire to re-read and I remembered The Dark is Rising and how, a few years ago, I re-read this wonderful book and remembered how connected the book is to Christmas, taking place in the period from Midwinters’ Day (21st December) to Twelfth Night. It seemed the perfect place to start my re-reading quest.
There are books which define some essential part of our reading journey, and The Dark is Rising sequence is one of mine. I first encountered this series of books when I was a teenager, perhaps twelve or thirteen years old. The first one I encountered was Greenwitch, the third in the series, and from there I read The Grey King (my favourite of the five) and only after that did I read The Dark is Rising. The whole series is a magical, disturbing, atmospheric and thrilling read, drawing heavily on British folklore yet also deeply philosophical in tone and surprisingly profound for a book aimed at children. As a teenager I read in awed anticipation, swept up in the mythical sweep of it, the magic, the puzzling quests, but most of all the visceral presence of the ‘Dark’ making each turn of the page more and more ominous. I read and re-read them, and each time they etched themselves deeper into my being, directing me towards other fantasy books, which I enjoyed reading for many years. But there is more to The Dark is Rising than mere fantasy. Steeped in myth and philosophy, The Dark is Rising is a book which forces you to confront real peril, the wildness of nature, and the difficulty involved in walking the good path. It is a book which shapes character, and I think it helped to shape mine all those years ago.
Enough of the gushing and on to the book. The Dark is Rising begins on the even Midwinters’ Day, as Will Stanton approaches his eleventh birthday. Strange things seem to be happening. The rabbits are scared of him, the radio squeals as he passes, the rooks are attacking an old tramp an alleyway. When the local farmer makes a strange comment about how the night will be ‘beyond imagining’ Will grows even more troubled, and as starts to snow, despite his initial joy, Will knows, deep down, something is wrong. Will wakes on his birthday to an altered world. It’s not just because the landscape is blanketed in snow, the surrounding buildings have gone and instead he finds himself in an ancient wood. Will has been pulled out of time. Thus he discovers that he is one of the Old Ones, a circle of ancient beings who guard the world against the rising of the dark. Guided by the oldest of the Old Ones, a hawk-nosed, imposing ageless man with wild white hair [interlude: in the, frankly horrific, movie version of The Dark is Rising they cast Ian McShane for this critical role. Ian McShane! I ask you.] Will begins a quest for the Signs: six symbols of power that will help the Old Ones repel the Dark. Because the Dark, the Dark is rising!
The Dark maintains an ominous presence throughout the rest of the story. The snow builds with the sense of menace. Will, as the youngest and newest of the Old Ones, is vulnerable, he doesn’t yet have the full knowledge and capability that his power, and responsibility, brings. Yet he has an important quest. As sign-seeker he must location the symbols of wood, bronze, iron, water, fire and stone, quartered circles which, when combined, form a powerful weapon to quash the dark. Yet midwinter is the time of deep darkness, the time of strength for the Dark. Will finds himself battling both his own ignorance and childishness, as well as the agents of the Dark: the Rider, the powerful leader of the Dark; Maggie Barnes, the innocent seeming farm-hand who twice tries to take the signs from Will; and the Walker, an old tramp who is also a man out of time who carries the burden of betrayal in his frail, flawed form. And on top of all of this is the snow and cold, natural forces which threaten all. Will must learn to conquer his own fear, to be willing to sacrifice and to be bold to protect both his family and the world from the rise of the Dark.
The Dark is Rising is in many respects a classic a coming-of-age story, but it is also much more than this. In the forces of the Dark and the wildness of the weather, Will encounters real peril. We are reminded how unpredictable and how dangerous the depths of winter can be, and why we come together at this time – gathering in lighted rooms, coming together to give each other solace and protection. In the age of electricity and gas on demand, it is easy to forget the real dangers that exist in these months of darkness and cold, the way people can succumb to the enforced isolation of poor weather and the strength sapping nature of the cold. It’s also a morality tale, and in the Walker’s example a reminder of how easily men’s paths can be turned towards darkness because of a lack of faith or trust. In these, seemingly, dark times there is much we can learn from Will’s example, though his path is one of sacrifice and peril it is his knowledge, his belief in doing what is right, and the combined strength of those who support him which see him through.
Current times are difficult. Terrible things are happening, there is much uncertainty and there are forces in our world which grow unchecked which feed on fear and anger, who encourage it in fact. Reading Will’s tale is a reminder of everything that is contrary to these forces. It is not always easy to take the right path. It can place us in peril, it requires vulnerability and trust, it may demand compromise and it requires a willingness to concede or to hold firm. But it is always worth it. Because of this, whilst The Dark is Rising is suffused with peril and ominous signs, it is also an extremely uplifting book to read. I think I needed it, not just for the reminder of what the seasonal celebrations are for, but for comfort. I have, over the past few days, begun to wonder if my desire to re-read has been driven by a fundamental need for comfort, for reconnecting with a younger, more trusting and hopeful version of myself, to remember who I am and what I stand for. A retreating and regrouping, perhaps. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that this desire has driven me back to this wonderful book. Susan Cooper writes beautifully about how even a young boy (albeit one with special powers) has the ability to withstand the darkness and choose a path that will bring light into his life, and into the lives of others.
Thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog over the past year. It is a pleasure to write, but it is always an honour to know that someone has taken the time to read it. And even if that’s just one person, I am grateful to that person. Thank you to everyone who has been kind enough to pass comment. Though the internet can be a terrifying place at times, my experience has been one of unfailing kindness and a genuine desire to connect and to share and to spread the joy of the written word as far and as distant as it can go. Merry Christmas to you all. I wish you joy for 2017.