It’s nearly Christmas, and Will Stanton is turning 11. As if puberty and buying presents for 9 siblings weren’t hazard enough, he awakens on his birthday to discover he is the last of the Old Ones, fated to seek the Signs of the Light and stop the Dark from rising.
It’s easy to be snarky, but this festive classic is guaranteed to send shivers down your spine.
There was a 9-year gap between the writing of Over Sea, Under Stone and nominal sequel The Dark is Rising, and it’s hardly surprising that many readers came to The Dark is Rising first (the original audience having grown up in the meantime). It hardly matters – The Dark is Rising wipes the slate clean, introduces a new lead (Will Stanton) and moves the focus from normal children having adventures on holiday into a heady fantasy landscape of unapologetic myth-
Our only recurring character is Merriman Lyon, here to help Will understand his new powers and guide him on his quest for the Signs. As in Over Sea, Under Stone he is both stern and comforting – a towering magician feared by the Dark.
By contrast, Will Stanton is a likeable everyboy, youngest member of a warm, sprawling family in rural Berkshire. We are rapidly introduced to his various siblings (quickly sketched but surprisingly distinct) and are soon shown how he is now caught between two worlds: both a young English choirboy who loves his family and an ageless warrior who can step out of time.
When he is summoned through the Doors to meet Merriman and the Lady on the solstice, it is attachment to his family that is his undoing – he cannot resist the sound of his mother’s panicked cry. In weakening to the Dark, he forces the Lady to intervene and to be lost to the battle for the remainder of the book. On this first day of harsh lessons, this is one that resonates throughout the book: although there’s no heavy-handed guilt or reflection on the event, Will now understands – and repeatedly demonstrates – that being an Old One means making sacrifices.
When Will senses the Dark coming for the village church on Christmas Day, he makes no effort to stop his family from going outside to walk home. Unexpectedly, this works in his favour – the Dark ignore the humans trudging through the snow in favour of trapping the Old Ones inside. It is only Will’s brother Paul – the most sensitive and sympathetic of his siblings – who is caught with them, and Will takes a terrible risk to ensure Paul’s safety. But the risk is only to Paul (should Will fail to defeat the Dark, Paul will be in a coma for the rest of his life).
This weighing of risk doesn’t mean that Will doesn’t defend his family. As the snows cut off the village in the new year, he is quick to try to convince his reluctant father to seek shelter at the manor – and ruthless in terrorising the Walker into a fit, to ensure that this danger to the household is removed. Yet when Mary is taken by the Rider, Will is clear on where his duty lies; he hopes to recover her, but there is a price he hopes he won’t have to pay.
Whereas Simon Drew was willing to surrender to the Dark to save his siblings’ lives, Barney – all passionate idealism – was prepared to take risks to keep the grail out of their hands. Will takes bigger risks in cold blood, understanding the consequences of failure, an Old One – more than merely adult – in a child’s body. In retrospect, this theme of risk and duty is a perfect set-up for what I know is to come in the subsequent novels.
It’s also interesting how the theme plays out through Hawkins, who goes a step further than Simon – he does not merely surrender, he defects to the Dark in response to Merriman’s willingness to put his life at risk. He’s the first person we see compromised: agents of the Dark capitalise on his emotional distress; they make him promises; and he joins them in bitterness and despair. In contrast to clumsy minions such as Bill Hoover and Maggie Barnes, or the epic but characterless menace of the Rider, Hawkins is tragic and entirely human. He lets us glimpse the attraction of the Dark, who are otherwise as thinly sketched here as they were in Over Sea, Under Stone.
The novel is both gorgeously written and ominous from the start. Even as an adult, the descriptions of the rooks attacking the Walker in Huntercombe Lane make me uncomfortable; the sleepless terror of Will’s birthday is something I rather wish I hadn’t read at night. Cooper later manages to simultaneously convey the magic of a white Christmas and the underlying threat of bad weather. All this is done in language closer to the lyricism of Garner or Gavriel Kay than the straightforward if elegant prose of Over Sea Under Stone. As in the previous volume, there’s a naturalism to the Stantons’ conversations – in this novel all the more marked as it contrasts with the rather more portentous utterances of the Old Ones.
If The Dark is Rising has a flaw, it’s that for a tale that deals heavily in threat, it is ambivalent about consequences. Yes, the Lady must retreat and recover after the assault on the solstice, but we are also assured that the Dark can harm neither an Old One – nor their family – directly. This, in fact, is why Will prefers his family to walk home on Christmas Day than be caught in the church as collateral damage. For all the wailing menace of the Dark – and it’s chilling every time – the size of their teeth is unclear. For much of the second half of the novel, the weather is a more direct threat than the Dark, as supplies dwindle and the village is cut off.
It is only near the end that we discover the protective edict is specific rather than helpful: the Rider cannot kill Mary with his own hands, but he can suggest she put herself in harm’s way – and even though she is under his sway and will take his suggestion as a command, he would not be considered to have caused her death. The Dark and the Light split hairs equally well.
There also seem to be a range of higher powers arrayed against the Dark that the Dark cannot match at this stage: the Lady, the Hunter and the Hunt all put the Dark to flight. As a child, this really rather straightforward victory of the Light over the Dark was satisfying and full of hope. As an adult, it’s all a bit too easy. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the reread – I did, immensely – but I’m looking forward to the darker tones I recall from later instalments.
It may also explain why however fond I am of The Dark is Rising, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen / The Moon of Gomrath have always been my favourites. But I’ll save musings on Garner for another time.