Silver on the Tree (The Dark is Rising 2015 Readathon)

Submerged forest at Borth Sands. (c) Richerman at wikipedia

In the powerful conclusion to the Sequence, the Dark comes rising for its final confrontation with the Light, when the fate of the world will be decided. The Six must retrieve the last Thing of Power and avoid the traps set by the Dark if they are to reach the Midsummer Tree in time.

Okay, I’m just going to say it: I could barely remember a thing about Silver on the Tree (even less than I remembered about Over Sea, Under Stone) and having read it, I can see why. It’s the one I enjoy the least, and I’m not sure it delivers as big finale for the Sequence. I’m open to being persuaded otherwise – please do wade in with a comment if you disagree.

I also acknowledge that the book starts well and has individual elements that are just great. Crucially, the closing scenes are staggeringly good and while I’m unsure whether they redeem everything that’s gone before, they do neatly close out the Sequence and hit me where it means something.

We begin our journey with Will in Buckinghamshire, as he realises that the time has come for the final Rising. We also get – finally – a clear breakdown of the underlying concept, as Will tries to explain the High Magic, the Wild Magic, the Light and the Dark to his brother Stephen. I found it interesting that the Dark is defined as wishing to control and dominate mankind (and through them the Earth); the Light is defined only as opposition to the Dark. That doesn’t work for me. You have to stand for something, not just against something. There’s an awful lot of things that I could infer the Light might stand for, but it would be an assumption and I’m not comfortable with that.

As it turns out, Stephen isn’t wildly comfortable with all this either (albeit for quite different reasons), so Will hand-waves his memory away as Old Ones tend to. It got difficult; forget it. It bothered me in Greenwitch, and it bothers me here (and that’s before I get to the end). That said, there’s an interesting theme here about the difficulty of telling your family something about yourself that they may not accept, and I do wonder whether that’s an intentional subtext or something I’m reading into it – times have changed since 1977, but Stephen and Paul do strike me as the two siblings Will would be most likely to try and come out to.

If this is indeed a coded coming out story (and if so, it’s a bit unfortunate both that Stephen responds poorly, and that Will can make it all go away; best not to tell, kids) then the next scene is explicit in calling out and confronting racism. Combined with the at least notionally multicultural Old Ones (two of the Eldest are dark-skinned, although the story remains firmly focused on white British Old Ones), there’s a nice strong message that racism is a form of hatred, and hatred leads to the Dark Side is a channel for the Dark.

With the focus firmly on Will for this first act, we also get a number of rather lovely time-traveling scenes to remind us just who and what he is; something we haven’t really seen since The Dark is Rising. The Light fight the Dark in all eras simultaneously; the battle of Mount Badon will be fought at essentially the same time as the final Rising in the modern day.

The second act shifts to Wales; Gumerry has taken the Drews to Aberdyfi for the summer, convenient for bumping into Will and Bran on the mountain. The children bristle like cats – the Drews taking to Bran about as well as they initially took to Will last year – until they arrive at Llyn Barfog. Here they are amusingly united in tutting at other people’s children like world-weary 20-somethings (I don’t recall being so judgmental aged 11).

However, I do love the scenes between Jane and the Lady, and Jane and the afanc. I particularly like that Jane passes this test on her own. While Bran wades in to confront the afanc, Jane has already stood up to her fear and rejected it. It’s with Bran’s sudden step into his father’s shoes that Silver on the Tree loses me, I’m afraid.

My first problem is that there is an extent to which Bran’s status feels unearned. In The Grey King, he is unaware of his heritage and finds himself at the heart of the action after a ‘chance’ encounter with Merriman on the mountain. His relationship with his father is difficult, but loving; he is passionately devoted to best friend Cafall; and his developing friendship with Will leads naturally into sharing the Old One’s quest in much the way the Drews are pulled into Over Sea, Under Stone. I liked this Bran: isolated, tetchy, human.

In Silver on the Tree he has become aware that he is the Pendragon, and it seems to have worked a little like Will’s awakening as an Old One. He senses the danger of the afanc before he sees it; his affinities have shifted from human to paranormal. This plays on the parallels between eras – he is his father’s son, the Pendragon for the modern day Rising, so he must echo some of his father’s acts and abilities. But it felt jarring to me, and somewhat unearned. Perhaps it’s sour grapes from another only child who never knew one of her parents 😉

Bran’s contemptuous dismissal of the afanc is consequently both entirely self-assured and remarkably childish, amounting to little more than ‘my Dad said you couldn’t be here, so you have to leave’ – much as his argument to Gwyddno in the Lost Land boils down to ‘you must give the sword to us because we need it’. It’s mythical destiny rather than common sense or remotely persuasive, and… I struggled with it on this read.

This is probably the reason I found myself gritting my teeth through the entire act in the Lost Land. I remember loving this as a child – the drama and romance of the soon-to-be-flooded kingdom – but on this occasion I was struck by how dreamlike and fairy tale it is; our heroes collect clues to overcome challenges and have the right things to say to the end-of-level quest setter.

Even here though, there are snatches of prose that take my breath away: when we discover the Dark has a White Rider as well as the Black Rider, there is a suggestion that the Dark appeals to extremes, to those ‘blinded by their shining ideas, or locked up in the darkness in their heads’. It echoes John Rowlands’s comments that suggest both Dark and Light are fanatics.

When Gwion talks of how the Dark have manipulated Gwyddno to punish him for creating a Thing of Power at the request of the Light, the language is equally evocative (all the more so as an adult): ‘They showed the maker of the sword his own uncertainty and fear. Fear of having done the wrong thing – fear that having done this one great thing, he would never again be able to accomplish anything of great worth – fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise.’ 

It’s heartbreaking, and almost incomprehensible to me as a child. Even when it grates, the Sequence works hard on several levels and commands my respect.

As an aside, it was about this point when it struck me how unusual the demographics of The Dark is Rising Sequence are. Not that it’s male-dominated – I take that as read, however much it irks me – but that the men are either boys (Will, Bran, the Drews) or over 40; no headstrong young bucks charging about (other than possibly the agents of the Dark in Cornwall). Given the wealth of fiction that focus on late teen and twenty-something heroes, it’s refreshing.

Once our heroes return to Aberdyfi from the Lost Land and the Glyndwr escapade (and honestly, did that add anything?) and the great race to the tree is on, the book hit its stride once again, slipping back into the gear that I enjoy best. The tension between Blodwen and Merriman followed by the reveal of the White Rider set up the final scenes whilst being powerfully charged in their own right. I love that – finally – we get a powerful Lady of the Dark, and the no-holds-barred emotional manipulation that she shamelessly stoops to.

Those final scenes are for me the best in the book, and up there as the best in the Sequence. Will has told the Drews previously that ‘[the Dark] cannot destroy you, [but] it can put you in the way of destroying yourself. Your own judgement is all that can keep you on the track.’ The Dark’s challenge to Bran recalls this – just as Merriman explicitly reminds John that he had claimed Men should have the right to choose their own destiny. It is all on quiet, devastated John Rowlands, not one of the Six, to make the decision that will determine whether the Light can even run the final sprint.

There’s genuine uncertainty as to where John’s loyalties will lie: his love for his wife is unquestionable, as are his doubts about the methods of the Light. When he gives his speech on free will, it’s a punch in the gut. Combined with his subsequent comments about the bonds you forge (the family you choose) – well, I tear up just thinking about it. There’s so much here that resonates deeply as an adult, with better empathy for John’s position and what he is turning his back on, but the underlying logic and moral framework works perfectly (and reassuringly) for a child. Nobody else should have the right to make your decisions for you.

I find myself divided about this as a narrative choice when I stop crying and take a step back. After five books driven by the pluck and determination of our child heroes (and heroine), it’s ultimately John who takes the critical action that saves the world (both in making his decision, and then by his actions under the Tree when he steps into the Circle). I am choosing to think of this as the narrative validating John’s argument that the Light / Dark have no right to determine the fate of the world, and upholding the right of mankind to forge our own destiny. It is an ordinary person who – driven by compassion, recognising its flaws, understanding the cost – chooses to throw his lot in with the Light (to Will’s comment). On this level, it’s powerful stuff – but I also note wryly that it means the middle-aged white guy gets to save the world 😉

The closing scenes are inevitably emotional. The characters must take their leave of one another, and we must take our leave of them. Merriman’s fierce speech is to the readers as much as to the children and I leave you with it – it is as important a message today as it has ever been:

‘The responsibility and the hope and the promise are in your hands now. The hope is always here, always alive, but only your fierce caring can fan it out into a fire to warm the world. You may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you. Now especially since man has the strength to destroy this works, it is the responsibility of man to keep it alive in all its beauty and marvellous joy.’

Yep, crying again.

[Header image is the submerged forest at Borth Sands, near Ynyslas. All rights belong to Richerman]