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Innovations in The Dark is Rising Sequence

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     In her five book fantasy sequence entitled The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper draws upon Welsh mythology and other folklore to create a truly believable and realistic world in which unexplainable and supernatural situations occur, causing time to collapse and exist simultaneously. Despite these parallel worlds that span fifteen centuries, the novels allude only obliquely to their mythic sources, even though myths, archetypes, stereotypes and journeys are integral to the stories. Yet even in readings that do not rely on knowledge of mythic origins, readers might intuit the echoes of myth as they absorb the novels’ more subtle messages (Hunt,134).

     However, young readers who come to Cooper’s novels with an explicit knowledge of the myth referencing intertexts will have a markedly varied experience of reading. What they will experience is what Barthes has termed the ‘circular memory of reading.’ This is a process in which the need to recall and to refer back to specific intertexts limits the reader. The reading experience is, therefore, more challenging as the reader attempts to refer to the ‘borrowing’ and at the same time integrate it into a new context. It is the essence of this sort of reading to deny readers an opportunity for linear reading as they move in and out of the text to make connections between it and the mythic intertext (Hunt, 134).

     Yet children probably don’t give this intertext problem much credence, wanting only a compelling story with or without myth that lets their imaginations roam. Cooper obliges through her use of the fantasy genre. In it she  incorporates several common literary traits which must be present in all fantasy literature to characterize it as such. Timmerman (4) identifies these traits as: the employment of traditional Story, the depiction of Common Characters and Heroism, the evocation of Another World, the use of Magic and the Supernatural, the revelation of a Struggle between Good and Evil, and the tracing of a Quest.

     To understand these elements within Cooper’s work, it is first necessary to look at her source material. Much concerned with the Matter of Britain, a phrase which  mainly deals with the Arthurian legend, exploits of British warriors, and tales of Celtic origin  (Schofield 145), Cooper establishes a  sense of  setting in her tales that is quite vividly British. In Cooper’s imagination, Britain is a wondrous “other” realm hidden behind the everyday, waiting to inform and transform reality.  This is a country of wounded kings and powerful knights, of legendary lore and ancient traditions, a country collected into sites where tradition and legend invest particular environments with a vague, but nevertheless, profound meaning. In spite of all this background, the legendary and folkloric are, in general, unsupported by explanation or clarifying description (Krips, 82).

     However, her themes need no interpretation. The Second World War ended in 1945. This was a war whose advanced technology redefined the edges of the battleground, first with the bombers and V-2s that brought destruction to the civilian population, and later with the atomic bomb, whose potential to destroy future generations was devastating As Nazis ‘efficiently destroyed’ their own ‘undesirable citizens,’ the intrusion of terror into the ordinary world, and the impact of unimagined powers became recurrent themes in Cooper’s work; they are her legacy of a wartime childhood cut short by the premature awareness of human evil and hovering menace (Beckett, 92).

     The settings are predominantly Cornwall and Wales, although in an interview Cooper  admits to using Buckinghamshire for The Dark is Rising, stating that these places are very dear to her personally ( Thompson Interview, 1).Throughout these settings she weaves tales of intrigue and mystery, manipulating myth and legend to her own ends.

     The ongoing battle between the Light and the Dark occurs in a rather traditional, somewhat Miltonic sphere with which are combined the landscape and figures of the Arthurian legends, including elements of the Grail myths. She has been criticized for inaccurate portrayal of the inherited beliefs and myths contained within her works, and for the unsystematic selections of elements and their reconstruction into a highly  volatile but somewhat dissonant moral landscape. This criticism is unaware of Cooper’s innovative refashioning or “creative reconstruction” of the sources. In the unfolding of her universe, she integrates a cosmology whose graphic framework is inspired by Paradise Lost   and whose foundational philosophy, founded on the strength of Love and Justice, is basically Christian, containing an operating system established on the incontrovertible laws of High (Moral) and Wild (Natural ) Magic. She borrows Herne the Hunter and the Grail from Celtic tales and assorted legends, adding new characters such as the Walker, the Rider and Bran. Both her contemporary characters and the Old Ones lives straddle human and supernatural existence (Beckett, 92).

      Her  protagonists struggle against opposing forces called the Dark. Throughout the series the Dark is rising in Britain, desirous of becoming  powerful once again. The Old Ones, who seem to be similar to Christian angels, must push the Dark back as they did before in Arthurian times. This struggle between good and evil is a primordial theme; ancient, yet ever present.

     Will Stanton, Cooper’s chief protagonist, plays a definitive part in this battle between good and evil. As the last and youngest of the Old Ones responsible for the ordinary world which is largely ignorant of them , Will goes through quests and adventures in which the purpose of the Old Ones is revealed, learns the lore that is his birthright and becomes established as a person of power, moving forward with Bran, King Arthur’s son to conquer the Dark (Kipps,82).

       The Drew children also begin their own quest for the Holy Grail, the one which Christ used at the Last Supper, and which Arthurian legend states that Joseph of Arimathea brought  to Glastonbury, galvanizing King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table to begin their search for that lost and sacred object. Existing within this context of Arthurian materials is the unfinished Perceval of Chretien de Troyes which tells of these adventures and is a source, along with Malory, that Cooper referenced for her books (Interview 1).

     One writer of the Grail legend starts his long epic in a way that also will have   resonance in Cooper’s works when both Will and Merriman echo his words. His short preface states: “Every act has both good and evil results. Every act in life yields pairs of opposites in its results. The best we can do is lean toward the light.”

     Calling the Arthurian Legend the central myth of Western Culture, Joseph Campbell views the Grail as a “reflection point of unity between that culture and nature ”(197). In Over Sea Under Stone, as Cooper employs the Grail motif, she draws in the British with the Drew children’s quest throughout Cornwall. She is also interested in Merlin as a figure associated with this legend. Thus the Drew children learn finally that their great uncle is actually Merriman Lyon, a renown professor. The youngest child Barney starts rolling words around, eventually making a deeper connection as he states: “Merriman Lyon…Merlion…Merlin”( Over Sea, Under Stone,218).

     With his vast and exhaustive knowledge, Merriman can be viewed as the Jungian archetype of the Wise Old Man. Indeed, later in the series he becomes identified as one of the Old Ones, those seemingly immortal beings chosen to defend the Light from the force of Dark in the world. Described as “something ancient, but without age or end”(Over Sea, Under Stone,9),the figure of Merriman Lyon takes on greater meaning in the later volumes of the series, when his relationship to the Arthurian mythos is fully known. Not only a guide and guardian to the children, his role now doubles, with a shifting identity in this world and an immortal one as a great lord of the force of the Light, having powers over time and nature as he travels through time to show Will the ways of the Old Ones and brings the child of Guinevere and Arthur to the present century to live in Wales. Just as Arthur could not have been king without Merlin/Merriman, so Will, Bran, and the Drew children need him for direction. This Old One is truly the mythic wizard Merlin in his transcendence of space and time; one who mentors and inspires his charges (Spivack, Staples 22).

     Associated with Merlin is Hawkins, his foster son and devoted servant. In The Dark is Rising Hawkins learns that his master was willing to sacrifice him for the good of the Light. This knowledge infuriates him and he turns against Merlin. Although Will has met Hawkins in the past, he also recognizes Hawkins in the present as the Walker, a man who dwells on the fringes of society. The Walker is a sort of Wild Man, a medieval character type which Tolkien borrowed from the Finnish and uses to great effect in his stories, often transforming the figures.  In turn, Cooper, who is much indebted to Tolkien, borrows this figure, also transforming him for her own purposes.

     The Wild Man is the archetypal outsider, the prowler on the borderlands between the wild and the tame, exiled either by his fellow men or his own misanthropy. Just as Tolkien created a misfit named Turin, a story of special poignancy regarding an  orphan whose tragedy need not have happened; so too does Merlin’s foster child Hawkins not have to fall into the Dark. By the time he dies ,however, he becomes redeemed and embraces both the Light and his master.

     Another character who perhaps can be seen as a variation of the Wild Man is Caradog, the evil farmer who shoots dogs in The Grey King, wild because  Brenin Llwyd channels his evil powers through him; a man who rages over not keeping Gwen; a man who lets others take control of him:  “there was in Caradog Pritchard’s eyes …the quick flash of madness… as human power was swept aside by the dreadful power of the Grey King ” (The Grey King, 155). In the manner of a Wild Man, he does not function normally and runs amok of conventional society.

     Merlin is often accompanied by a numinous figure known as the Lady. She greets Will in The Dark is Rising as he passes through the great carved doors which go from one time to another, to begin the first stage of his quest. In this book her association with nature and ancient Celtic mythology is emphasized. At Merriman/Merlin’s side she is described as small and immensely aged and “fragile as a bird”(Dark is Rising, 43).The bird imagery is repeated later when Will sees a pagan ceremony known as the Hunting of the Wren. During this service a  group of boys carry the body of a wren on an ivy covered bier; as he observes, the wren is transformed into the Lady, a ‘small, fine boned woman, very old, delicate as a bird, robed in blue (Cooper, 174).She can change shapes, causing  others to question her identity (Hourihan, 172).

      But in the last book of the sequence Silver on the Tree, her identity as the Virgin is

obvious .She appears to one of the children in a vision ,floating on the air, delivers a cryptic message to help them in their struggles against the Dark, and at a climatic moment in the battle appears again, looking now neither young nor old, and wearing a robe ‘blue as early morning sky’(Silver on the Tree, 258).This image implicitly realizes the submerged tradition of the great goddess and the power of the female principle, but the images of the Lady are ones of co-opted power. She is reduced to a decorative presence, a shining figure on the periphery of the structural pattern; action and accomplishment seen to be the prerogative of males (Hourihan, 173).

     Though the lady gives him favor, to ensure the success of his quests Will must have six circles quartered by crosses. These circular images also appear in a Grail tale that has overtones of Herodotus as Peronnik, a primitive version of Parsifal, gains possession of a circle of enchantment .It delivers a mount to him during his quest for the coveted bowl and spear. In like manner, Will also has a horse appear and enable him to escape the evil Rider and his circular cross aids him in escaping evil.

      One version of the Grail tale has Peronnik meet a Corrigan ( a supernatural figure) beside a magic apple tree, and gain from him an apple in order to further his quest for sovereignty. Will has to meet the evil and powerful Grey King. In another adventure three knights visit a kingdom that is a Waste Land, just as Will and Bran visit the Lost Land. At the Waste Land a gold circle corresponding to a circle of sunlight is given. Other correspondences to the ring of sunlight also occur. The youngest is marked in some sense as successor to the Grail kingdom, and a stone circle is given to him (Anderson, 99). Such a stone circle , perhaps a philosopher’s stone, is also given to Bran, son of King Arthur at the end of the series.

      Cooper read widely on the mythology of the pre-Christian Britons for her fantasy sequence ( Thompson Interview, 1). The myths are arranged in much altered form in medieval Welsh manuscripts such as the Red Book of Hergest, the White Book of Rhydderch, the Book of Anerin and the Book of Taliesin. Because the Welsh had been Christians for many centuries before their former mythology was written down, their gods had long been changed into kings and heroes of the past.

     The prose stories from the White and Red Books are known as the Mabinogion. Several stories in particular bear relevance to The Dark is Rising sequence. Two have Arthurian themes; and while Arthur is not so much a character in this series, he looms as a overarching presence which establishes a context within the novels, imparting specific meaning.

     Culwych and Olwen is a 9th century folklore tale found in the Mabinogion. In this story Arthur appears to help his cousin Culwych accomplish various quests to win Olwen. Culwych has to obtain two tremendously swift horses , the White and the Black ( also the colors of horses in the Dark is Rising sequence) to help him in the hunting of Twrch Trwyth, the enchanted boar who was once a king. This quest serves to obtain the comb and scissors which are between his ears so that Ysbaddaden’s hair may be dressed and Culwych may marry. The story also contains extensive explanations of place names the characters pass through as Twrch Trwyth and his followers lead the heroes all over Wales, Ireland and Cornwall before being defeated.

     Also in the First Branch section of the Mabinogion, Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed loses a son, who is brought up in secret and restored when grown to be a lad. This resembles Cooper’s creation of Bran and his meeting of Arthur.

     Pwyll also visit’s the ‘not-land’-the land of the dead, a marvel of a kingdom under the waves.  In medieval Welsh literature this is a place that can be visited by travelers. It contains a pack of otherworld hounds and a beautiful woman. The Spoils of Annwd refers to the expedition Arthur made to this land, which is something like the ‘lost land’ Cooper’s characters journey to in their mission to defeat evil.

     That lost land is Cardigan Bay, a place that invokes both the lost Atlantis and the ’not land.’ This land was lowland, reclaimed by King Gwyddno Garanhin. The kingdom was drowned, caused to remain underwater forever when the seawall broke.

     In addition to  the hunt for Twrch Trwyth, there is a great deal of other hunting mythology in Welsh literature. In the First Branch of the Mabinogi, a hunted stag is the method by which the hero Pwyll, lord of the Arberth, encounters a Grey Man, Arawn, ruler of the underworld Annwn. Although the stag itself is not of supernatural origin, it forms the link between the realms of the humans and the gods.

     Will’s brother brings him a stag head back from Carnival and it is the means through which he encounters the Rider, an evil member of the otherworld.

     Pwyll encounters otherworld dogs, shining with red ears. Will and Bran see similar creatures that are not of this world and they also encounter the Grey King.

     Regarding  the females in the series, The Dark is Rising sequence revises the feminine. As the female component of the quest, Jane’s, intuitive power become as important to the successful conclusion of the story as her brother Simon’s rationality. The mystical feminine, later to be personified by Gwen or Guinevere, becomes a dominant characteristic in the third book Greenwitch.

The ancient ritual of the Greenwitch, which brings luck to the village, is shown to involve the neglected spirit of Wild Magic, depicted as emotion unacknowledged and disregarded, and tied into a feminist perceptual perspective (Beckett,92).

     Cornwall’s ancient fertility ritual  surrounding the Greenwitch invokes much great-goddess lore. The making of the witch is described as woven of hazel, hawthorn and rowan and attended only by women. The color green was also associated with the Celtic underworld. Because of her unselfish wish for the Greenwitch’s happiness, Jane receives her secret. This fertility image has guarded the manuscript that was dropped in the sea when the Grail was first identified in Over Sea Under Stone and restores it to Jane. The mystical feminine also appears in the Lady of the Sea, a variation of the Arthurian Lady of the Lake, Nimue. Tethys, powerful ruler of the world of wild magic, functions as as the essence of a nature which is totally elemental and unconcerned with good and evil.(Gordon-Wise,107).

     In  The Grey King Guinevere appears as Gwen, a beautiful girl from the mountains who captures the hearts of both Owen Davies and Caradog Prichard. This reflects her mystical quality of attraction. Although her adultery is not ignored, and she ends in a convent, Guinevere has a child Bran who will help to awaken the six sleepers, win the golden harp and push back the forces of Dark.(Gordon-Wise ,107).

    The final book in the series, The Silver on the Tree, once again shows Jane as the archetypal feminine. As Bran, Will, and the Drew children prepare for a confrontation against the Dark, Jane communicates with a mysterious lady, also known as  the Lady, the Virgin, the Great Mother. The Lady’s recitation of “Jane, Jana, Juno, Jane”(88),enables Jane to act as a medium of which enables Bran to use the crystal sword to cut the blossom from the mistletoe, thus abolishing the powers of dark. At the  conclusion of the novel Arthur acknowledges the Lady as mistress of high magic.(Gordon-Wise, 107).

     Other imagery within the sequence also have connections with original sources.

     The medievalist Tolkien, who as previously mentioned, was much admired by Cooper, knew and recognized the importance of music as an “anthropomorphic reality and creational material in many mythologies.” The medieval concept of “music of the spheres” was grounded in ancient and classical philosophy, then through early Christian writers, up to its eventual standardization by Boethius in the 6th century. This power of music appears often in Celtic and Welsh myth and the playing or hearing of music is often a bridge between the worlds. The Judaic/Christian tradition featured music in the cosmological drama through its description of music’s power in the Psalms and Proverbs, and the Final Judgment in the Book of Revelation (Chance, 182).

     When Tolkien uses music as the creational binding force that sets in motion the entire drama of earth, Cooper imitates him, employing heavenly music to prepare for the same task: “A whispering music drifted to their ears, very distant and faint, but so sweet that they strained to hear it better, yet could never catch more than a hint of the delicate elusive melody (Silver on the Tree, 103) and again, “The mountains are singing and the Lady comes.”

     Musical imagery occurs once more as Bran and Will stand on the top of a hill, poised like “ expectant musicians, waiting for the first sweep of a conductor’s baton” (104).The music continues with the images of light. Later, the Sleepers are awakened by the playing of the harp and begin riding toward the final battle, echoing the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, bringing the red eyed hounds of doom with them.

     In another ancient reference, Gwdyion, the best storyteller in the world, is called Taliesin. He was an early Welsh bard, who recited tales in the oral tradition.

     The  Midsummer Tree in Silver on the Tree invokes many symbols. In early pre Christian Europe trees were sacred landmarks, becoming assembly places, providers of nourishment, and sources of healing.

     In Anglo Saxon Europe a great oak was a symbol of a mighty tree forming the center of a place. This  central tree could be seen as the World Tree where gods met. It  could serve as a link between men and gods gathering in the sacred grove. In early European mythology symbolic offerings of ale were poured at its root. It could also be equated with the pillar in the holy place which symbolized the center of the world(Davis, 54).

     It was appropriate for this sacred center to be where the kings should be chosen and the law recited. This law decreeing whether Bran can fight is pronounced against the tree in The Silver on the Tree.

     The original archetype for the tree was set up at Creation in the Garden of Eden in the forms of the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

     Archetypes within the Dark is Rising sequence can also be viewed through the Jungian perspective. As if the King Arthur references were not numerous enough in these books, even Jung had dreams about Arthur, which convinced him to pay more attention to Western spirituality (“Jung”, 2).

     Jung’s  collective unconscious, which is composed of archetypes, are symbolic themes which can be adapted to the protagonists within these stories.

     The shadow is an unconscious complex defined as the complete opposite of the conscious self, representing everything that the conscious person does not want to acknowledge within themselves ( “Jung”, 5). When Will is presented with the fact that he is an Old One, it takes a period of adjustment. He stills sees himself as a mere boy. The fact even stays hidden from his family as he refuses to discuss his new identity  with them. Only as he grows into this new identity can he accept it more fully. Once he has done so , he finally admits that he is an Old One to his brother Stephen who scoffs and tells him he can remember him being born. Will responds, “in one sense only,” now openly declaring his true self and preparing the way for his mission to call the Circle of Light to join forces against the Dark.

     The anima is the unconscious feminine component of men and the anima is the unconscious masculine component in women. Often when people ignore the anima or animus complexes, the anima or animus competes for attention by projecting itself upon others. Jung’s explanation of this fact posits that this is the reason people can be attracted to certain strangers: they see their anima or animus in them (“Jung” 5). Thus Will searches for the Lady, asking repeatedly  where she might be, desiring to be in her soothing presence because of the way she makes him feel.

     Jane, on the other hand, has to sublimate her intuitive  feminine nature and speak rationally to herself concerning the upcoming struggle against the Dark in order to confront it.

     Although touched on briefly, the setting deserves some additional attention because Cooper evokes such a strong sense of place, and the settings are, in many ways nearly as important as the characters themselves, especially in the last two volumes which take place in Wales.As Cooper states: “My places are a piece of the Thames Valley

and the Cliltern Hills,  a piece of Southern Cornwall, and more than either, a piece of mid Wales, around Cader Idris, on the southern edge of Snowdonia” ( The Lost Land, 1).

     Cader Idris means Chair of Arthur in English. It is a mountain with a distinctive profile that dominates the southern region of the Snowdonia. This was the home of the Grey King and the turning point in the quest for the golden harp of the light, the place where Will and Bran got caught in a fire.

      The Dysynni; Valley is green with a flat valley and contains Craig y Aderyn, the rock of the birds. This place provides the means to find the harp. As Will and Bran go inside the rock , they are judged by the High Magic. After they solve the riddles, they are free to receive the harp and journey to Tal y Llyn, the Pleasant Lake in preparation to wake the sleepers:

      “By the pleasant lake the sleepers lie…yet singing the golden harp shall guide to break their sleep and bid them ride.” Tal y Llyn is a most dramatic place with steep mountain slopes behind the head of the lake portraying a most dramatic backdrop.

     In Silver on the Tree the group walked on the rim of a  wondrous valley, seeing line after line of the ancient hills of Wales. This place is Cwm Maethlon or the Happy Valley.

     As the group travels on, they come to the Bearded Lake, the place where “the mountains are singing and the Lady comes..” Upon her arrival she informs Jane that Bran and Will must make a quest to the Lost Land.

     John Powys, a Welsh author, spoke of the magic of the land in Owen Glendower:

    “The very geography of the land and its climatic peculiarities, the very nature of its mountains and rivers, the very falling and lifting of the mists that waver above them, all lend themselves to a degree unknown in any other region to what may be called a mythology of escape. This is the secret of the land, which may in turn be described in a religious sense- a form which requires a numinous landscape haunted by mysterious s invisible Presences” ( Hooker, 17).

     And indeed these invisible Presences do appear within this fantasy sequence of Cooper’s as she formulates a totally new world, both of her own making and recreated from ancient myths and legends. By superimposing her innovations upon tradition, and working from that context, she enables the reader to see the Matter of Britain through a richer and more complex framework. Her fantasy series succeeds because it is grounded in the real world , yet also acknowledges the other world.

Works Cited

Anderson, Graham. King Arthur in Antiquity. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Beckett, Sandra, ed. Reflections of Change: Children’s Literature Since 1945.

     Westport ,Ct: Greenwood Press,1997.

Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth . New York: Doubleday, 1988.

Cooper, Susan.

       Over Sea Under Stone. London: Cape, 1965.

       The Dark is Rising. New York: Atheneum, 1973.

      Greenwitch. New York: Atheneum,1974.

      The Grey King. New York: Atheneum, 1975.

     Silver on the Tree. New York: Atheneum, 1977.

Chance, Jane. Tolkien the Medievalist. London: Routledge, 2002.

Davidson, H.R. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse

     University Press, 1988.

Gordon-Wise, Barbara. Guinevere in Modern Fantasy. New York: Greenwood Press,


Green, Miranda. Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. New York: Routledge,1998.

Hooker, Jeremy. Imagining Wales. Cardiff, Wales: University of Wales Press, 2001.

Hourihan, Margery. Deconstructing the Hero.London: Routledge, 1997.

Hunt, Peter. Understanding Children’s Literature. London: Routledge, 1999.

“Jung,”  Wikipedia.4 May 2006.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Jung

Krips, Valerie. The Present of the Past. New York: Garland, 2000.

Scofield, William. English Literature from the Norman Conquest to Chaucer.

     New York: MacMillan, 1931.

Slocum, Sally, ed. Popular Arthurian Traditions. Bowling Green, OH: Poplar Press, 1992.

Spivack, Charlotte, and Roberta Staples. The Company of Camelot. Westport, Ct:

     Greenwood Press, 1994.

“Susan Cooper’s Wales” The Lost Land.4 May 2006.


Thompson, Raymond. “Interview with Susan Cooper,” Interviews with Authors of

     Arthurian Literature.4 May 2006.www.lib.rochester.edu?Camelot/intrv/cooper.htm

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