Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Dark is Rising (The Dark is Rising #2) by Susan Cooper

Ask any Minnesotan - most will whisper that first winter snowfall is magical as it veils the world in glittering white stillness. Six months later that changes, but hey, it's a dazzling start to the winter marathon. Christmas is special too, as families feast around lighted trees nestled in warm houses. Susan Cooper not only captures the childhood magic of the first snow, Christmas, caroling, and more, but the magical alternate world Will Stanton falls into as he discovers that he is the last of the Old Ones, protectors of the Light that have the power to control time and weather. As an adult this type of writing stirs a certain nostalgia inside me as I slip into Cooper's fantastical world and experience that which was magical as a kid. While some might not like the simplicity of the the character, Will, whose quest is predestined and whose struggles are more external than internal; I found the references to past myths and legends marvelous, enough tension through fear to hold my interest, and the various themes creating a story that was extremely satisfying.

Will Stanton discovers on his eleventh birthday that he is the last born of the Old Ones, immortals with supernatural powers who fight the Dark. The Old Ones are led by Merriman and the Lady who represent the Light and struggle against the Dark Rider who wants the forces of the Dark to take over the world using fear, chaos and deceit. Will must vanquish them by collecting six Signs before the twelve days of Christmas are over when the Dark is most powerful. Will's powers manifest the day before his birthday with animals being afraid of him, a farmer giving him a mysterious iron, and a tramp being attacked by rooks. When he notices his brother forgetting the incident of the tramp in an unnatural way, he knows something is not right with the world. That night a fear comes upon Will that terrifies him: "Something creaked outside the half-open door, and he jumped. Then it creaked again, and he knew what it was: a certain floorboard that often talked to itself at night, with a sound so familiar that usually he never noticed it at all." The word repetition and creepy personified floorboard are a taste of the terrific tension Cooper uses to describe how evil attacks Will by playing on his emotion of fear. Like the ghosts in Scrooge, fear visits Will three times that night that is hide-under-the-covers-fun-scary reading.

Rich in symbolism and allegory this book is an amalgamation of many different classics, legends, folklore, and myths. Narnia came to mind a few times along with Dickens such as in the scene when they go back in time to the Christmas party and dancing. There is no Fezziwig, but there is a Merriman who is like Merlin, a Lady like the Lady of the Lake, Hawkin who's like a leprechaun, the name Mitothin which is another name for Loki, a Ragnarok-type battle between chaos and order or evil and good, Herne the Hunter and Wayland the Smith from folklore. Religious symbolism is also scattered throughout; I even thought of the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac as similar to Merriman willing to sacrifice Hawkin and Will willing to sacrifice Mary. Even the names of Will's siblings are biblical. This complex weaving of Celtic, Norse mythology along with Arthurian legend and English folklore is marvelous and was one element that was incredibly creative by the author. Cooper's story comes across as a brand new creation story, or potpourri of past storytelling, with no concrete mythical source singled out.

Will gets dropped right into the action and the author slowly peels back the plot. The tension comes from not knowing what is going on and feeling the confusion that Will is going through at the moment. Will's character is not flawed nor does he struggle much recovering the six Signs. His path is predestined by Fate with Merriman providing guidance when possible. I didn't find the tension so much in the quest as the author's intentional technique of omitting facts and focusing on Will's attempt to overcome fear. The descriptive writing and world building in a small village in Buckinghamshire, England, made it easy to envision Will as he time travels decades into the past before shifting back into the present. The surreal time-shifts emphasize that movement as such is not normal. The dreamlike quality adds to the magical elements of the story.

Susan Cooper took classes from J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis at Oxford University in England. The later writes about showing and not telling; that the simple text and focus on action is an obvious marker of children's literature. Perry Nodelman in "The Hidden Adult" elaborates on this: "If, as popular assumptions suggest, children see less and know less than adults, then a text with a childlike focalization - or any text with a child audience - will have less exposition, less detail of all sorts. It's author must, as Lewis said, 'throw all the force of the book into what was done and said.'" Cooper's book was written in 1973 and the influence of Lewis is apparent, as well as, showing common traits in children's literature. I personally prefer more character development, but I was not detracted from story. Adult readers might find this innocent hero somewhat boring. 

Themes of fear, loneliness, and betrayal are emphasized by Will's isolation. He can't talk to any other person about his quest. His siblings react in horror after witnessing his defeats of evil and their minds are "erased" of events so they don't remember. He can't tell anyone the reason for the unnatural weather or characters who have chosen to side with evil. Will discovers that rather than getting the freedom he thinks is the result of taking on adult responsibilities, he has burdens; thus, showing the transformation from childhood innocence into adulthood. His siblings describe him as "an old eleven" and "ageless" and it says, "He was not the same Will Stanton that he had been a very few days before." "This time, his fear was adult, made of experience and imagination and care." As he matures, Will loses his fear of the Dark and makes conscious choices to serve Light that requires sacrifice and alienation; a common hero trope found in high fantasy. His coming-of-age also shows that problems don't go away when children grow up, instead they learn to deal with them in their own unique way.

The character, Hawkin, is the tragic element that chooses evil because he is deceived into thinking he will be rewarded with position. He points the finger at Merriman and does not understand why he would consider sacrificing him for the Light. I did wish it was explained how the Light forced him to serve them along with Maggie's role. Perhaps the next books will shed light on the unexplained plot point. When Hawkin realizes that he has been blaming Merriman for his choice, it is poignant because he has spent so many years in misery and anger, rather than basking in the unconditional love Merriman has offered him all along. This is a good fantasy story for a young reader with high reading skills. I highly recommend it.

5 Smileys
Fountas & Pinnell: X
Reading Level: 7.0

1 comment:

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