Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Rising Darkness

The Daughter and I recently finished working our way through Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising Sequence, a five-book series where each novel tells a distinct story that is part of a larger whole, depicting the final battle between the Old Ones, who serve the Light, and the servants of the Dark, who would seize the magic of the world and dominate the lives of men forever, or something like that. The books are interrelated, so that reading them out of order is not advisable, as each one assumes knowledge of what has gone before. However, the books don't exactly tell the entire story in strict sequence, which took some getting used to. There are two different sets of viewpoint characters, and the novels switch back and forth between the two, to sometimes odd effect.

I'm probably already giving the impression that I didn't like the series, and I don't want to give that impression, because I did. It's full of great stuff. But for some reason I never found myself really drawn in. It never really involved me, and I'm not sure why. So what to do? Why, a rambling blog post! (Which is filled with spoilers, by the way.)

The series opens with Over Sea, Under Stone, in which three siblings – Simon, Jane, and Barney – go to spend a summer at their Uncle Merriman's house in a town in Cornwall, where they find themselves involved in a modern-day quest for the Grail. The term "Holy Grail" is never used, nor is the history of the Grail ever much discussed in full. (That sets a tone for the entire series, which surprisingly assumes a knowledge of the Welsh and British folklore that forms the underpinning of all five books.) Their Uncle Merriman, whose last name is Lyon, soon turns out to be more than he seems, and in the second book, The Dark is Rising, he reveals himself to Will Stanton as an "Old One", the magical race who stand forever opposed to the actions of The Dark. The point in this book is for Will's powers to be awakened, as he is to be the last of the Old Ones, after whose birth and awakening everything is to begin building toward the final battle between the Light and the Dark. Will's goal in this book is to find the "Six Signs", magical talismans with powers to be revealed later on.

Book Three, Greenwitch, brings Will and the three children from the first book together, where they must assist the denizens of the Cornwall village from the first book in a very clearly pagan tradition: the construction of the Greenwitch, a wooden idol that is always offered to the sea, and then must recover an object lost at the end of the first book. Book Four, The Grey King, has Will traveling to Wales where he meets an albino boy named Bran who also turns out to be much more than he seems, and who is to be another ally in the battle against the Dark. Finally, the fifth book, Silver on the Tree, brings everything together: Will, Bran, the Drew children, Merriman, and everyone else for the last battle against the minions of the Dark.

The entire series is full of startling imagery, good characterizations, and some very lyrical prose. Reading these aloud, I found myself amazed by some of the most gorgeous passages I've read in a long time. Here's a sample, from The Dark is Rising:

Will was never able afterwards to tell how long he spent with the Book of Gramarye. So much went into him from its pages and changed him that the reading might have taken a year; yet so totally did it absorb his mind that when he came to an end he felt that he had only that moment begun. It was indeed not a book like other books. There were simple enough titles to each page: Of Flying; Of Challenge; Of the Words of Power; Of Resistance; Of Time through the Doors. But instead of presenting him with a story or instruction, the book would give simply a cnatch of verse or a bright image, which somehow had him instantly in the midst of whatever experience was involved.

He might read no more than one line -- I have journeyed as an eagle -- and he was soaring suddenly aloft as he winged, learning through feeling, feeling the way of resting on the wind and tilting round the rising columns of air, of sweeping and soaring, of looking down at patchwork-green hills capped with dark trees, and a winding, glinting river between. And he knew as he flew that the eagle was one of the only five birds who could see the Dark, and instantly he knew the other four, and in turn he was each of them....

He read: ...you come to the place where is the oldest creature that is in this world, and he that has fared furthest afield, the Eagle of Gwernabwy...and Will was up on a bare crag of rock above the world, resting without fear on a grey-black glittering shelf of granite, and his right side leaned against a soft, gold-feathered leg and a folded wing, and his hand rested beside a cruel steel-hard hooked claw, while in his ear a harsh voice whispered the words that would control wind and storm, sky and air, cloud and rain, and snow and hail – and everything in the sky save the sun and the moon, the planets and the stars.

Then he was flying again, at large in the blue-black sky, with the stars blazing timeless around his head, and the patterns of the stars made themselves known to him, both like and unlike the shapes and powers attributed to them by men long ago. The Herdsman passed, nodding, the bright star Arcturus at his knee; the Bull roared by, bearing the great sun Aldebaran and the small group of the Pleiades singing in small melodic voices, like no voices he had ever heard. Up he flew, and outward, through black space, and saw the dead stars, the blazing stars, the thin scattering of life that peopled the emptiness beyond. And when he was done, he knew every star in the heavens, both by name and as charted astronomical points, and again as something much more than either; and he knew every spell of the sun and moon; he knew the mystery of Uranus and the despair of Mercury, and he had ridden on a comet's tail.

But as I note above, I still found it hard at times to really get emotionally involved in the stories. I think that it's because of the way Cooper frames her story: everything that is transpiring is doing so according to ancient prophecies, and all of the wise old people in the stories are constantly making it sound as though various outcomes along the way are preordained. This event will happen, because it must happen before the next event can happen, which we already know will happen. Also, the children are constantly told that the Dark can do them no real harm, so there's a sense in which the books undermine any sense of danger that you really need in a story involving the final, cataclysmic battle between Good and Evil. The books never really have that sense of risk, the feeling that even if victory is to be achieved, a heavy price must, and will, be paid. Come to that, there really isn't a great sense of what happens to the world if the Dark wins out.

For this reason, the most effective parts of the series, for me, were those which did not deal with the actual lead protagonists, but rather those that dwelt with the normal people, the non-magical folk, who found themselves drawn through no fault of their own into a conflict that has been raging through the centuries. It's here that the Dark is Rising Sequence finds it most effective voice. Some of these characters – most notably, Caradog Lewis and John Rowlands – endure outright tragedies, their individual responses to which shape greatly what is to come later on. I suppose that's my major problem with the series: the moments in the books that are the most emotional are the ones that deal with supporting characters whom I didn't know well enough to really be invested in. But come to that, those parts of the books tend to have that Greek Tragedy feel to them, in which people suffer because they have no choice but to suffer. That's well and good, but I tend to prefer the Shakespearean approach to tragedy, where people suffer because of the choices they make. (That's not a rigid distinction, mind you.)

There was one other aspect of this series that bothered me greatly: the ending. I'll yellow this next bit out, if you're reading the series and want to avoid the spoilers:

There's a particular problem that faces any writer who crafts a story in which the real world, the world in which we live, is threatened by magical forces: namely, that at the end, when the battle is won, what does one do with the characters who have just saved the world and now have to live the rest of their lives knowing what they've done and not being able to really discuss it? Guy Gavriel Kay faced this problem in his Fionavar Tapestry, and he showed his solution – which wasn't entirely satisfying, in my opinion – in last year's Ysabel. But in the Dark Is Rising Sequence, Susan Cooper does something else: at the end of the series, when the battle has been won and the Dark defeated, all of the children's memories, save Will's, are 'erased', so they will live the rest of their lives with no knowledge at all of the things they've done and their actions in that final war.

I hated this development. Hated it. It just seems so wrong somehow, like having a contest where the prize is that you get to carry around a briefcase filled with one million dollars for a single day, but you can't spend any of it and when the sun goes down the briefcase is taken away and all you are is the person you were at the beginning. Inducing magical amnesia may have been the right thing to do for John Rowlands, who is the one character who really does pay a heavy price in the tale in order to allow the victory of the Light; to wipe the memories of all the children struck me as cruel. I found this a serious mis-step, and it bothered me tremendously. It left a seriously bad aftertaste in my mind after I set the book aside the last night we read it.

I was reminded of the movie Heaven Can Wait: if Warren Beatty is brought back from the dead by taking over some other guy's body, but the other guy's memories and personalities are what remain and Warren Beatty's are allowed to vanish utterly, in what possible way can the guy who's alive at the end of the movie be thought of as the original Warren Beatty character at all? He's not, he's some other guy we don't give a crap about. Well, ditto with the magical amnesia in The Dark is Rising.

But the books are still very much worth reading, because they are deeply steeped in the ancient folklore of Britain, and Cooper is able to draw on that folklore without giving us long infodumpish passages of exegesis; the spectre of King Arthur looms over the entire series, but there's never anything so ham-handed as the story grinding to a halt while someone talks about who Arthur was and the glory of Camelot and all the rest of it.

I do recommend this series; after all, we're talking about a series that boasts not one but two Newberry awards. There's a lot of wonderful stuff here, and it's a journey well-worth taking, even if it felt for me like a journey observed rather than a journey shared.

No comments: