Hello! Apologies for another gap – I’ve been a bit mad, trying to boil down books into pill form for best-of-year roundups. Indulgently, then, as ranked Christmas trees exhale pine-scented nostalgia into forecourts across the land, I’ve gone back in time for this week’s Sunday best, to a book I reread without fail every winter. Full of cold magic and Anglo-Saxon mythology, it’s The Dark is Rising, second volume of Susan Cooper’s eponymous sequence.
Will Stanton, youngest of an enormous family, is the seventh son of a seventh son. On Midwinter’s Eve, the night before his eleventh birthday, strange things begin to happen to him. The radio shrieks with static when he passes; dogs growl, and animals shrink away; he encounters a strange, mumbling old man, whom the diving rooks seem to hate. And when Will acquires a mysterious object – an iron circle, quartered by a cross – things become stranger still.
For Will is the last of the Old Ones, a line of magical guardians stretching back almost to the beginnings of time itself. And he has come newly into his power, just as the time approaches for the final battle between the Dark and the Light. He has the sign of Iron now; but he must seek out the other five Signs if the Dark is not to be victorious. Against the Black Rider, the deathly cold of an unearthly winter, and the terror of the Dark itself, Will, Merriman and the other Old Ones must hold fast…
The Dark is Rising was, and remains, one of the greatest quest fantasies I’ve ever read – a book (and series) which imbued my early reading life with its fear, understated richness and seasonal sense of rightness, a celebration both of wild nature and warm hearth. Cooper’s assured lyricism, with its faint, elegiac regret for what’s past and its treasury of interwoven legend, remains unique in my experience as a reader. Part of me, in fact, will always remain the eight-year-old self scared witless by the pouncing terror of the Dark, and yearning to hear the sweet refrain that heralds magic, which slips inexorably from the hearer’s memory. And the prophetic, poetic refrain, full of elemental force, still sends a very specific shiver up my spine:
“When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back,
Three from the circle and three from the track.
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone,
Five shall return, and one go alone.”