Last winter I found a rich seam of children’s literature that drew on ancient folklore, and more particularly its imprint on the landscape, all from a particular era (the early 1970s). Although Susan Cooper’s name came up again and again I thought her books didn’t fit with the atmosphere I was looking for: I wouldn’t look beyond the generic glossy fantasy cover art. Completely unfair, but I think the prejudice started with music. The images on record sleeves I liked used to work as windows onto new worlds. And so with book covers: I had/have to believe that the author really cared enough to get their work presented in a way that expressed their imagination… a daft outlook, because not many artists will be lucky enough to get past a marketing team.
But then I found pictures of a first edition with these illustrations by Alan E Cober and I saw what I might be missing. I’m not an admirer of J K Rowling and it’s sad that the Harry Potter juggernaut has dragged a lot of the works it pilfered into its wake. Certain elements of the genre became cartoons, and in The Dark is Rising the early scenes of magical power were lost to me and I put it back on the shelf without finishing.
I came back to it this winter and was completely drawn into the snowbound landscapes. What it achieves more than other books of a similar ilk is the depth of exploration of ‘the dark’. Susan Cooper creates a beautiful picture of family, a circle of shared warmth and protection. One scene (in the unwrapping of carved mementos given at the birth of each child, one of which recalls the loss of a child in infancy) also touches on how sadness, real or potential, lingers at the fringes of all bonds.
It’s as though the simplest pleasure, the everyday thankfulness of just ‘being’ without undue worry, is at the core of her treatment of an archetypal dark force. BookishNature tells me that Susan Cooper drew on experiences of growing up amid the threats from World War Two, and I remember being told by my own family of a nightly prayer started during the war – ‘God, please keep us all safe’ – which never stopped once the war finished.
That this is all explored through the mythology of winter is fascinating, with a river of folklore from Herne the Hunter to the Hunting of the Wren flowing through. (I’m also indebted to the British weather for supplying some special effects – hard frosts turning to torrential rain on the day I was reading about the scenes surrounding the thaw, and then wide and rippling ominous thunder for the climactic scene with the ancient king drifting, flaming on his funeral barge along the swollen Thames.)
This is one of those books I hope to return to often, because it’s as timeless and beguiling as the oak and iron of a castle door. And perfect for the shortest day, the longest night, midwinter’s eve, the winter solstice. From here the days are lighter, and the cycle begins again. Nature is not beaten yet. Think of Susan Cooper’s incarnation of Herne, hunting darkness away from the winter skies, hounds in full cry…