Midwinter: Susan Cooper, when the Light is Rising

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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.

The Dark is Rising

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.

Dark is Rising illustration

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.

Corvid

A Dark Eye: rooks nesting at Lydford Gorge, Devon

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.

Dark is Rising Puffin edition

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…

December - Nick Price

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4 thoughts on “Midwinter: Susan Cooper, when the Light is Rising

  1. I have that edition you show second! I really must read it again. Didn’t know about the first edition which looks amazing. There seems to be a growing mood for this kind of thing again, but I hope not just a Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings rehash! I haven’t found any recent matches for these 1970s classics.

  2. Such a beautiful post! Really made my day!

    I’ve got a collection of Susan Cooper’s essays ‘Dreams and Wishes’ – and in one, written in 1995, she talks about new editions of ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence brought out around that time, and about the disservice she felt they did to children. She writes:

    ‘So one by one these twelve new jackets arrived on my desk, and they were startling to say the least. They all looked like something from a horror science-fiction list. The first one was so lurid that when a British children’s book magazine published the artwork on its cover, several adult readers attacked the editor for sensationalism.’

    She goes on to say:

    ‘The new jackets are a time-honoured marketing ploy: you put the breakfast cereal in a bright new box, and you hope children will happily eat it even after they find it’s still cornflakes. But who are these children? Are they us? Are we them? Or are they different, as a nymph is different from a dragonfly….’

    and:

    ‘…Who are the children? That’s who they are; the keepers of the imagination…..’

    ‘….The children are us.’

    Thought you might find that interesting!

    • There was an interview with Susan Cooper in The Guardian this weekend all about the Dark is Rising series, you must look it up if you didn’t see it. Those comments from the essays are fascinating, I need to think about those… Looking forward to reading the next book – will enjoy the Cornish and Welsh settings especially. Meanwhile, have a leisurely mulled Yule!

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