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…
There’s a lot of fascinating folklore around the robin and the wren. At the winter solstice, the Holly King is driven away and the Oak King takes his place until the summer. Similarly, I have read that the robin rules once the wren is vanquished in December.
Jean Harrowven writes in her book Origins of Rhymes and Sayings that ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ is about King William Rufus, killed in the New Forest by an arrow, citing his red hair or the blood on his breast as explanation.
There is also a poem by John Webster, as stark and beautiful as you would expect…
Call for the robin-redbreast and the wren,
Since o’er shady groves they hover
And with leaves and flowers do cover
The friendless bodies of unburied men.
Call unto his funeral dole
The ant, the field-mouse, and the mole
To rear him hillocks that shall keep him warm
And (when gay tombs are robb’d) sustain no harm;
But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men,
For with his nails he’ll dig them up again.
It’s heartening to see that at least some of the debt British fantasists of children’s literature owe to John Masefield’s The Box of Delights is being repaid. Perhaps it was not the first work of this type to weave ancient strands of British folklore into childhood imaginations – you might say it grew from Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies – but surely it is one of the most influential on successive writers.
Its lasting legacy is also due to the BBC TV adaptation from 1985. Nothing seems to dim the appeal of this series: google anywhere and you’ll find the deep affection with which it is held. There’s the perfect casting of Patrick Troughton as Cole Hawlings, and the mesmerising use of Hely-Hutchinson’s A Carol Symphony: III Andante quasi lento e contabile (yes, I did copy and paste that). There are running wolves, a lurid Punch, and magickal phrases such as…
The wolf pack hunts him through the snow, where shall the ‘nighted showman go?
The latest edition from the Folio Society is perfectly, beautifully designed. And it even features the Punch dog on the spine (trust me, I didn’t know it was there yesterday, not owning a copy – but it will have to be mine…). Whoever designed this book is completely, shiningly brilliant.
There is a similarly great cover for the less absorbing prequel The Midnight Folk.
Here’s Herne the Hunter by Sara Ogilvie from the Folio edition. The original illustrations by Pauline Masefield were used in the New York Book Review edition from 2007. I must have been about nine when I first found The Box of Delights in the school library. I remember the librarian (or perhaps someone’s parent ‘without much idea’) saying ‘That’s an old-fashioned looking book, what do you want that for?’. I should have unfolded the brief Bic-penned school report that said of me ‘doesn’t suffer fools gladly’ but clearly I was too keen to get home and look at the trails of strangely wild animals…
The 1965 edition reminds of the 1960s series The Prisoner for some reason.
The 1982 edition could be at home with Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.
And finally, I found the first episode of the series on YouTube. Loyal grown-up fans have no trouble suspending disbelief at the crude special effects – think of the power of a mummers’ play, despite the hobby horses, tinsel and balsa wood swords. And if you don’t have time, the opening titles at least should open the portal to Solstice magick.