It strikes me, reading these books now, that just as Tolkien tried to write ‘a mythology for England’, so did Cooper try to write ‘a mythology for Britain’. This book is addressed rather insularly to the British reader — the Old Ones are ‘as old as this land’, not ‘as old as Britain’: the reader is assumed to be British. However, and this is a relief for me, the reader is rarely if ever assumed to be a child or to belong to a particular era or group of people. Cooper is more subtle in her editorial than Tolkien or Lewis (given here as examples because both of them speak directly to the reader a good deal).
All the same, it’s a mythology for Britain, or even of Britain (don’t get Tolkien scholars arguing too much about which he said and what he meant): even in the most juvenile of the books, Over Sea, Under Stone, there’s a good deal about invaders assimilating and becoming British, about the power of the British character. It’s explicit, oddly enough, when Will’s father speaks to Merriman: “You’re not English, are you?” And Will is surprised to notice hostility in his usually mild father’s eyes. (And I was surprised to note that he said English; I shouldn’t have been, given the historical gulf between Welsh and English, but I thought this series in particular would be better about that, given the setting of the fourth and fifth books, and the narrative importance of King Arthur and his very Welsh son.)
Perhaps a modern liberal writer would be inclined to paint the Dark not as the invader, but the insider who refuses to change. Not the waves of invaders (or migrants, or refugees, depending on how you view them) but those who insist upon Englishness as an inherent good that can be corrupted and ruined by contact with the non-English… Mind you, Cooper covers that angle too, in Silver on the Tree, so I’m getting ahead of myself.
Putting the insularity of the book aside, The Dark is Rising is the first in the series to give a real idea of what’s going on. It’s here that the mythology takes shape: the Light versus the Dark, the role that Merriman (and now Will, and the other Old Ones we’re introduced to) has to play, and some of the tangled British legends that contribute — Herne the Hunter, the anonymous king given a partially Viking ship burial (suggested by Drout as being the son of Scyld Scefing, from Beowulf), Merlin…
It’s also the first to evoke and try to portray more adult emotions. Instead of being purely focused on children, this book has an odd half-life. Sometimes Will is a child (and behaves as such, forgivably — his moment of jubilation when the Dark are drawn back, which leads to the Lady having to expend her power, is a lovely touch in my opinion) and sometimes he’s much older than his years, understanding of the nature of people, time, religion… So you have both his delight in snow on his birthday, and his lonely understanding that he is now set utterly apart from his family, from everyone he has ever loved. The story of Merriman and Hawkin is full of love and regret, and is not a simple story of betrayal and forgiveness: there is much going on between the two that a younger reader can simply ignore, but the older reader can savour as a more complex layer on top of the adventure story.
There are also some beautiful set-pieces in this book: some of the descriptions of awe and delight in the magic of the Light, but also the moments of being part of a family, the warmth of Will’s family Christmas.
It’s worn better than Over Sea, Under Stone because there is a lot more to consider, but all the same, I think I need to set it aside for a couple more years now so I can come back to it fresh. That I will come back, I have no doubt.