Why “The Dark Is Rising” Is the Book We Need Right Now
There’s a mass reread of Susan Cooper’s fantasy series starting on December 20, and it couldn’t come at a more crucial time
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When you grow up in Florida, like I did, weirdness is plentiful but winter is scarce. For me, reading about winter thus became an essential and compulsory corrective to the still-green outdoors as the holidays approached. The right book always seems to find me, and did so again earlier this month, when I learned through Twitter of a virtual book club, #TheDarkIsReading, dedicated to Susan Cooper’s beloved novel, The Dark Is Rising.
I read The Dark is Rising years ago, and although its plot details had faded, I remembered its cataclysmic snowstorm, among other wintery elements. Frigid, familiar, spooky — it was a spot-on choice for a holiday read that wasn’t “merry” at all. And as it turns out, the titular novel and the other four books in the sequence are also spot-on selections for this winter in particular, the Winter of Dystopia 2017 CE. Reading them now is both convalescent and critically galvanizing, offering dreamy holiday-tinged nostalgia with one hand while also raising urgent questions about good and evil in our perilous present.
Mobilizing the imaginations of the resistance is likely not what the group’s organizers had in mind for #TheDarkIsReading, and certainly not what I thought when I first learned about it. Organized by writer and Cambridge professor Robert Macfarlane and poet Julia Bird, the reread will commence Dec. 20, Midwinter Eve. The date coincides with the beginning of the novel, one day before the 11th birthday of Will Stanton, the novel’s protagonist and the final initiate of an ancient order of benevolent immortals. The reread will continue until Jan. 5–6, in reference to Twelfth Night, on which the novel’s narrative ends. Each day, Macfarlane and Bird plan to share at least one question to guide discussion, and participants are encouraged to “share their memories of reading TDIR, as well as photographs, artwork, poems, music and other responses inspired by the novel.” By all appearances, nostalgia — the timely revisiting of a favorite novel — is the main motivation for the project.
I confess that when I first saw the hashtag, I bristled indignantly, as one always does when accepting that a “secret” is actually public (and old news). I mean, these books were part of my mythology, constellations in the zodiac of my interior life. To be honest, I was also skeptical of enough widespread interest in them to merit a real-time conversation: did The Dark is Rising (and its sequels and prequel) really appeal to anyone beyond a handful of apostate neopagans (me) with a taste for Welsh orthography and dreary landscapes (also me)?
Yes, as it turns out, and to quite a lot of people. Upwards of 1,000 people from around the world have expressed interest in the group, and the hashtag is already vibrant with content from rereaders of the novel as well as those who are approaching it for the first time. This is both a self-own for me and a certification that The Dark is Rising sequence is as precious and rich as I imagined it to be. Based on just that (even setting their aesthetics aside), bringing them into the light, as it were, is both overdue and opportune right now. But the relevance of Susan Cooper to our present moment runs deeper.
This year, 20th-century women speculative fiction writers have gotten some of their rightful appreciation. The Library of America “canonized” Ursula K. Le Guin and will be reprinting her works — an honor shared with one other living author. Margaret Atwood is ubiquitous. Ava DuVernay’s adaptation of A Wrinkle In Time will soon deliver Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved story to a new generation. Yet so far, this cresting wave has not carried Susan Cooper or The Dark Is Rising sequence specifically. If only to correct this exclusion, #TheDarkIsReading feels like a much-needed first step, and I hope that the group’s organizers will continue to the other books in the series after participants have finished the namesake novel.
But beyond ensuring that Cooper be recognized as part of the moment made for her and her peers, is now the appropriate time to revisit these books? What can we learn from a mythology and folklore-heavy saga that wades deep into the peculiarities of Britain and Britishness, that frequently uses foreignness as a marker of villainy? What is to be gained by wandering into yet another reworking of the Arthurian legends, which will always, at some level, support the idea of Britain (read: whiteness, at its most patriarchal and heteronormative) as the surrogate and center of the whole world?
Like all books concerned ultimately with the conflict of good and evil, The Dark Is Rising and its companions are always so relevant that they never feel particularly “of the moment.” But, then again, reconsider this moment, in which the meaning of evil is back up for debate.
Much of this winter, if not this whole year, we’ve witnessed an intense relitigation of the evil of American Nazis, rapists, pedophiles, nonspecific racists, and liberals who “don’t see color.” The discourse has spiraled around the same talking points, in which a liberal center demands we hear “both sides” of a story in which one side inevitably wants the other not to exist. White nationalist groups have grabbed hungrily at their “side,” and used it to squander valuable platforms. The clean-cut fascist has claimed himself cut from the same cloth as any other radical thinker who dissented from the status quo. Rapist gatekeepers claim to be sick, and their bystanding enablers claim to be “shocked.”
By and large, this ruse has worked: one need only look at our government, which has now graduated from legislating who will be tax-bound in perpetual poverty to legislating what words we can use to describe observable and experienced reality. The same government would rather win a Senate seat with a serial pedophile than preserve the dignity of the office. But none of these things are being acknowledged as “evil.” Instead, evil has been rebranded as self-interest, ruthlessness rebranded as merit, and hate rebranded as disagreement.
Amid this slimy osmosis of good and evil, then, Cooper’s moral dualism of the Light and the Dark, so stable and impermeable, slices down hard. Reading The Dark Is Rising series, especially the namesake novel, is somehow soothing, summoning up memories of time when unambiguously evil people didn’t receive glowing profile stories.
But isn’t it the case that basically every book of fantasy comforts us with visits to an unrepentantly dualistic world, hopefully one where good prevails? Is it sufficient to single out Susan Cooper’s books just because Celtic paganism feels zeitgeist-y and Twitter is trying to make her happen? No. Rather, what sets The Dark Is Rising sequence apart is that it is a morally dualistic series written specifically for a post-dualistic world — this world.
Despite being a story about Light and Dark, The Dark Is Rising sequence ultimately chronicles the paradigm shift to moral post-dualism. It is not concerned with restoring a prelapsarian dominion of Light where morality itself is obsolete. Although the apocalyptic conflict of the Dark and the Light is the overarching narrative of the novels, their endgame is quite different here from, say, the salvific destruction of the One Ring. The final triumph of the Light in the series’ last book, Silver on the Tree, is not a new heaven and new earth, nor a sundering of goats from lambs. There is no end to disease or death or evil. The only thing that ends is the dominion of external powers over the destiny of humankind, an abdication that also eliminates the possibility of a returning savior who retrieves the world from the brink of destruction.
“For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you,” says Merriman Lyon, the leader of the Old Ones and latter-day alias of Merlin, after the final battle. This is bleak, brutal — but astoundingly mature and pragmatic. Unlike A Wrinkle In Time, with its high church mysticism and deistic optimism, or Harry Potter’s with its doxology of friendship and love, The Dark Is Rising sequence uniquely equips its readers to contend with a world that we’re now living in. It does so not by resorting to vague platitudes about the power of love, faith, or community, but by calling us to task to remember.
Time, memory, and the means of maintaining their continuity are the most powerful forces across the series. Beyond the Light and the Dark, these three principles are part of the Old Magic, the Wild Magic, and the High Magic — eldritch non-polar forces that predate good and evil. Memory, manifested through art and inspiration, is the key to resisting not only the Dark, but the evil inside each human heart. To that end, it’s the power that makes the difference at each novel’s most critical junctures, and repeatedly, the injunction to remember! is laid on Will Stanton and his comrades Bran Davies and the Drew siblings. Often, the remembered thing takes the shape of a poem, or a detail from British folklore — an homage to Britain’s rich literary tradition, specifically the Welsh Mabinogion.
The gesture of reverence extends beyond the national archive of art and poetry to these practices in general. In one touching scene in Greenwitch, the third book in the series, that shifts the course of the entire quest, Will and Merriman present the titanic ocean goddess Tethys with a painting of a boat docked in a Cornish sea village. Seeing that the boat is named White Lady — an ancient Cornish name for Tethys — the goddess warms to the Old Ones, whom she, as a creature of the Old Magic that outranks Light or Dark, is not obligated to help.
Merriman held the drawing at arm’s length, and released it into the sea; instantly it vanished into the shadow. There was a pause, then a soft laugh from Tethys. She sounded pleased.
“So the fishermen do no forget,” she said. “Even after so long, some do not forget.”
Merriman’s gift, painted by his human nephew, Barney, wins Tethys’ game-changing cooperation with the Light, and moves history forward toward an era free of either Light or Dark intervening in human affairs. Memory, here, was the essential magic.
Memory also moves one back in history, exposing the conflicts and exchanges of people and land that form the identities that exist today. Calling upon the waves of migration that have changed British culture over the millennia, Cooper undoes the idea of racial purity and exposes the fractured, punctuated equilibria of British identity. The source of exclusionary prejudice — perfect fuel for a parasitic Dark — is not the otherness of immigrants or liminal bodies, but the failure of natives to remember their own blurred origins.
Today, when conservatives and even some liberals are making apologies for a vicious white supremacist doctrine, Cooper’s artful deconstruction of ethnicity is a potent critique. Particularly among ethnic whites, who rather recently in U.S. history were banned from immigrating here by acts of Congress, this unbundling of monolithic whiteness is urgent. Without it, time takes this memory away more and more with each generation, and only the immortal Old Ones, like Will, remember it.
Except there are no immortal ones anymore — Cooper’s post-dualistic world’s most brutal matter of fact. Instead, humans themselves must shepherd the species through the valley of the shadow of death. There are no more gods left in the box.
With the erasure of identity and history underway at the highest levels of American government, and with the forced reorientation of universities and colleges away from the humanities, the memory essential to a post-dualist world is under attack. (Re)reading The Dark Is Rising series immerses us in the power of this ultimate resource, and at the end of a year that we all want to forget, Cooper’s lesson is clear. The moral imperative, and the only magic that we have, is to remember, to record, to recognize the rising of the Dark and to readily apply to it the absolute category of evil. Remembering takes time, though, and of all the things we’ve forgotten in 2017, the most chilling is how little time we have left.