On Liz’ recommendation, I finally got around to reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, which I ~mysteriously~ found in my basement a few years ago and had been vaguely intending on reading ever since. It is a big mysterious mystery where these books came from, since I literally just found the boxed set sitting in the basement one day and nobody has any idea where they came from. (It is likely that someone gave them to my mom and she forgot about it, but it is more fun to say that it is mysterious than that we sometimes forget about stuff.)
The Dark Is Rising Sequence (according to the box, it is a Sequence, rather than a Series or Quartet) consists of four books, all of which follow a young boy named Will Stanton. Will is an Old One, despite only being eleven, because he is the last of a group of immortals called the Old Ones, who can travel through time and have all sorts of magic powers and whose job it is to stop the Dark (the supreme force of Evil in the universe) from defeating the Light (you get the idea) and taking over the world and doing that which the Side of Evil in Epic Fantasy Epics always like to do.
The first book, The Dark Is Rising, covers little Will’s awakening as an Old One on his eleventh birthday, when he
gets a letter from Hogwarts meets another Old One named Merriman and starts being taken out of Time and learns gramarye (“knowing,” i.e. “how to use magic,” and I’m pretty sure it shares a root with “grammar”), and is given his first quest, which is to unite six Signs from where they are hidden in different places and times around England. The six Signs all together make up one of the four Things of Power, which the Old Ones will need to defeat the Dark when they have their final rising in the fourth book, because more MacGuffins means more fun for everyone. The very formal, very dramatic, very epic-fantasy-book-ful nature of the scenes involving the Dark and time travel and the Old Ones are mitigated by the adorable family scenes, in which Will and his parents and his eight brothers and sisters are all wholesome rural English farm people (although his dad is actually a jeweler) who bicker and eat and drink a lot of tea and are just so adorable and British. The story takes place between Will’s birthday on Midwinter’s Day and goes through the twelve days of Christmas, when the Dark is most able to wield their power and try to disrupt Will’s quest, and bury England under a Snowpocalypse kind of like this year. Can Will find all six MacGuffins and join them into a single MacGuffin and save his family and temporarily defeat Lord Voldemort the Dark Rider?
Greenwitch takes place the following summer in a picturesque little fishing village in Cornwall. Simon, Jane and Barney Drew had discovered a golden grail there the summer before, and it has just been stolen out of the National Museum. With the help of their Great-Uncle Merry who is actually Will’s master Merriman, and Will Stanton, and a picturesque cast of Cornwallian (Cornwellian?) characters including a gouty captain and a dog, they will have to defeat an array of weird characters of the Dark to recover the grail and find the manuscript that decodes the engravings on it, which one of them had thrown into the ocean the year before. This all gets a little difficult when the ancient ceremony of the Greenwitch is held, where the locals build a giant witch out of trees and rocks and offer it to the sea as a sacrifice. The Greenwitch claims the manuscript, and the Light and Dark both want to convince her to give it up, but the Greenwitch belongs neither to the Light nor the Dark, since apparently good and evil are really low down on the list of supreme powers in the universe. High Magic is higher, and so is Wild Magic, which is what the Greenwitch and the ocean have.
In the third book, The Grey King, we move to Wales, which is EVEN MORE picturesque and rural and adorable than Buckinghamshire or Cornwall. The book features some handy scenes in which Bran, an albino boy with a ~mysterious past~, teaches Will how to pronounce Welsh place-names, which was quite useful even if it didn’t move the plot forward for an entire half chapter. In this book, Will has to acquire a lost golden harp (Thing of Power #3), so that he can wake six Sleepers and banish the Grey King and vanquish evil foxes and some other stuff, and Bran can learn about his mysterious past. There are also a lot of altercations with a nasty sheep farmer named Caradog Pritchard, who wants to shoot everybody’s dogs. We learn a lot about Welsh history and mythology, including some odd takes on the King Arthur legends. Everyone drinks a lot of tea, and there are a LOT of sheep.
The fourth and final book is Silver on the Tree, which brings us back to Wales. This time, Simon, Jane and Barney Drew are on holiday in Wales, and so is Will, and of course Bran lives there. The five children and Merriman make up “the Six,” which means they all have important parts to play when the Light wields the four Things of Power to stop the Dark from winning their final Rising. First they have to get the fourth Thing, which is a crystal sword, which made me laugh so hard I almost died. (Maybe a crystal sword was less cheesy when these books were written thirty-five years ago. When did crystals get overdone to the point of being always silly?) Bran’s mysterious past is extremely important in this plot, and there are hints of a childlike attraction between him and Jane that doesn’t really go anywhere. This book is even heavier on all sorts of old British Isles history and mythology that I’d never heard of, all about medieval Welsh uprisings and King Arthur and glass towers and things. I felt like the grand climax of the Dark’s final attempt at Rising was a little strained, what with the really complicated choreography of fourteen hundred MacGuffins (now including a tree and a very specific bunch of flowers) and destinies (way more than the allotted Six) and too many myths all showing up at once. But it was a really good ride getting there.
The series as a whole is an odd mix of epic and adorable, and somehow the flavor of it kind of reminds me of Monica Furlong’s Wise Child, which I read several hundred times as a child. It’s got that whole creepy rural-Celtic-Britain mythos going on, which always has a particular feel, and which I really can’t find the proper words for. The Dark is Rising Sequence clearly shares a lot of tropes with The Lord of the Rings, but somehow comes off as a lot darker, despite being written for a much younger audience. It might just be the contrast between the main plot and all the adorable sheep-farming scenes, though.
Like many British novels, this series induced me to drink several dozen cups of tea while I was reading it.
NOTE: Amazon tells me there are actually FIVE books in this series, WHAT IS THIS I MUST FIND IT AND READ IT.
NOTE #2: The post title is not from this series; it is something a Nac Mac Feegle says (more or less) in one of Terry Pratchett's Discworld books.