Children’s fantasy literature is rapidly becoming one of my chief interests, particularly as it develops and sustains a system of metaphysics, epistemology, and linguistic purity.
Also, it’s just fun to read.
The latest addition to my reading list is a series of five books written by Susan Cooper. Cooper is a British/American novelist, dramatist, and journalist now living in the United States. Her first novel, Over Sea, Under Stone, was followed by four more to complete The Dark is Rising sequence, finished in 1977.
The books were recommended to me “in the vein of Tolkien, Lewis, and L’Engle.” I was curious not only to compare the new series to some of my favorites, but to see how it fit into my developing schema of children’s fantasy (see Heroes Need Mentors Too).
The Dark is Rising met some of my expectations and not others. Here is a brief recount of what I look for:
- High fantasy is concerned with the purity of language and its deterioration over time.
- Fantasy acknowledges a connection between name and being.
- Young heroes must break decisively with their past, often through violence done to a loved one.
- Young heroes require tutelage from an older, more experienced person, often a father-figure.
- A period of respite, often traveling, trains the hero, through minor conflicts, for a final confrontation.
- A defining moment in the hero’s journey occurs when the guide steps aside or is killed.
One of the biggest differences between Cooper’s novels and some of the others I have read is that there is no clear break with the old world, nor a full integration between the heroic and the mundane. Will, one of the Old Ones, returns to normal life with his family when he is not battling the forces of the Dark.
The Drew children, the original protagonists of Over Sea, Under Stone, go on to take secondary roles in the later books. They are not brought in to the secrets of the Old Ones (Will, Merriman, and others), but are left to see a merely one-dimensional view of the events that take place.
This creates an interesting duality between the way good versus evil, dark versus light plays out as seen by human eyes (Jane, Simon, and Barnabas) and as seen by immortal eyes (Will and Merriman). Perhaps because targeted to a younger age range, the degree of danger in the books is muted for the humans, who are guaranteed safety by the immortals. In consequence, however, the weight of their “quests” diminishes as well.
The duality is bridged–and given a new life–when several liminal (borderland) characters enter the tale (John Rowlands and Bran). They have awareness of, and ultimately impact on, both levels of sight, so they are able to blur and blend the distinctions between the two.
Language and naming again play key roles, in an interesting twist, partly through an introduction to the pronunciation and ongoing use of the Welsh language.
At some point, I hope to do a more in-depth study of these books as they relate to others in the children’s fantasy “canon.” In the meantime, they served as an excellent refresher from the likes of The Odyssey, Literary Theory, and Rescripting Shakespeare.