When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone....
Those of us who discovered Susan Cooper's five book The Dark is Rising Sequence as children have that memorized. Will Stanton, one of the heroes of the sequence, is one of my first book crushes.
For those of you who have never heard of Cooper's series, I envy you: there is nothing like falling in love for the first time. And once you read The Dark is Rising, you will fall. Hard.
Plot basics first: five children (Simon; Jane; Barney; Will; Bran) battle "the Dark." The sixth person mentioned is Merriman Lyon, great-uncle to Simon, Jane and Barney. Will is an "Old One," a group of people born to keep the Dark at bay. But, as with Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, the fight is not only for those who are born with special powers and abilities; it is also for those who are human.
This is fantasy set in the real world; the fantasy elements come from extensive use and reference to Welsh, Cornish and other Celtic mythology and Arthurian legend. While knowledge of the myth and legend adds to a reading of TDIR, it is not necessary; as a matter of fact, my introduction to elements of both is from this series. So if you like adventure; mythical retelling; danger; history; and friendship, this is a series for you.
I read the books out of sequence, starting with the third, Greenwitch, because the title had the word witch in it. Here's my recommended order:
The Dark is Rising. The second of the five books, it gives the sequence its title; it's also the book that will be turned into a film first. It introduces Will Stanton, a regular boy who wakes up on his birthday to discover he is the last of the Old Ones and the Sign Seeker. His mentor is Merriman Lyon. Death, loss, and defeat are possible; innocents get caught in the war between the Dark and the Light; and Will not only has adventures; he also matures and grows. Will loses his innocence and leaves his childhood behind when he gains responsibility. One problem he faces along the way: he still looks like a child. I reread this title once a year.
Under Sea, Over Stone is the first book and introduces Simon, Jane and Barney Drew, three children who find themselves in a Grail quest. They are aided by Great Uncle Merry (Merriman Lyon), who tells them about the fight between the Light and the Dark. As a note outside the story; this is an OK treasure hunt story, but the other four books are the magical ones. I've read that Cooper didn't think of doing the sequence until after this book was written, and I can believe it. It doesn't have the same tone and vibrancy that the others have -- its much more in the school of Enid Blyton's Secret Seven and Famous Five.
The third book is Greenwitch, where all four children and Merriman are on vacation on the coast of Cornwall. The children first meet each other, and the three Drews are rather unfriendly to Will because he is -- to them -- an outsider, someone who will interfere with their adventures. They don't know he is an Old One. And because Will is an Old One -- he could care less what the Drews think. One of the reasons Will is so awesome is because at this point, he doesn't care about being liked or popular. He has a mission, a calling, and that is what is important. The strength of the third book is its focus on Jane, the only girl.
The last two books are set in Wales. The Grey King finds Will in Wales, befriending a local boy, Bran. It is also the winner of the Newbery Award (TDIR was a Newbery Honor Book), and while I love that any of the books in the sequence were recognized, and I think its cool that a book in the middle of a sequence can win this award, it means that you have to convince some "read all winners only" readers that this book is not a stand alone.
In Silver on the Tree, all six are together: the Drews, Bran, Will and Merry. After having skirmishes with the Dark -- some won, some lost -- the final battle takes place. As with all the books, the risks are very real and there is no guarantee of winning. Also, what is clear is that the Dark is not simply bad people who battle the Light; its not an isolated war that has nothing to do with humanity. While there are dark and sinister warriors on the side of the Dark, it is also shown that modern issues such as prejudice and war are manifestations that "the Dark is rising."
The Good: The risks are real. The dangers are real. This isn't a phony adventure. And while some are born to the fight, like Will, others -- like the Drew children -- can join in the fight, also. Choice is important, whether one is or is not mortal, is or is not an Old One. While there is prophecy, there is still choice.
The myths and legends give TDIR a sense of history, which provides depth and substance.
While there are some friendly adults along the way, the children are the ones who act, who decide, who do things.
These books -- loved by kids -- also stand up to adult readings. The logic holds up; the characters are believable; the adventure is still urgent and real. If anything, an adult reader will be able to take more out of the story than a child. Adult fantasy readers will love these books.
One of the reasons I love this series (and probably why I so enjoy television) is that everything doesn't happen at once. Bran, an extremely important character, does not appear in the first three books. Characters are complex, in a way that can only be shown by following that person over the course of several months.
And finally: after every reread, I wonder if there's a TDIR tour of the places in the book: Roman ruins, Welsh countryside, the Cornish fishing village.
One more finally: as mentioned above, TDIR will soon be a feature film. Personally, I think the complexity of story telling would be better served by a television miniseries. I hope that the films are brilliant because these books are so amazing. I think "unknowns" will work best for the five children, but I'm already wondering about the pivotal role of Merry: Sean Connery? Liam Neeson?
OK, a third finally. And its here for those of you who have read the books; all others, move along, move along. I have a few quibbles with the books. Part of me -- the dark part -- wishes that there had been some sort of betrayal or turning of one of the original five to underscore that the risk of turning to the Dark is real. And, I have always hated (stop reading now, I mean it!) "mind swipe" endings of stories. The whys of my hate is for another rant; its enough to say, I don't like it.