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Silver on the Tree (The Dark Is Rising, #5)Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

And now we have to talk about The Thing. Spoilers abound, for once, because I’ve really just gotta get my teeth straight into this.

Before that, though, the rest of the book. It’s . . . honestly, I’m not crazy about it. I remember that this was never one I reread much as a child. Well, that’s not true – I reread the first third all the time, but I’d stop whenever the magic started coming thick and heavy. There is something so wrenching about Will and his brother by the river, about Stephen caring enough to ask, and his blunted adult incomprehension of Will’s answers, the depth of Will’s loss in that moment. Contrast that to the back half of the book, which is having a quite high-level discussion of the production of art, and it just . . . it’s not like it isn’t a good discussion. Cooper is and was a hell of an artist herself, obviously. I’m just not engaging on that level, after the book opens so viscerally.

All right, enough stalling. The Thing.

As a child, the end of this book was arbitrary and cruel because it directly opposed my main interest in fantasy. Nothing unusual about what I was after – I wanted to read about kids having access to a world bigger than the regimented, difficult, pedestrian one I lived in. I wanted to read about kids being able to open a door into power and wonder. And the end of this book slammed the door in all our faces.

This time, of course, I knew what was coming, and as an adult I can follow the argument Cooper has been having about it all along. Mostly in Greenwitch, much to my adult surprise. And it’s . . . look, it’s not like I agree with her. I don’t, to put it bluntly.

But I do get it now, and I think it’s actually some really difficult territory she’s on. Losing the memory of what has happened isn’t a way to strip everyone of the power they’ve accessed; it’s the only way to open the door to a new power and responsibility. That’s what Merriman says, anyway: “For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children,nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping. And you may not lie idly by expecting the second coming of anyone now because the world is yours, and it is up to you.

It makes me think of my favorite monument, which is in fact a “countermonument.” It’s a monument against violence and fascism, a pillar designed, over time, to sink into the ground and disappear. Eventually, the monument space will be empty because, as the monument itself reads, “in the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice.”

I love it. It’s a symbol of how collective recovery is a process. We have to remember, but the obtrusion of the memory into the world changes over time – the emotional shadow it casts (literal shadow in this case), its usefulness for the business of living.

Not a perfect analog for the end of this book by a long shot, but thinking about the monument helped me to . . . grow a general respect for the decisions Cooper made. She wrote about the passing of an age, about the ascension of man. No longer caught between the temptations of the dark and the outsider rebuttals of the Light. So yes, casting the Dark out of the world means that the Light, too, must go, and I can see the . . . esthetic sense in which she concluded as a matter of course that they must forget. No one is coming to save us, as Merriman says, and the kinds of power she was writing about – the alien magic of the Light and the complicated ownership man has over the world – could not . . . exist in the same space.

It still deeply offends me on a personal level, on behalf of the Drews. They earned those memories with a lot of courage and striving. Living through it changed them, and to have it all so casually erased is still outrageous to me, a kind of assault. But on the broader thematic level . . . yeah, all right. I get it. I don’t like it. But I get it.

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The Grey King (The Dark Is Rising, #4)The Grey King by Susan Cooper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The really upsetting one. I'd been calling it that in my head all along, but I didn't realize I didn't actually remember why. It turns out this upset me so much as a child that I literally blanked out the relevant details; I remembered about two pages before it happened, in the same horrible swooping lurch that Will experiences as he realizes something bad is about to happen. Animal harm, man, that shit fucks you up. /profound.

Anyway. I found this intensely interesting. It follows on very well from Greenwitch, like the next sentence in an argument. Which is how a series ought to work, in an ideal world.

My understanding of this book is filtered through two contrasting scenes. One is Will and Bran questing for the harp, coming before the three hooded powers and answering the riddles set them. There's something so constrained about that scene, so bloodless and controlled with the representatives of the polls of magic fulfilling their assigned roles. As a child, I found it hugely confusing that Merriman is one of the hooded figures; he's on their side, so why does he make them go through the song and dance? Because he has to, because the scripted magic prophecy says he must, and he is an Old One, so he does. (BTW, if anyone would care to educate me on what significance the three riddles have, I'd love to hear it. Their content, I mean -- they have always been entirely puzzling to me, and I did not stop to Google this time like I meant to).

Contrast that with the other scene of riddles asked and answered: Bran screaming at his father in the hut on the hillside, demanding to know who he is and where he came from. The complete opposite of bloodless and constrained. This book is like that -- the magic has that stilted, staged feel of predestiny, while the parallel human story is messy and wildly alive. The Grey King might roll out his menacing fog, and I'll grant you he's creepy. But the most profound, awful evil in this book for my money is purely human. And for all Will is the questing hero, the greatest kindness and bravery aren't his. They're John Rowlands's, and Bran's, and most profoundly, Bran's father's.

It all really works. See John Rowlands talking to Will about the coldness of the Light. This book really digs into what we've only seen in glimpses before about how the Light is fighting for mankind while being profoundly outside it. Try and picture Will screaming at anybody, demanding the secrets of his history. Doesn't work, does it?

Humanity has a range, a resonance in the book that the people of power just don't. Will's most profound moments for me come early, when he is still amnesiac and in a fundamental way, not himself, just a boy. Will gets his memory back and instantly steps out of the center of the emotional arc, which belongs almost entirely to Bran and his connections.

Which is another thing -- why the hell is Bran albino? I've always wondered, and I figured an answer would come to me on this reread, but nope. There's the obvious -- Cooper is using physical disability as a marker of strangeness. Bran's appearance works that way in the narrative -- it's code for a different level of strangeness, of out-of-placeness. But is that all? It's implied very very fleetingly in the next book that Herne the Hunter is actually an incarnation of Arthur, and that's where Bran gets his looks -- really not sure what to make of that.

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Greenwitch (The Dark Is Rising, #3)Greenwitch by Susan Cooper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The eerie one, as opposed to the intensely disturbing one, which for me will always be The Grey King.

I remembered this as a slight, inconsequential book. The weird-shaped one in the middle where the kids meet each other on vacation before we get really serious. I didn't remember -- or likely didn't understand -- just how serious this little book is.

Here's where it crystallized for me. Simon and Jane have a brief run-in with Will's American aunt, who is delighted with all the 'natives and their quaint customs' (Simon's phrase) of Cornwall. And Jane points out to Simon that it's not like he's a native, they're from London.

"But I'm not so much outside it all as she is. Not her fault. She just comes from such a long way away, she isn't plugged in. Like all those people who go to the museum and look at the grail and say, oh, how wonderful, without the least idea of what it really is."

And the whole thing came together, and surprised the heck out of me. This book is not at all what I expected from the woman who wrote the end of Silver on the Tree, with the thing. You know the thing. I have been surprised all along by how obvious and inevitable that end seems now, not just because I know what's coming, but also because these books have been arguing about it all along. As a child the end came out of nowhere and utterly enraged me; it still does, but I think I mischaracterized it in anger. I thought it was about the fragility of humans in the face of the larger powers. But that's nonsense. No one who could write this book could also write a story about that.

Because Simon and Jane (and to a lesser degree Barney), they're the tourists in this book. As holidaymakers in Cornwall, but also as mortals in Will and Merriman's quest, in the work of the Old Ones. They're only ever given a tiny slice of truth, just enough for a good pantomime. They're carefully coached to turn away from anything too magical, and when they're hit in the face with magic -- well. There's an awful lot of foreshadowing here. It's not just the Light, either -- there's that absurd incident of dognapping. Dognapping! because the forces of evil, that's totally their go-to strategy right there. And it becomes clear later that the Dark was merely putting on a show, calibrating their whole global evil thing down to fit Barney's young sensibilities because it's not like he'd understand the true scope of the Dark anyway, doncha know.

Except it doesn't work. This book is all about the magic of mortals. Barney's small gift of sight, of course, which is treated perhaps as a symptom of his larger gift for art. And then the Greenwitch, who is the wildest of magic, so wild that Merriman and Will are frightened of it and have to appease greater powers to even think of approaching it. That Greenwitch. Made by mortal women over one long night of companionship and tradition and casual use of old, old power. Mortals make the Greenwitch without knowing what they're doing, most of them. The Light and the Dark do not have a monopoly on power. And the central argument of this book is carried by Jane, quiet little Jane. The Light and the Dark bring terrifying powers down on Trewissick, they have a fucking opera out there by the sea. But it all comes down to Jane, who has no magic at all unless you count a little compassion.

Yeah. I was not expecting that. It's an ego check for power, and for the Light in particular. And considering what's to come, it's really, really interesting.

Other random thoughts -- I remembered that the Greenwitch was not feminine. That apparently made a huge impression on me as a child. This is why I like Cooper's paganism: she commits to it, there isn't any surprise Christian fundamentalism lurking back there. And it's not just candles and chanting and vagina-shaving parties. It's women raising ungendered wild magic out of the night and the sea and the wood and the fire.

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The Dark Is Rising (The Dark Is Rising, #2)The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The one of my heart. But not entirely a book of childhood. Unlike the rest of the series, this one is layered all through young adulthood for me. I read it countless times as a wee thing, of course, but it was also my book on a horrible flight home from Oxford after Trinity Term, and what I read the week I retired my first guide dog, and what I read in tiny pieces in the month after I lost my eye. Looking at that list is one of those foreheadslap moments where you notice that narrative refrain isn't something that happens only in fiction. This book recurs in my life the way Greensleevves recurs in the book. This is a book of departing for me, a book of loss. Which is not surprising, since that's kind of what it's about.

It's true there isn't much of a story here. It has this treasure hunt quality to it, where Will shows up somewhere and magic happens and then he gets a prize. There's this one part where Will beats back the Dark by being a coat rack. Straight up, he stands still and holds up the signs and waits. And this is textually celebrated as extraordinary, because the Old Ones have always needed their minds to beat back the Dark, but now they have things. I stopped reading there and blinked a lot, because you just don't see formulations like that in fantasy, and it was confusing because I remembered this book as being so much about the mind.

That's because it's not about the quest. It's about Will. And it's all about his mind. He has this beautiful, sad, double-voiced narration. One voice is eleven and content with life, and then afraid and delighted by magic in turns. And the other is the Old One, the overnight adult who alienates Will from his family and community. Coming into power -- and into symbolic adulthood -- is a process of endless loss for Will (though of course it doesn't really ramp up until Silver on the Tree). This is the only book in the series to take place at home; all the others are on holiday. It has to be at home, because you have to be home to lose home.

So of course I read it in times of loss. But not in the expected way. I loved Will as a child, fiercely and without reserve, like a totem. There was something hopeful to this sad, sad book. It's like Will reading his book of magic within this book and being granted power through reading -- that's what I wanted, and a little of what I got. That a child could be lifted out of childhood by knowing (and by reading!), that adulthood would come and take me into a new world, and even if it wasn't always a kind world, I would have power there and it would be mine and I could find my people.

And hey, look, here you guys are.

Anyway. There's a whole hell of a lot more going on here, with Merriman's bitter lesson (through loss, of course) that mortal men will break if trusted too well, used too hard. And the connected tidbit that I don't really have anything to say about yet, but I want to flag it for myself, because I willneed it later I think: that a person must be born to the Light to be of it, but that the Dark is a thing any man can choose.

Onward to Greenwitch.

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Over Sea, Under Stone (The Dark Is Rising, #1)Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am on a serious childhood nostalgia bender over here. Let that be a warning to you.

This series came back to me like a bolt from the blue on a perfectly normal day last week, and I suddenly had to read it right now. But, fantastic, no problem, I thought. When I originally read these books -- and read them, and read them, and read them -- it was on cassette. The good old National Library Service for the Blind cassettes in their snap plastic cases. And the NLS has been busily digitizing the collection (only about a decade late) and I could swear I saw these books go up . . .

Indeed. The NLS had digitized four out of the five, and I was sure I could ahem find Greenwitch on the back of a truck in one of the internet's ahem alleyways. So I snagged this first one and put it on my handheld and trotted off to groom the dog.

And then I turned on the book.

And it was not my narrator.

I remember her very clearly: she was British, a contralto. A gentle delivery, but with a lot of life for the children, particularly Barney, and even more gravitas for Gumerry. She read this book to me a good twenty times between the ages of eight and thirteen, and she was all that is right and proper.

And sometime in the last few decades, the NLS re-recorded the books and reissued the titles. Those old cassettes were wearing out, I'm sure, even the master copy.

And it was not okay. He was American, and he was doing his best, I'm sure, but he was not right.

Which consumed my attention for the entire book, so I don't actually have much to say aside from outraged nostalgia. This is younger and lighter than I remember. A quest story with cartoonishly simple us/them dynamics and some cute kids. Reminded me a startling amount of Arthur Ransom, because the whole thing had that quality of taking place in a bubble of childish creation, where great adventures happen and then you have tea. I was also interested to see the near-total lack of magic here, given the scope of the powers at work. Made me think about the work the rest of the series does to make sure the Drews, the mortals, remain separate. Three from the circle, three from the track. How that matters to these books in ways I'm still unpacking. But that's a subject for a later book.

But the narrator was wrong.

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