It must have been 1980 when I got my first library card to a small branch library in an equally small town. I was 11 or 12. Trips to the library were always an adventure as I was allowed to make the journey by myself. Once, I even got reprimanded by a librarian for returning the books (hopefully only slightly) wet – I had explored the spring streams transporting water from melting snow to faraway places; I carried the books in a plastic bag which must been dipping into the water during my excitement.
At some point I discovered Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series. I can still remember where the books were: immediately after entering the library, turn immediately left for the children’s department, then turn left again and in front of you is the bookshelf where Susan Cooper’s books reside. I had mostly forgotten about the series, until late last year I saw a picture of a section of fantasy and science fiction books from someone’s bookshelf on Twitter, and, upon checking what books I owned or had at least read, seeing those five books in the picture somehow magically transported my back almost 40 years. Something clicked and I logged in to our library site to search for those books. There they were. I reserved the first three books (in Finnish translations) and very soon I had picked them from my branch (no adventures on the way there and back). In case my memory somehow served me wrong I checked the Finnish translations dates – 1979 and 1980. I had read them.
In Over Sea, Under the Stone, it is summer and siblings Barney (Barnabas), Jane and Simon Drew have arrived by train to the St Austell train station in Cornwall on their way to a nearby seaside town of Trewissick. Waiting for them is their great uncle Merriman (Merry) Lyons. Hints are not so subtle. It is the last days of the empire. Maybe the Beatles plays somewhere in the background; that world does not concern our young Drews yet.
Over Sea, Under the Stone is more of a mystery than fantasy. The Drews reside in a big house where they discover a secret passage and, after exploring the hidden parts of the house, an old parchment manuscript, a map with inscription. It is a map of the area. Barney, Jane and Simon hide the parchment safely (and wisely) in a metallic sealed tube in the house.
The children find out soon that the manuscript is of a considerable interest to others: a local boy, a local vicar and a party on a yacht that anchors by the Trewissick harbour.
After Jane has a strange visit to the vicar and there is an unsuccessful burglary to house the children tell about the manuscript to uncle Merry. He recognises the language and manuscript to be at least 600 years old – and copy of a much older original manuscript. The manuscript mentions Arthur and the Holy Grail, the latter being a cup of some sort, and that the Grail was brought to Cornwall and hidden there. Uncle Merlin
Even though in Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade the grail was a simple cup, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and of course Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code posit a (very weak although most entertaining) theory/story of the Holy Grail being a birthright, sang real. Reading Over Sea Under Stone made me browse Nikolai Tolstoy’s The Quest For Merlin in which Mr Tolstoy elaborates his theory that Merlin did actually exist. Which is what uncle Merry says about King Arthur: it was so long ago that history has become a legend, a myth. Actually, it does not matter whether King Arthur, Merlin, Camelot and the round table were really true. They are here with us, in our culture and minds, permanently. Like aliens in Bryan Appleyard’s magnificent Aliens: Why They Are Here.
But I digress; back in the early 1980 none of these referenced books existed, and most certainly did not do so in my mind.
The discovery has put the children in danger, says Merlin. Now starts a race to decipher the clues in the manuscript to locate the grail before the other side. One clue is – you guessed it – over sea, under the stone.
After deciphering the clues, exiting adventures and brushes with the other (Dark) side the Holy Grail is found and given to a museum, for a finders fee. The metallic tube containing the manuscript is lost to the sea. In the end, Barney ponders uncle Merry’s name: Merriman Lyon, Merry Lyon, Merlion, Merlin…
I cannot say that I got the same vibes upon revisiting the book. It is a standard adventure for children. Nobody is not in any real danger and the bad guys are menacing but slightly in a Home Alone fashion – sans slapstick. Yet, you can smell the old times, sandwiches and ginger beer. Which is nice.
The second book The Dark Is Rising is written eight years after Over Sea, Under the Stone and it shows: the Beatles is no more, the 60s have been wiped out and it’s grim.
The protagonist is ten-year-old boy, Will Stanton, in a family with “too much kids”, cries one of his brothers, James. Will is the 7th sibling – and youngest – of a 7th son. It is a day before the Winter solstice which is also his 11th birthday. Will and his family live in The Thames Valley.
Outside, a little snow, otherwise most uniform dark grey, which is most depressing weather. All the colours have been drained away; there is no sun, only varying degrees of darkness. I can so relate, having recently lived through five months of Finnish November (November 2019 – early April 2020). The Dark has risen and risen again.
The family Stanton is does not seem wealthy but is not poor either. Will as the youngest is a bit of an outsider, because he’s the baby of the family.
Strange things start happening for Will. There are aggressive crows, a beggar, and a menacing horseman rising a black horse (of course) trying to first lure Will and them grab him, but luckily the smith saves him. The smith also gives Will a unique birthday present: a sign which is a small iron ring with a cross inside. The smith urges Will to put in into his belt which he does later.
When Will is pursued by the black horseman a white horse emerges and carries Will to safety, to a doorway on a hill. Then his life really changes.
Behind the doorway lies a dark in a different time. And among people residing who else is there if not our Merry, also temping in as a housekeeper in local manor near Will’s home in the present time.
It is revealed to Will that he is the last one of the Old Ones, who are justified and ancient and like to roam the land. They are immortal, have great powers and serve the Light. So, obviously, the black horseman serves the Dark. Will is brought up to the task, given tutoring which enables him to know everything. He has to collect the missing five signs to help Light in its fight against the Dark.
So, Will does so while celebrating his 11th birthday, surviving a mega-blizzard which transforms the Thames Valley into Siberia and relocates most of the village to the manor, protecting them from the Dark by virtue of his and other Old One’s powers.
As said, the book start grim; there will be betrayal, exploitation, anger, death and in general tricky and touchy situations for Will and the Team Light. ‘The Dark is Rising’ is a dark coming-of-age story in steroids and, eventually, the 11-year-old Will is not really a child anymore. I did root for Will, the young child who is forced to grow basically over a night to bear heavy responsibility and hide all the bad things from his siblings and – even worse – his parents.
The third installment in the series, Greenwitch, brings us back to Trewissick, with the younger Drews and also Will who accompanies his Americanised uncle scouting for business opportunities in Cornwall.
Guess what? The Grail has been stolen from the museum along with other artifacts so as to hide the real target of the theft. The work is set for the Drews who don’t want to include Will with their task as Will is an outsider and they don’t seem to like him.
Jane participates in the women-only all-nighter to build a Greenwitch, a local offering to sea. Before it is rolled to the sea everybody can make wish. For some reason Jane feels sorry for the witch and wishes that it would be happy. And feels silly and childish immediately afterwards.
Basically, there are two teams: Barney, Jane and Simon are looking for the grail, and Merlin and Will look for the manuscript and deal with Dark (in every book there is at least one caricature of a henchman, and this one is no exception). Jane sees it on one dreamy night: Will is in Team Light.
In the end Will does finds the Grail and is accepted by the Drews, but Jane’s compassion helps the Drews and Will and Merry to decipher the Grail prophecy.
Although there are five books in the series, I view the first three ones as a trilogy: Over Sea, Under the Stone sets the stage and gives us the first happy resolution. Continuing the story, albeit with a different protagonist, The Dark is Rising is the darker middle book, and the best one. Finally, Greenwitch ends the trilogy on a high and somewhat faltering note.