Three from the Circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, stone,
Five shall return, and one go alone.
On Midwinter’s Eve, the day before Will Stanton’s eleventh birthday, all he is thinking about is the approach of Christmas and all he wants is some real snow. But things seem a little… off to Will. The animals around the house skitter away at his approach. The radio blares static when he walks by. There’s a strange tramp hanging around who seems to know Will, and even the familiar and beloved Farmer Dawson is behaving oddly. “Snow coming. This night will be bad,” he says. “And tomorrow will be beyond imagining.”
And indeed, the next day, Midwinter’s day, is beyond anything Will could have possibly imagined. The Dark is Rising, the second in Susan Cooper’s superb young adult series, watches as Will, a perfectly ordinary eleven-year-old in one sense, discovers that he is one of the Old Ones, an ancient circle that has been protecting and sheltering the Light against the forces of the Dark since the world began. Will’s initiation into his true nature, his powers, and the shadowy but dreadfully real battle going on behind the scenes of humanity is gripping, mostly because Cooper maintains a perfect balance: Will may be an Old One, but he doesn’t leave his eleven-year-old self behind. There is a sense of wonder, unreality, and joy even to the most frightening scenes.
Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long,
Wood from the burning, stone out of song,
Fire from the candle-ring, water from the thaw,
Six Signs the Circle and the Grail gone before.
Will’s task, as the youngest of the Old Ones, is to gather the six great Signs of the Light before the Dark can get ahold of them. He has help in his task from Merriman Lyon, another of the great Old Ones, and from the Lady, whose identity is never quite made known. Cooper borrows liberally from Celtic myth and Arthurian romance for her symbols, and has a strong sense of the history and power of British land and legend, but in the end, the adventures are all Will’s. The blend of the ordinary and the fantastic is perfectly done. My only criticism (and this goes for the entire, marvelous, superb series) is that there aren’t enough strong women and girls. She redresses this balance a little bit in her stand-alone novel Seaward, but mostly if you want strong female characters in this kind of novel, you should look to the inimitable Diana Wynne Jones.
The series begins with Over Sea, Under Stone, and then goes on to The Dark is Rising. I can almost guarantee that if you read either of these beginning novels, you’ll be addicted. This was pure delight to re-read — it stood the test of time beautifully, which is really saying something, considering that I first read it about 25 years ago!
*I will mention here that I recently saw a trailer for a film of this book. It looked like the Worst Film of a Book Ever. I have no idea whether they just didn’t read the book at all, or what. Beginning with the entire movie being set in America (really almost unbelievable), and Will having a hateful family, and saying “Awesome,” and being motivated by his “girlfriend,” and the fireballs he’s throwing… okay, I feel feverish. I have to stop now.