This is the second in a series of five books, but can be read without having read the first novel. It involves a young boy who is the seventh son of a seventh son, and on his eleventh birthday discovers he has magical powers, being the last of the Old Ones, servants of the Light who fight against the Dark to prevent it from conquering the world. It’s a quest story, a good versus evil story, and a coming of age story.
There is a tradition of British writing for young people that involves myth and legend, the idea of landscapes retaining the magic of the past, becoming a way to slip between past and present. I was quite young when I first found this type of book, and grew up reading the works of Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, Lucy Boston and Susan Cooper. The Thames valley, where this novel is set, becomes both a normal English village setting, and at the same time a place of Arthurian legend, magic and mystery, darkness and danger. The river itself takes part in the story during the magically created severe winter, becoming dangerous with the cold and the amount of snow. The river is frozen, then floods when the thaw starts. Will experiences leaving his house to find only woodland, indicating he has walked into the past. The author describes the snow hiding and changing the way things look, in keeping with the idea that the landscape can take you from the present to the past, and back again.
For example, the present day world in the snow is described as:
The snow lay thin and apologetic over the world. That wide grey sweep was the lawn, with the straggling trees of the orchard still dark beyond; the white squares were the roofs of the garage, the old barn, the rabbit hutches, the chicken coops. Further back there were only the flat fields of Dawson’s farm, dimly white-striped. All the broad sky was grey, full of more snow that refused to fall. There was no colour anywhere.
And then, in the past:
The strange white world lay stroked by silence. No birds sang. The garden was no longer there, in this forested land. Nor were the out-buildings nor the old crumbling walls. There lay only a narrow clearing round the house now, hummocked with unbroken snowdrifts, before the trees began, with a narrow path leading away.
You get the idea that you can suddenly be out of your own time just while you are walking down a road you know well, where you live and have grown up. It’s magical and a little bit eerie, and we, along with the protagonist, can experience both excitement and fear.
The protagonist, Will Stanton, is turning eleven, and unbeknownst to him, is about to have his world changed in a massive way. He will learn that he is the last of the Old Ones, and he has a destiny to find the signs (magical artifacts) to help fight the Dark. I have heard criticism of this story that Will accepts his role and destiny too easily, but I don’t think that’s fair. Will is an Old One and that is in his very being. It has begun to be active in him as his eleventh birthday comes close, and it is such a part of him that once he understands it he can’t do anything else but be what he is. It’s the difference between doing something and being something. So I think that his acceptance is fine, when you look at it from that context. He is not always thrilled – he complains, is scared, and wants the comfort of family. He is still a boy.
Any great gift or power or talent is a burden, and this more than any, and you will often long to be free of it. But there is nothing to be done. If you were born with the gift, then you must serve it, and nothing in this world or out of it may stand in the way of that service, because that is why you were born and that is the Law.
This story takes place at Christmas, and Christmas activities are wound through the action. On Christmas day Will receives a gift sent by his brother, Stephen, who is in the navy. Stephen has sent him a carnival head from Jamaica, along with an odd story about how he was accosted by an old man and told he had to take the head to give to his brother. The carnival head is magical, and later is used to summon Herne the Hunter and the Wild Hunt. It is while carol singing in the local manor that Will and Merriman go into the past, where the manor has stood for centuries and where Will will learn how to use his gifts. This is also where he meets Hawkin, though he won’t immediately know that he has already met him, and Hawkin is the Walker in his own century.
Speaking of Hawkin or the Walker, the story incorporates this character as a ‘wandering Jew’ type of figure, a man cursed to go on living until he fulfils a task, as a punishment for betraying the Light. If there is a flaw in the story, I think it occurs in the back story of this character. We see that Hawkin, who has been put in danger by the Light (though this was explained to him in advance and he accepted it), finds that he resents it and this leads him to turn away and be recruited by the Dark. What doesn’t really get specified is what Hawkin did, what information he gave, what betrayal, that led to this rather harsh sentence. It seemed as if his punishment was simply for listening to them, rather than for anything he did after listening. It seems as if he was condemned for the company he kept. Later, of course, he does take action against them, and refuses his chance at redemption:
every man has a last choice after the first, a chance of forgiveness. It is not too late. Turn. Come to the Light.
The story is steeped in English folklore, rich in legend that is specifically European, as is the rest of the series. Arthurian legend, the Wild Hunt, Weyland Smith, ley lines, the power of running water to repel magic:
water was the one element that could in some measure defy all magic; for moving water would tolerate no magic whether for evil or good, but would wash it away as if it had never been made.
Merriman, the mentor figure in this story, who might be Merlin (but we’ll never know) is the first Old One and tells Will he has existed in all ages. He is not the warmest character, and it is he who condemns Hawkin, even though we discover that he raised Hawkin from a child. He informs Will that they sometimes have to make tough decisions in what is essentially a war:
This is a cold battle we are in, and we must sometimes do cold things.
The wise man or mentor figure is a standard trope in myth and legend, and is still used in story telling today (Obi-Wan Kenobi being a classic example). Merriman is, however, well written and an interesting character in his own right, He shows affection and love for Hawkin, but it doesn’t stop him acting against him. He has a ruthless streak that I find interesting in the character, especially in a book for children. He wasn’t written as warm and huggy and relatable at all.
“The Dark is Rising” has a standard good versus evil plot, many standard tropes (the child who finds he is ‘chosen’, the mentor, the evil to be fought, and so on) but it is a good book regardless. The author gives the characters life, the surroundings the appropriate level of eeriness, the situations a true level of jeopardy. You don’t read it thinking ‘oh well, it’ll all turn out alright’ – you really engage with the struggles of the characters, their fears and setbacks. I would recommend it for children and adults alike, as well as the rest of the series.