Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, the second book in the series of the same name, was one of my first fantasy loves. Its McGuffin plot of gathering elemental medallions to defeat the Dark struck all the chords to put stars in my young eyes – a grand battle of Good versus Evil, the positioning of Nature as a primal force, artifacts connected to an ancient prophecy, and the child protagonist holding it all together through his decision to be a hero. If I remember correctly, it is at one point revealed that the hero, if he turns down the call to action, will live through life as a singer, a baritone with a pleasant voice but not remarkable. Why do I remember this? Because brains are weird and remember fragments long after the whole story loses clarity, but just maybe because it marked a hero who doubted his call to action. I doubt I recognized any significance at the time, but it was an early encounter with the idea that it was alright to question the world, that even ancient prophecies could be denied. Unless I am completely wrong and switching book memories around. Regardless, The Dark is Rising led me to the rest of the sequence, beginning with Over Sea, Under Stone.
The first book in the sequence, originally published in 1965, Over Sea, Under Stone is a British children’s adventure rooted in the mythology of King Arthur, full of “Smashing!” and scones and proper British children going on proper adventures and getting properly dirty, except for Jane, who is properly affronted by filth. The three protagonists are Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew, siblings on holiday with their parents in Cornwall. They are joined by their Great-Uncle Merriman Lyon, a mysterious man “Old as the hills” who comes and goes on odd trips nobody knows much about. The children’s vacation shifts from an imaginary treasure hunt to a real one when they discover an ancient map in the attic of their rental house. When they share the secret with Great-Uncle Merry, he reveals that it leads to an ancient grail connected to King Arthur, a powerful object desired by the forces of both the Light and the Dark. The children figure out the map’s puzzles while evading the minions of darkness.
Much like in A Wrinkle in Time, the Light is aligned with Christianity, though the religious imagery and references are nowhere near as ubiquitous. What instead struck me most about Cooper’s work is how condensed it is. The entire plot takes place within walking distance of the children’s vacation home, and the hunt for the grail occurs within an even smaller region. The whole adventure feels like an extension of the kids’ trek through the house pretending to be explorers at the book’s beginning. The villains are largely buffoonish caricatures, the map’s clues are simple enough to figure out with minimal guidance, and it ends with the bad guys slinking away and the kids rewarded. While there are hints of the supernatural, they flavor the story rather than serve as the main course. Added together, these ingredients form an ideal schoolboy fantasy adventure.
Unfortunately, included in the recipe is also some insidiously casual racism. The kids’ role play through the house includes imaginary natives as servants and cannibal antagonists. Later in the book, Cooper uses the image of a “Red Indian head-dress” as a costume for one of the characters attending a local festival. These images speak to the lasting influence of British colonial attitudes but does not question them. While I suspect a review of similar books published around that time would reveal the same bias and racism, it is nonetheless disappointing. Without an interrogation of these values within the text, they only serve to propagate dangerous stereotypes.
From a narrative standpoint, Cooper’s writing is a great template for basic story construction. Side characters introduced early in the text cycle back in near the end to pay off on bits of foreshadowing. Casually dropped facts instigate plot twists, and there’s a steady build-up of tension as villains are shuffled around and become more of a threat. Just as the plot feels like an extension of the children’s games, Cooper’s narrative is an easy-to-understand introduction to some of the tricks of writing. It’s a story for kids to have fun discovering.
Over Sea, Under Stone is not particularly complex and it brings to mind the uncomfortable and misleading phrase “British wholesomeness,” but it remains a mostly fun jaunt through the countryside. Its references to Arthurian legend move outside of the normal Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle, and the inclusion of local culture allows for some fascinating trivia. (Did you know the town of Helston in Cornwall has an annual Furry Dance? It’s a big to do, but very little to do with dressing up as animals.) Though outdated and marred by tropes like the “savage native,” the story is overall an enjoyable mystery.