- Magical Medievalism and the Fairy Tale in Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising Sequence
I. Inscribing the Pentagram
The ubiquity of medieval settings, characters, and subjects in contemporary fantasy literature is notorious. For most readers and critics, however, medievalisms merely represent the "long ago and far away"; their manifold functions in modern literary fairy tales are only beginning to be explored in detail. This essay examines some of the functions and implications of medievalism in Susan Cooper's successful fantasy sequence for young readers, The Dark Is Rising.
At the beginning of Greenwitch, the center novel of the series, a newspaper article reports the theft of the Grail chalice from the British Museum and quotes a Museum spokesman: "Its importance to scholars far exceeds its intrinsic value" (Greenwitch 9).1 This is a delicious bit of irony, for anyone who had read the first two books already knows, and those who begin with Greenwitch soon discover, that the Grail's intrinsic value for magic far surpasses its importance to mere scholars. The intrinsic value of Susan Cooper's sequence may also exceed its importance to scholars; nevertheless, it superbly illustrates the overwhelming medieval presence in literary fairy tales.
Good books are in part non-trivial because, like magic spells, they invoke intrinsic values and the hidden properties of things. Similarly, Cooper's The Dark Is Rising shapes a magical pentagram or pentacle around the reader and casts a spell on the mundane world. The sequence has spellbound many readers, to judge from the testimonials and awards it has earned. Yet it also insists, in the end, on breaking the magic spell and thrusting the reader irrevocably outside the pentagram back into the mundane world. This insistence creates two problems. One is a problem of representation, in which the books confirm the strict illusion-reality dualism so characteristic of most contemporary medieval fictions. The second is a problem of interpretation, since they finally appear to undermine the very values of imagination and tradition that Cooper wishes to espouse.
The five volumes that compose the pentagram were published between [End Page 165] 1965 and 1977, with a gap of eight years between the first and second volumes—a space in which Susan Cooper considerably refined her fiction-writing skill and her conception of the series as a whole. The series combines Dark Age history and archaeology, Welsh and Cornish folklore, Arthurian legend, alchemical symbolism, and a host of other medievalisms within a succession of quests which culminate in a final battle between good and evil.
The quest motif and medievalisms frame a Bildungsroman of Will Stanton, the youngest and last member in an immortal group of beings known as Old Ones; of Bran, the legitimate son of King Arthur who is raised in contemporary Wales and must choose ultimately between his otherworldly heritage and a mortal existence; and of the fully human Drew children, Simon, Jane, and Barney, who aid the Old Ones in the struggle between the Dark and the Light. This archetypal conflict is played out between parallel realities in various legendary and historical time frames. Within the Manichaean framework, Arthur's victory over the Saxons at Badon emerges as one historical fulcrum for determining the eventual freedom or enslavement of humankind; the final battle takes place in the present. (If all this sounds complicated, I assure you it is!)
In the first book, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), The Drew children are aided by an Old One named Merriman Lyon (who is actually the wizard Merlin) in finding the Grail chalice. During their efforts to preserve it from the Dark, however, they lose the key to deciphering its inscriptions. The Dark Is Rising (1973) introduces Will Stanton, who comes into his power on his eleventh birthday and, with the help of Merriman and other Old Ones, recovers the six mandala-shaped Signs of the Light. In Greenwitch (1974), Will and the Drews regain both the Grail, which has been stolen, and the cipher lost at the end of the first volume. The Grey King (1975) takes Will to Wales, where he meets Bran, finds the golden harp of the Light, and with it awakens the...