cloudsinvenice: woman resting her head on her hand, thinking (Default)
[personal profile] cloudsinvenice
I read The Dark is Rising (the novel) a few years ago because it seemed right up my street: Christmas, folklore, mythology, Christmas-specific folklore and mythology... you get the idea. My feelings about it were mixed (see below) and I gave away my copy, which I later regretted, so I was happy when R turned up a slipcase with all five books in the sequence. This Christmas I decided to read them all in order, and while my feelings are still mixed, I enjoyed the series more than I'd expected to, and it's given me a lot to think about.

When I picked up Over Sea, Under Stone, the sinusitis had already hit, so I was in just the right mood for something that felt old-fashioned and reminded me of the sorts of adventure books I'd read as a child. It's markedly more childlike in its scope than the rest of the series, though this isn't a criticism - it's the inevitable product of the book having been written for a competition commemorating the legacy of E. Nesbit, rather than conceived as the beginning of a series of any mythological or moral ambition.

If you want the sort of story where children range far and wide in freedom, meet a charming and clever dog, eat enormous teas with lots of fresh cream and solve mysteries with the help of a kindly benefactor, you could happily read this book in isolation. Of course, the price of period social settings is that you also get period racism, though it is undercut, as [personal profile] lunabee34 and [personal profile] thelastgoodname observed in their reviews, by the way the book highlights that children will parrot concepts like "rude natives" without having the first idea of what they actually mean. But that's not a refutation of said racism, either.

Probably Barney is the kid who gets the most personality here - he's the dreamer, the King Arthur fan, and he's also the one who gets kidnapped and/or mind-controlled several times during the series, perhaps because he's sensitive or perhaps because, as the youngest, he makes the most poignant victim when in danger. Simon's your standard slightly irritating older brother, and Jane starts out as one of those girls in old-fashioned books who are a bit complainy in what feels a shallowly sexist way, but she gets more character development later in the book (I enjoyed her expedition to the vicar's house) and particularly later in the series.

Great Uncle Merry - or Merriman Lyon, or, as Barney figures out, Merlin - is the sort of avuncular old man I have a weakness for in stories like this; he'll become more morally complex and faintly disturbing later on. For now, his role is to show up conveniently when the kids would not otherwise get out of danger. This is cosy and reassuring, and I'm not so sure that's a bad thing in the sort of book this is trying to be. You can tell it's supposed to be a serious enough headfuck when the vicar turns out to be an imposter and an agent of the Dark - the idea that a purported vicar could be a bad person disturbs the children and, in a 1965 world where clergy sex abuse scandals had yet to surface and churchgoing was much more central to British life, was probably the most disturbing bit of the book for a lot of readers on publication.

What saves the book from banality is that there is something genuinely disturbing about the pseudo-vicar's mind control attempts on Barney, and the attitudes of other Dark adults. Merriman tells the children enough about the war between Dark and Light for events to have weight beyond the imminent danger to the children - I think we're already told in this book that the Dark can't harm them directly (otherwise Great Uncle Merry would seem a much more suspect character for involving them), but there is a sense of historical sweep and the uniqueness of the chance they have to find the clues that I did feel the stakes were satisfyingly high.

All of that said, though, it takes The Dark is Rising to create enough ambiguity to make the series really compelling. Unfortunately, that ambiguity will largely go unexplored in canon, but we'll come to that.

I found that my problems with TDIR this time round were pretty much the ones I'd had when I originally read it:

1. Will lacks agency. He finds out he's an immortal Old One, and the knowledge of magic and lore is effectively downloaded into his brain by psychically speed-reading a grimoire. Thereafter in the series, when he needs the knowledge, senses and powers of an Old One, it feels rather as if another character - let's call him Old!Will - takes over, with a different style of speaking that I found frustrating. It would have been more satisfying if more of Will's learning process had happened before our eyes, both for its own sake and because we could have felt that this changing persona was the result of his self-discovery as an Old One. I wonder if Will's training takes place in this way because Cooper's built the book around the Christmas season, and a lot of action has to happen between the Solstice and Twelfth Night, but as I said, it makes you feel you're missing something. Plot-wise, there's such reliance on fate that Will just seems to have to hang on there through some unpleasant incidents, go through certain motions, and he'll find the Signs (the Macguffins of his quest), because he's meant to.

2. In Will's family of nine siblings, the girls get less definition than the boys, activities are markedly gendered (boys go out with Dad to fetch the Christmas tree and the Yule log, girls stay in and make paper chains - admittedly, this should be Will's job, but it doesn't help the overall atmosphere of "boys do the important, exciting things while girls sit at home"), and the most defined sister is lazy, moany and sulky. Unfortunately, that's based on her behaviour, not just an attempt to view her from the perspective of her 11-year-old brother. It's always weird reading this kind of casual, sloppy sexism from a female author.

It's also a disappointing lapse because the Stantons are likeable overall, and Cooper creates a believable family whose history and interrelationships feel lived-in. I found myself picturing their house's layout as identical to that of a (not quite so) large family I knew when I was growing up. There are touching scenes like Paul's moments of connection with Will (also introducing the idea that, even among ordinary people, some have a high degree of sensitivity to the powers and realms the Old Ones know intimately), Mrs. Stanton telling the story of the son they lost, and the intimiations of how much Will admires Stephen, whose room he inherited when the latter joined the Navy.

3. I like mentor/pupil relationships, and while Merriman's sternness is in contrast with his warmth towards the children in OSUS, he of course has reason to expect more from Will, and his gradual thawing as Will lives up to those expectations is nicely handled. What's more disturbing is Merriman's relationship with Hawkin, his liegeman from medieval times who, because of his bonds of loyalty and Merriman's fatherly role in his life, has agreed to protect the grimoire with his life... which will last for centuries. The man's been driven half-mad by the burden and the isolation of getting immortality without the power and perspective enjoyed by the Old Ones, and of course, he is swayed by the Dark.

It's part of an unsettling pattern in the books regarding working class characters who do the Dark's bidding - see also the boy and the cook/housekeeper in OSUS, and the maid from the farm bordering the Stanton place in this book. But Hawkin is the ultimate example because his relationship with Merriman makes it virtually impossible for him not to take up a terrible burden, and when he fails to resist the Dark, it feels like this is both inevitable and a terrible moral failing, which feels unfair. Going beyond the question of class, who are these Old Ones who can love someone and bind that person to them, and put them in that situation? Is Will to be expected to handle people so ruthlessly? And how does this make them different from agents of the Dark? The book almost feels like it's going to explore this moral ambiguity, but doesn't go there, and in the end the best Hawkin can hope for is the release of death.

Having said all this, I would rather the ambiguity about the agents of the Light was there than not, and it's obvious fodder for fanfic. There's a lot else implied by Will's status as an Old One that I'd like to see tackled by fic - whether he too is to be immortal, what this will mean for his relationships with his family, and what form immortality will take. Now his Old One powers have been triggered, is he supposed to be 11 forever? Surely not. Do they just age really slowly? Do they stop visibly ageing at a time of their choosing? Is their whole appearance a glamour? (You can see the convenience for Merriman, who maintains a reputation among ordinary mortals as an eminent archaeoogist, of looking like a stately-looking older white man.)

It's possible that the Old Ones suffer from that common fantasy genre failing of being a bit over-powered: they can move through and outside of time, in a way that would seem godlike in its scope if we didn't see that the most powerful of them, The Lady, fades away from exertion and must rest in order to join the others in pushing the Dark back at the end. The magic system is never spelled out, and I suspect hasn't been worked out in any systematic way at all - we know that things can burn without being consumed, that once invited in the Dark is in ur house, abusin ur hospitality, and that will and fear are key factors to master, but the magic very much serves the needs of the plot rather than the plot being driven by the limitations of the magic system.

Where the book unquestionably succeeds is its atmosphere, both in the way the natural world turns from friend to foe, and in the bleedthrough of other historical eras and figures out of myth and legend. I've mentioned that I'm a sucker for Christmas folklore, and there's plenty here, from the protective uses of holly to Herne the Hunter's appearance on Twelfth Night. There's an otherworldly carol-singing scene that veers from Christmassy to threatening, and when the snowfall becomes a danger in itself, the whole town feels convincingly at risk. Also, since I last read the book, I've actually visited Buckinghamshire and explored the Chilterns, Eton and Windsor a bit, so I enjoyed both being able to visualise the locations in the book and to map the fantasy onto the places I now know in real life. But the writing is evocative enough that the places and times depicted can live in your mind regardless of personal experience.

Date: 2017-01-28 03:34 am (UTC)
lunabee34: (Default)
From: [personal profile] lunabee34
I wish the books were fresher in my mind so that I could comment more on your analysis.

I hope you find stuff to like in my fic recs tag. There's also lots of other fic for the fandom that I didn't rec that's been written for Yuletide over the years.

Lots of it is fix-it-fic written by people who, like me, hate the whole "you must forget everything" trope.

Date: 2017-01-28 11:25 am (UTC)
mumsisdaughter: (Default)
From: [personal profile] mumsisdaughter
As I've told you before, I used to read these books to my classes at school. I found that Y4 (8 to 9 year olds) enjoyed Over Sea, Under Stone' as an adventure with just enough threat to make it exciting. The older children remembered my having read OSUS and were keen to try TDIR. Being older (10 to 11 years old), they were able to appreciate the atmosphere and Light v Dark of TDIR. This was not an adventure to be enjoyed but dealt with fear and suspense that a younger audience would have found unpleasant and the stock descriptive 'boring' would have been the result. Anything beyond a particular stage of development in a child was always labelled thus: in other words, 'I don't understand this.'

It's been a long time since I read the others but I'm interested to know what you make of them :)

Date: 2017-01-28 04:40 pm (UTC)
arcadiaego: Grey, cartoon cat Pusheen being petted (Default)
From: [personal profile] arcadiaego
I had no idea the first one had been written as part of a competition! It makes a lot of sense though - the second book feels like what we'd now call a reboot and the Merlin revelation at the end of the first more like a cute bonus cliffhanger than a massive plot revelation.

As a nipper, I was actually pretty disturbed that the vicar was a baddie as well! Of course I didn't think that old men leading children into epic battles between the forces of good and evil involving potentially illegal activity and definitely trespassing was weird at all.

(I should probably add that the vast majority of my children's reading was Edwardian if not earlier - when my mum was young a girl on her street (who she didn't know) died of leukemia, and that girl's mum donated her large collection of children's novels to my mother. They made up the bulk of my reading when I was young because school wouldn't let me have novels that were suitable for my reading ability. I didn't actually read The Dark is Rising Sequence until I was a teenager, though I did know the stories because they'd been dramatised on Children's Radio 4. (Which no longer exists, as far as I know.)

1. Will lacks agency.

There's so much info dumping in this series. Also, you're right that Will stops being a child fairly early on. These days it reminds me a little of Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch books, where the characters are assigned to either the light or the dark depending on their mood when they first encounter the Twilight (place that gives them their magical qualities). They don't have any warning that this is going to happen and after that point they can never change their allegiance, which means that the two factions don't really have anything to do with morality - you can just be a bit pissed off that day and find yourself tied to the Dark for the rest of time. Though most characters never seen to feel like this is unfair. Maybe it's a Russian fatalistic thing but it means no one really has any agency. It's not a coincidence that they changed the plot significantly for the films. (For very different reasons and with different results than the Dark is Rising movie...)

There's a lot of frankly illogical info dumping in The Box of Delights as well, but Kay is a child, not a magical immortal do gooder.

The Hawkin stuff is really sad and makes the Old Ones seem remote and unsympathetic. Which is a problem, because Will is one. There's no real sense as in The Lord of the Rings that people had believable human failings to end up on the wrong side - it seems more as if you can make a trivial mistake and be stuck. There is some attempt to tackle the morality of this but Cooper repeatedly dodges it throughout the series.

I usually hate stories about big happy families but I did like the relationship between Will and his brothers, and the stuff about the lost baby. I wonder if Greenwitch was a conscious decision to make up for the sexism of previous books.

Date: 2017-01-28 04:43 pm (UTC)
arcadiaego: Grey, cartoon cat Pusheen being petted (Default)
From: [personal profile] arcadiaego
Oh, and you may know this but there is lots of fic for this fandom (relatively, anyway) although most of it is slash.

Date: 2017-01-29 12:30 am (UTC)
arcadiaego: Grey, cartoon cat Pusheen being petted (Default)
From: [personal profile] arcadiaego
E Nesbit, definitely! My favourite was The Story of the Treasure Seekers, or maybe The Railway Children but we had so many. Obvious things like Frances Hodgson Burnett, all the Little Women books, Anne of Green Gables...later stuff like Mallory Towers and other boarding school books which I didn't really like, and also various 50s/60s Bunty annuals in which boarding school also featured heavily!

To my eternal shame and embarrassment I was absolutely in love with What Katy Did (the sequels less so but I still liked them) which is of course horribly ableist. In my defense I liked it because I was in love with Katy so at least I get baby queer points??

The Prince and the Pauper, some Sherlock Holmes, a gorgeous huge volume of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales which my aunt had drawn all over when she was a toddler and my mum still held a grudge about...and there were so many others I don't remember because they faded into one, plus we had a leak in our house over the cupboard that they were kept in and a lot of them got eaten by damp and silverfish. If you google 'Edwardian children's fiction' and look at the images there was just a huge pile of books with those sorts of covers, usually about girls having fun but very moral adventures. I was basically given a perfect children's library, albeit a child who was born in 1945. I was very lucky. (I also had volumes and volumes of myths, fairy tales etc and still have a lot of those. Mum would buy them from charity shops whenever she saw them - I even have Russian, Danish and Canadian First Nation ones, in translation!)

This was a long comment! But oh, I loved those books. There was always this gothic tinge because the original owner had died young and of course in Edwardian books people die or get very sick a lot so I'm afraid it sort of added to the whole experience.

I actually wrote a letter of complaint to the BBC about Children's Radio 4 being closed, and it was read out by a very posh, swotty sounding child actress on their Feedback programme. TO MY ETERNAL HORROR my teacher recorded the repeat and played it in class so everyone could see 'how clever Elizabeth is'. This sort of thing is why I had no friends until I was about 15. Of course now we have multiple radio stations and easy access to audio books online but at the time I was very annoyed.

I do love the Night Watch books but they're like candy - you can read them very quickly (I read the first three in a day, good lord I wish I had that attention span on my meds now...) and afterwards they make you feel slightly guilty. Cooper is much better but the morality troubles me in the same way! It does seem as if she wasn't willing to fully map out the consequences of this worldbuilding. On the other hand I do like that the light is something potentially scary and harsh rather than just being sweetly good. (I just mistyped that as 'god'. He's not a *tame* lion.)

It's weird how non political it is, now you come to think of it, even though she involves cameos from people in other countries. What were they doing in the 1940s, for example? It all seems very detached.

Date: 2017-01-29 02:32 am (UTC)
arcadiaego: Grey, cartoon cat Pusheen being petted (Default)
From: [personal profile] arcadiaego
Oh yes, I remember that incident with the racism - an Indian family? Sadly it was similar to things that would happen when I was a child. Leicester is multicultural but the county has a long way to go.

Yet if the worst human evil has nothing to do with the war of Light and Dark, how seriously should we even take the latter?

Yes, exactly, this is my problem with so much of this style of fantasy where reality overlaps with magic. It can be applied so so many universes - Harry Potter for example. Why don't they help people with their magic instead of just standing by when WW2 happened? The Who style 'we can't interfere in the timeline' only works so many times. Of course the powerful wizards/Old Ones/whoever leaving at some point in the past and humans having to get on without magic is a trope dating practically from the Bible and probably before, and is used to explain how there can be gods that don't save us from awful things - but when 'the past' is the 1960s it's a bit problematic!
Edited Date: 2017-01-29 02:34 am (UTC)

Date: 2017-01-29 06:57 am (UTC)
birke: (Default)
From: [personal profile] birke
That's why I like Diane Duane's Young Wizards books -- one does wonder how they failed to stop certain things, but one knows wizards do their best against a force they can slow, but never stop. "Cut us some slack," they would say. "We're only a small percentage of the population, and sometimes the rest of the population is really dumb."

Date: 2017-01-29 08:18 pm (UTC)
arcadiaego: Grey, cartoon cat Pusheen being petted (Default)
From: [personal profile] arcadiaego
I feel like the actual answer to 'everyone would want magical solutions to their problems' is '...and?'. JKR has said that wizards can cure biological illnesses but not magical ones, which is why wizards live so long. So that means they can cure cancer. And they're just choosing not to. I think people would catch on pretty fast to the fact that magic doesn't solve all your problems but can also *save lives*.

Date: 2017-01-29 07:00 am (UTC)
birke: (Default)
From: [personal profile] birke
You can tell it's supposed to be a serious enough headfuck when the vicar turns out to be an imposter and an agent of the Dark - the idea that a purported vicar could be a bad person disturbs the children and, in a 1965 world where clergy sex abuse scandals had yet to surface and churchgoing was much more central to British life, was probably the most disturbing bit of the book for a lot of readers on publication.

I hadn't really thought of how it was supposed to be/would have been for those readers. I also just did a reread of most of the books and to me the evil (fake) vicar seemed both perfectly natural and so blindingly obvious I didn't see how Jane could be so naive.


cloudsinvenice: woman resting her head on her hand, thinking (Default)
"What can the cat-posters hope to gain?"

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