The Dark is Rising continues the story of a battle between the forces of Light and Dark that began in Over Sea, Under Stone, but unlike Over Sea, Under Stone, there is no gradual introduction to the action: the danger is almost immediate and intense. Our protagonist, Will Stanton, is thrown into danger from the Dark in the opening chapter and this never lets up across the book.
It’s not immediately obvious that this book is the second in a series, as it is set in a completely different part of England, the South East of England, while Over Sea, Under Stone is set in Cornwall, at the extreme South West of England. The tone is different – much darker – in this second volume, and the characters seem completely different. It’s not until the third chapter that we get a link between the books, when Merriman Lyon (Great Uncle Merry from the previous book) becomes Will’s mentor.
The action starts on Midwinter’s Eve, the day before Will’s eleventh birthday, when Will first starts observing unsettling things around him and starts to get a feeling that something is wrong in his world. The next day, Midwinter’s Day, Will, the seventh son of a seventh son, discovers that he is an Old One. Old Ones are a group of immortal beings from ancient times who wield powers against the Dark, which is bent upon introducing chaos and undermining of humanity. In fact, Will is actually the last Old One, and he is destined to battle against the ancient evil that is just called the Dark. Merriman is revealed to be the oldest Old One, and he becomes Will’s guide to the new world he finds himself in. Will’s first task as an Old One is to undertake a quest to find the six symbols of Light. This quest takes place between Midwinter and Twelfth night, from 20 December to 5 January, and forms the basis for the action in the story.
As in her first book, Cooper weaves stories from folklore into her tale. In Over Sea, Under Stone it is apparent that Cooper is drawing upon Arthurian legend – Merriman is a version of Merlin – to help set her tale in a mythic past. In this volume she draws upon other legends, too, the most obvious being the legends of Herne the Hunter and the Wild Hunt, who first appeared in a story told by Mrs Page in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Wayland the Smith, whose tale is drawn from several cultures. She also uses the idea of a man out of his own time, doomed to wander the world until his task is fulfilled, which recalls the story of the Wandering Jew, cursed to walk the Earth until the Second Coming of Christ. In addition, she weaves a number of Christmas traditions into her story which are followed by Will’s family, such as the cutting and decorating of a tree, lighting the yule log, carolling around the village, exchanging gifts, and attending Midnight Mass. The action in the story shows that Will’s normal world in rural England is interacting with a far more ancient world of magic, with contrasts between the comfort of his loving family and their festive traditions, and the terrifying world of his newly discovered identity at the forefront of an ancient but still ongoing battle against evil.
The setting of the story isn’t something I have ever experienced - a deep winter where the countryside is blanketed by snow, where Will’s village is isolated from the outside world by the ongoing snowstorms. The storms force the entire village to seek shelter in the local manor house, harking back to feudal times when the local lord was charged with protecting his people. The storms, of course, aren’t natural, but sent by the Dark to attack the Light and to defeat Will in his quest to find the Signs of Light. The use of the extreme weather conditions in the book draws on the instinctual fear inside us all that when the dark comes, it will stay forever and never lift. This is the basis for so many pagan rituals that seek to send power to the sun so that it can return to renew life on Earth.
In the last pages of the book, Cooper spells out her overarching plan for the series - the discovery of the Grail has been achieved in the first book, recovering the Signs of Light are the objective in this book, and the narrative looks forward to future quests to find a sword of crystal and a harp of gold that will be needed in the final battle against the Dark.
This is a very dark story for a children’s fantasy novel, with enough depth and complexity to hold the interest of adult readers. Highly recommended.