#TDiRS22: An ominous beginning

Here we go with the first month of a Dark Is Rising readalong hosted by AnnaBookBel. Following on the heels of Narniathon, I’m excited to share this journey through another of my favorite childhood series with you.

Illustration by Laura Carlin

The first book, however, was not one of my childhood favorites, because I never read it as a child. I think it was from a different publisher than the others, and maybe at some point out of print? At any rate, I started reading with Book 2, the one actually called The Dark Is Rising, and never looked back. I understood that Cooper had written the first book much earlier, and without even intending it to be the start of a series, and it was okay to skip it.

Though eventually I did track down and read a copy, I was not that impressed, even as the others remained among my favorites of all time. When I acquired the Folio Society edition of the series, I read Over Sea, Under Stone again …. and promptly forgot about it once more. So this time, I wondered what I would find to say about this story that I find so unmemorable.

Annabel asks us to consider some questions, including this one: “This novel was initially written in response to a competition to honour the memory of E. Nesbit, although it wasn’t actually entered for it. How well do you think Cooper achieves this?”

To me, except for being about a family of children on holiday at the seaside, having adventures while the adults are largely absent, there is not much resemblance to Nesbit. Nesbit’s books for children always have lots of humor, and although there are some creepy scenes (notably the Ugly-Wuglies in The Enchanted Castle), and some dangerous situations, the overall mood is never so dark and gloomy as in Cooper’s novel. The magic is kept within bounds; there is a sense of it being held within a moral universe, which always returns to balance in the end.

In Over Sea, Under Stone, that balance is much more precarious. It’s actually more reminiscent for me of Treasure Island, which along with its map and treasure hunt has the malignant and often very scary pirates, including the deceptive Long John Silver. But a plucky Jim Hawkins attitude is not enough to defeat these dark forces; they can’t be fought off with guns or escaped from in boats, because they have occult abilities of mind control. When Jane thinks, “It was as if [we] were fighting not people, but a dark force that used people as its tools. And could do what it liked with them” she puts it in a nutshell. The most innocuous seeming-people can turn out to be agents of the Dark in disguise, and this provides a level of terror that goes beyond the kids’ adventure story.

In the half a century between Nesbit and Cooper, much had happened to shatter our trust in a balanced universe: two world wars, the Cold War, looming nuclear destruction, environmental threats and much more. Though none of this is mentioned in the story, it surely forms the background for its real concerns. The Dark is rising, and who will turn it back? Three ordinary kids and their enigmatic Great-Uncle? This book gives me the feeling that there needs to be more to it than that. And it’s surprising that (in the Folio introduction) Cooper says she never meant to write a sequel, because she leaves it so frustratingly open-ended.

Her subconscious mind knew better though. There was potential in the characters and the setting, and after some years away and a flash of inspiration, Cooper was able to really do them justice, bringing in much that is only hinted at or gestured towards in this first effort. OSUS will never be one of my favorites, but I am glad that it started her off on the adventure that would become the Dark Is Rising sequence. I’m looking forward to our installment next month, when both the Light and the Dark will come much more into focus.

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19 thoughts on “#TDiRS22: An ominous beginning

  1. Like you I’ve read this three times and, I think, I finally appreciated what Cooper was trying to do and how she did it. I agree, there’s not really much Nesbit about it (bar the Ugly-Wuglies chill) but Annabel pointed to some similarities with Lewis – the old professor, the strange old house, the housekeeper, the wardrobe as portal, the vague parallels with the Pevensies. No lion though, unless Professor Lyon and Rufus are different aspects of Aslan!

    1. Yes, there are definite Narnia parallels though again overall the mood is much darker. I’d not made the connection she makes between Gumerry and GUM from Ballet Shoes, but that’s a fun one too!

  2. Oh interesting! I wonder how I would have found the series if I hadn’t read this first? I still love it, and I think there’s a real sense of menace to the children from forces which are undefined. She certainly sets things up nicely for the forthcoming fight between good and evil, I feel!

    1. It’s so interesting, the difference between reading this one after the others like a prequel to the main action, and reading them in published order, and then reading them for the first time, as I am. Big kid that I am I rather adored OSUS. See you next month!

    2. It will be very interesting to know of your thoughts after the next one. It goes into a completely different direction, except that we get much more of Merriman, and the Dark is still rising of course. The third book ties things together so hang on there in case you’re sad to lose sight of the Drews.

  3. I don’t know this series at all. It wasn’t anything I was aware of as a child which is a shame because if it had the light/dark elements of Treasure Island I would have enjoyed it.

    Just a suggestion – could you add the author’s name for those of us who don’t know the series?

    1. Sorry, the author is Susan Cooper. And yes, I think you might have liked this book. Other volumes set in Wales might also be of particular interest to you.

        1. The fourth and fifth are either wholly or partly set in Gwynedd, and though I’ve as yet to read either I’m glad to have just spent ten days in the area in anticipation.

  4. I hadn’t come across Susan Cooper until I started with The Classics Club and now I feel very left out! I’ve got a few ‘children’s’ classics that I want to read, I’ll add these to that list, thanks.

    1. Great I do hope you can join. The wardrobe likely came from E Nesbit btw, Lewis himself was not averse to picking up others ideas!

  5. I definitely read TDIR first the first time I read them all, not sure when I realised this one existed, probably when I got the single-volume copy I used to have then mislaid. I’m enjoying seeing everyone interact with these, and think I might do them all together in December.

  6. You know, I have never read these books… I am not sure how much I would enjoy them, but it sounds like I may have liked them when I was nine. For some reason, it brings to mind A Wrinkle in Time, which I wasn’t much of a fan. Is there any similarity between the two?

    1. I’d say they are quite different in tone and atmosphere to A Wrinkle in Time. The books have very concrete realistic settings in England and Wales, unlike Wrinkle’s fanciful journeying across the dimensions. They bring elements of ancient myth and lore into this modern context in a way that is really powerful and for me, quite memorable and formative of my imagination. I don’t know if you’d enjoy them now but any fantasy fan should give them a try, I think — they are true classics.

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