Featured Reviews

Susan Cooper – The Dark is Rising [50th Anniversary Review]

A 50th Anniversary Review of

The Dark is Rising: A Novel
Susan Cooper

Paperback: Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2023
Buy Now: [ BookShop ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ] [ Audible ]

Editor’s Note: This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Susan Cooper’s Newberry Honor-wining book, The Dark is Rising. Maggie Wills takes a fresh look at this classic.

As the winter approaches, so do reminders of gifts and merriment. Charles Dickens and the latest slate of Hallmark movies give us glimpses of cheer. The winter season imposes difficulty and darkness. Daylight shortens; temperatures drop. We put on slippers and drink hot chocolate to keep us cozy during this time. But when do we remember the dark? Are we comfortable with acknowledging the cold? Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising (1973) offers a different kind of seasonal comfort—a winter solstice book.

Will Stanton wakes on his midwinter birthday to find his wish for snow fulfilled as he peers out the window. He sees the scattered roofs in his village by the Thames covered in snow. But when Will glances away from the window for a second and looks back, the roofs vanish. The snow now covers branches of trees rather than Will’s familiar village. The thick, old forest stretches for miles broken only by the Thames. After calling for his family to no avail, Will steps outside to what awaits him in this new world. He forces himself to look only ahead. He senses that, if he looks back, the house will be gone. Thus begins Will’s winter adventure.

Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, a beloved fantasy novel, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. We can encounter Cooper’s story during its 50th year through the new covers issued by Margaret McElderry Books or by listening to the recent BBC audio adaptation of the novel.  It tells of a mythic battle between the Light and the Dark—two forces that rise and fall against each other time and time again. 11-year-old Will discovers the Dark is rising perhaps for the last time, and he will quest to hold it back.

We could read this novel in real time if we wanted to. Open the first chapter on midwinter’s eve and step into the bustling Stanton household with its seven kids and notice, along with Will and his siblings, that the rooks and rabbits in the Thames valley are acting skittish and strange. The next day is midwinter (the December 21st winter solstice) when Will makes his eerie birthday discovery. Will discovers that he is an Old One—he belongs to the fight between the Light and the Dark and must seek six signs, or talismans, that are vital for the Light. Then, during Christmas with the Stanton’s, Will opens presents with his family and attends church, all while using his new magic as an Old One to keep the Dark at bay. And we can end our real-time reading on the date the book ends, the twelfth night after Christmas (or Epiphany on January 6th) as the Dark fails to rise and Will succeeds in his mission to acquire.

When talking about the importance of story in her life, Susan Cooper recalled her home in Buckinghamshire outside of London during the early 1940’s. German bombers sought this area as a favorite target for raids during World War II, and Cooper’s family hid in an air raid shelter her father dug in their backyard. Bombs were often dropped at night and Cooper’s mother read stories to her children by candlelight. When bombs touched down, the candle flickered. The flickering candle during these air-raid left a strong impression on Cooper’s imagination.

The Dark Is Rising reflects this flickering. The novel embodies the flickering candle; it moves back and forth between intense cold and comforting warmth, from dimming and brightening. Time ebbs and flows throughout the novel. The trees Will sees on the morning of his birthday are described as “sturdy as towers and ancient as rock” (29). Current and ancient shift. And the Dark and the Light push back and forth as well. Will’s first warning of the Dark comes from his neighbor, Mr. Dawson, who says, seeming to talk about the icy weather, “This night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining” (10). The sense of the unimaginable, be it a blizzard attack from the Dark or a protected, happy Christmas Eve when dread lurks right outside, keeps the novel moving, unsettled.

In Will’s world Dark and Light come and go, but the power of language stabilizes and remains steady in the novel. Will’s sage and guide, Merriman, introduces Will to an ancient book that imparts wisdom and magic. He tells Will about reading this book and receiving its magic saying, “Long ago…we used to call it simply Knowing. But there is far too much to know in your day, on every subject under the sun. So we use a half-forgotten word, as we Old Ones ourselves are half-forgotten. We call it ‘grammarye’” (145). “Grammarye” is a Middle English word that means both “learning” and “magic”. In the novel language carries fundamental, consistent truth in an ever-changing world. The candle might flicker but the stories continue.

Cooper allows readers to feel the darkness of winter. With this story, we can celebrate the winter solstice. It is the hinge of the year, the shortest day, and ushers in the cold of winter. But light is not lost here. The winter solstice is the hinge of the year that opens the door to more light each day. The Dark Is Rising allows readers to find comfort in this midwinter tension.

Maggie Wills

Maggie Wills is a graduate student at Dallas Theological Seminary, and her experience in the school's Media Arts & Worship program helps her explore the connection between faith, art, and daily life. She grew up in Georgia but now calls Dallas, Texas her home. She loves reading classic literate, all six of her brothers, and breakfast for dinner.

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