This is a slightly tidied (but by no means final) outline of the paper I gave at the CA conference- apologies for the formatting
Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books are steeped in Anglo-Saxon and Celtic mythology, they make no effort to engage with classical texts, indeed they make little effort to demonstrate historical accuracy, nevertheless a handful of references to Latin and archaeology and one scene set in Roman Britain explicitly reinforce certain themes across the series as a whole and reveal a more complicated attitude to fact and fiction than the fantastical storyline might suggest. I want to start this paper with a brief outline of the individual books and overarching story and a discussion of some of the relevant themes and some key commentary on the sequence. I will then discuss in detail the main elements of Cooper’s use of classical material (namely the use of Latin, the place of the professor and the Caerleon scene) before finally suggesting some implications of these for the Sequence as a whole.
The Dark is Rising sequence consists of 5 books published between 1965-1977 and an omnibus edition has subsequently been produced. As a whole the sequence depicts an ongoing battle between the powers of the Dark and the Light set in Britain. It involves three ordinary human children (the Drews) and a group of undying magical Old Ones who can move through time. The fourth book won the Newbery Medal and the second was recently, if somewhat loosely, adapted into a film which was known as “The Seeker” in the USA.
In the first book “Over Sea Under Stone”, which is set in Cornwall, the three Drew children aided by the Old One Merriman Lyon (who we later find out is also the legendary Merlin) hunt for and find the Grail but lose the cipher that allows for the interpretation of its decoration.
In the second book, “The Dark is Rising”, 11 year-old Will Stanton comes into his power as an Old One and with the help of other Old Ones recovers 6 items of Power known as the Signs of the Light. It is set in the Thames Valley.
The third book, “GreenWitch” involves the Drews returning to Cornwall and meeting Will for the first time. They are able to recover the Grail which has been stolen by the powers of the Dark and this time get the lost cipher that goes with it because of the power of a spirit of the sea.
“The Grey King” is set in Wales and concerns Will befriending the young Bran who unbeknowst to him is the son of King Arthur but has been raised in the C20th. Together, they then recover another artefact of power and gather forces for the final battle.
In the last book the “Silver on the Tree” all the characters return to Wales to find the final object of power, bring the talismans together and fight the final battle. After which the ordinary humans forget their involvement in the struggle and a new era of human determinism begins.
In considering the themes and critiques of the Dark is Rising Sequence the first unavoidable issue is the impact of the books as literature for children. One of the key aspects of analysing children’s literature as a reception scholar is the recognition of source-material and consideration of its accessibility for the text’s primary audience. This approach distinguishes between aspects of the text that already form the core knowledge of the audience and those which are educational and help build a knowledge and morality/philosophy base. Both of these different aspects can then be used to identify cultural and structural norms represented within the text. For classicists this often means considering the similarities and differences between original texts and re-workings or identifying where the classical world acts as a model or contrast for the main setting of the book and how these might suggest a different approach to the classics. In this series where the ancient classical world is minimised and direct use of texts is non-existent what is striking is that classics are not presented as necessarily well-known or understood and yet are still an important part of both heritage and the maintenance of the overall schema.
Furthermore there are all sorts of implications the derive from the process of aiming books at children to do with what we expect kids to understand or already know about, what we wish to ‘protect’ them from and what references we want them to absorb. These ideas affect possible interpretations of the role of references and allusions in the text and to the impact of Cooper’s representations of power structures and relationships on readers.
However, it is also important to draw attention to Cooper’s own comments on the topic of writing fantasy for children:1
“I sometimes feel it necessary to remind people, vigorously, that children do not belong to a separate race; they are us, not yet wearing our heavy jacket of Time. … Many things change as we grow up, some for the better and some for the worse, but a few do not, and one of them is the imagination. … Age and education and experience can direct it and feed it, but they won’t alter its quality.”
– from “Who Are the Children?” the Zena Sutherland Lecture for 1995
“Very young children, their conscious minds not yet developed, are all feeling and instinct. Closer to the unconscious than they will ever be again, they respond naturally to the archetypes and the deep echoes of fairy story, ritual, and myth. But after that, learning begins, as it must; the child is launched on his long quest of understanding.”
– From (1981) “Escaping Into Ourselves” in Celebrating Children’s Books B. Hearne & M. Kaye (eds.)
“The fantasist—not one of my favorite words—deals with the substance of myth: the deep archetypal patters of emotion and behavior which haunt us all whether we know it or not.”
– From “Fantasy in the Real World,” the Anne Carroll Moore Lecture, 1988
In a roundtable discussion in 2007 she said: “You’re talking to yourself really. So many of us say, ‘I don’t write for children,’ and we don’t; we are published for children, read by children. You deal with your own passions, emotions, problems, by having them flow into a piece of writing that needs that particular emotion.”
Whether we choose to take her at face value or not what her lectures and discussions make clear is that Cooper wants her work to read as representations of mythic archetypes and to connect them to broader patterns in literature and anthropology.
The books are certainly heavy with Celtic mysticism, Arthurian medievalism and, as Drout argues, Anglo-Saxon imagery.2 – which is perhaps representative of the influence of Tolkein’s tutorials during here time at Oxford.
Not only does much of the key action take place in the Celtic and Arthurian heartlands of Wales and Cornwall but it is clear that Cooper draws extensively from the Mabinogion (one of her favourite books3 – although some writers have failed to see its significance)4 for some of the riddles and characters. Also Scholars tend to note a medieval type structure with specifically Celtic and Arthurian imagery. Goodrich notes 5 types of correspondence with medieval romance5 –
- specific borrowings including relics – such as the Grail, harp and Crystal sword; cultural artefacts such as the hunting of the wren and folk myth such as the Wild Hunt.
Non-specific borrowings used to infuse the books with a sense of mystical and ‘olde time’
use of heroic figures like Merlin, Arthur, Taliesin, Herne the Hunter and Wayland Smith
structural parallels like the mythic quest and seasonal cycles
ideological parallels such as it portrayal of a predominantly patriarchal hierarchy and acknowledgement of some flaws in that model.
Plante argues that the books individually and as an arc follow the model of an Arthurian quest – with the basic pattern like Auden’s analysis of the Lord of the Rings:6
A precious Object and/or Person to be found and possessed or married.
A long journey to find it, for its whereabouts are not originally known to the hero
A hero. The precious Object cannot be found by anybody, but only by the one person who possesses the qualities of breeding or character.
A test or series of tests by which the unworthy are screened out, and the hero is revealed.
The Guardians of the Object who must be overcome before it can be won. (83)
However, Plante also argues that the element of fate in the Sequence undermines any sense that the protagonists make free choices within the quest and that they are therefore unable to learn from their quest. Noting instead that the characters tend to follow the dictates of prophecy, the orders or prior knowledge of the Old Ones or to use intuition (for example based on magical knowledge or a sense of ‘rightness’) in order to complete their tasks and overcome the guardians. He suggests this perhaps even reduces any overall moral message in the books which would be a surprising in a children’s book of this era but perhaps fits with Cooper’s stated ethos.
Of course – it is worth considering that readers can remember lessons even where protagonists forget.
Kuznets also takes the quest motif as a key structure.7 She suggests that it does allow for a theme of adolescent development (much children’s literature falls into the bildungsroman category) but she notes that the process of development can only be applied to Bran. In her analysis having undergone the trials and final battle his reward or transition is to being an ordinary British mortal (and forgetting all of the mystical quests). He does not end up with a new set of insights (as per Plante) but instead the implication is that becoming a fully integrated C20th Briton with free will was in and of itself a worthy and desirable development.
Following these analyses, as well as evoking the realm of high fantasy it is easy to link the very British mythical imagery and structures of the series to quite paternalistic and colonialist values. For example, the Old Ones clearly have their base in Britain and any sense of a global network of these powerful guardians of the world only comes through communications with former colonies. Furthermore, the strongest and most influential characters are routinely the older males and they are not challenged but rather guide the children towards fulfilling similar roles in society. And reinforce the status quo.
However, if we move away from these structural elements, other sets of imagery are identifiable and may suggest underlying themes.
The key topic I wish to draw attention to is Cooper’s use of Place and landscape. In the Sequence specific events and objects are very closely linked to the landscape. For example, the children can only see the right path to find the grail from particular parts of the cliff in Over Sea, Under Stone and in the Grey King the welsh names of the places have significance for the different stages of the prophecy that needs to be fulfilled to find the object. The importance of Place in both children’s literature and Cooper specifically has already been noted by various scholars especially Carroll and Butler The latter comments on the fact that mythical and historical time is made manifest through the land. Places are connected with the events that happened there and more broadly to the stories told about them – and importantly they contain all of those times/stories and events simultaneously. It is worth noting that Cooper explicitly dismisses linear time for the books explaining that the Old Ones can shift between times because those times in a sense all happen at once. The human children however tend to experience lapses out of their own time like echoes or reflections where they recognise people or places (or both) enacting events that have already happened but which have relevance to their quests. In this way places and time-periods are experienced concurrently and attention is drawn to the multiple interpretations of sites and the way that present understanding influences readings of the past. Landscape is therefore one of the crucial ways that Cooper explores the ways that characters confront their relationships with their homes and their past and helps individuals interact with each other. A strong connection to home and history imbues the questing youngsters with a responsibility to both maintaining and protecting their
Generally speaking, the idea of being linked to the land is a common thread in traditional high fantasy because of the way that myth depends on power from the earth and other cthonic motifs. Landscape roots characters to that power and understanding but it therefore has interesting repercussions for notions of migration, colonisation and exile.
With all this British mythology and Celtic locations what space is there for the Classics?
In fact classics appears to have very little role within the series and there are only two scenes that explicitly deal with the what we might consider classical material. The sections of text appear in the first and last books and they are loosely connected by one particularly nebulous figure who is difficult for us to understand.
The first scene is a discussion by the (almost entirely normally human) Drew children about the language on an old map in Over Sea Under Stone (the first book). It is interesting with respect to attitudes towards Latin and learning it and is slightly echoed by a mention of language in the second Welsh scene. The first section also has implications for considering Cooper’s attitude towards education and authority in the Sequence which is best embodied in the bridging character of Merriman Lyon. As well as being the legendary Merlin, Merriman is a powerful Old One and Will’s mentor is also a professor of archaeology – a position that grants him respect (and apparently plenty of field trips) in the non-magical world. Archaeology also gets a nod in the second and more extensive classical section in which Will travels through a painting to encounter Romans building an amphitheatre in Wales and uses the homesickness of a Roman Centurion to connect back to the modern world and the homesickness of an American archaeologist excavating the very same amphitheatre.
In Over Sea, Under Stone, the children find a map which will eventually lead them to the grail. The section reads [pp.21-22]:
‘Why isn’t it in English?’
‘How on earth should I know?’
‘I mean,’ Barney said patiently, ‘that we’re in England, so what other language could it possibly be in?’
‘Latin,’ Jane said unexpectedly. She had been looking quietly at the manuscript over Simon’s shoulder. [……]
‘But why Latin?’ demanded Barney
‘I don’t know, the monks just always used it, that’s all, it was one of their things. I suppose it’s a religious-sounding kind of language.’
‘Well, Simon does Latin.’
‘Yes, come on, Simon, translate it,’ Jane said maliciously. At school she had not yet begun Latin, but he had been learning it for two years, and was rather superior about the fact.
‘I don’t think it’s Latin at all,’ Simon said rebelliously. [……]
‘You’re just making excuses.’
‘No, I’m not. It’s jolly difficult.’
‘Well, if you can’t even recognize Latin when you see it you can’t be nearly as good as you make out.’
The second bit I can’t make out at all, but the first paragraph does look as if it might be Latin. The first word looks like cum, that means with, but I can’t see what comes after it. Then later on there’s post multos annos, that’s after many years. But the writing’s all so small and squashy I can’t – wait a minute, there’s some names in the last line. It says Mar – no, Marco Arturoque.’
‘Like Marco Polo,’ Jane said doubtfully. ‘What a funny name.’
‘Not one name, it’s two. Que means and, only they put it on the end instead of in the middle. And o on the end is the ablative of -us, so this means by with or from Marcus and Arturus.’
Other than presenting a rather charming lesson on Latin grammar – which is the section echoed in the later sequence where Will muses that he enjoys the way that Latin has similar grammatical structure to English.8 I think the first segment from the series showcases two key ideas about classics as a discipline.
Firstly, Barney’s query about what language the text on the map could be and why it might be so. He neither recognises a language outside of his own experience as being relevant to England nor understands the historical significance of other languages. This is clearly part of the broader theme across the Sequence about home, connexions and the role of different cultures. It is worth noting at this point however that the first book was originally written as a stand-alone novel and there are some risks with reading too much thematic linkages on the other hand the general concerns of the author are certainly carried through the books.
There is no clear answer to Barney’s questions. Although Latin is identified as one of the languages used on the map – why did the monks use Latin? Although it seems obvious to Jane that Latin is a plausible non-English language to be found on an old document, even though she doesn’t really recognise or understand any of that language and can’t properly recognise it, she has no clear explanation about why it would be on the documents. Jane’s explanation to Barney for the use of Latin on the map is that monks used the language. It is clear that she has no sense of connection to the language as a classical connection. However, the point about the monks turns out to be a plot point about the monks who handed the map down generation to generation but who did not want its significance to fall into the wrong hands – a point which evokes further thoughts for a historian or classicist whose own material is also so dependent on both being passed down as accurately as possible and on its meaning not being lost (even where Greek is translated into Latin, for example).
The second key point from this section is the comment about Simon’s sense of superiority for learning Latin and his remarks about how difficult it is. It is interesting that in the book learning Latin is not presented as unusual (which gives us a clue to the social background of the children) but it is both a tricky undertaking and capable of conferring status. Thus, despite the fact there is no clear link offered by the children/narrator between Britain (or Cornwall) and Latin the language is still powerful. Cooper’s tone, however, implies that Simon’s sense of superiority is artificial – he struggles to interpret the words even as he translates them and Jane is not impressed. It is also worth noting that Cooper comments on the difficulty both of reading the manuscript (a sentiment many researchers can recognise) and of reading the Latin which makes the sequence relate-able for a young audience and plays up the perceived status of Latin as being for an intellectual elite. Although it is possible to suggest that Jane’s ignorance in comparison to Simon represents a gender gap it is more likely intended to be representative of their age differences and to help offer a characterisation of the family dynamic.
I would argue that this section does not show Cooper privileging Classics and Latin per se but rather that there is an emphasis more in the books on the power of education generally. For Cooper, despite the fact that school almost never features in the books, having knowledge is powerful. For example, this is shown in the fact that Will can only properly come into his full power as an Old One once he has acquired the full extent of their collective learning. Here Simon’s education comes in useful. As well as the vital progression of the quest that the map offers in this book and the advantage it gives the children over the powers of Darkness its real importance is demonstrated by Merriman who has the knowledge required not only to read the rest of the Latin but also the mysterious other language.
In fact the role of Merriman generally demonstrates the strength of knowledge and education throughout the books. He is the strongest figure of authority all the way through and almost always knows what needs to be done (even if he can’t actually do it himself) and acts as a role model and guide for all the children. Furthermore and significantly he is represented as a professor (at Oxford); we are told he also lectured at Yale in Greenwitch and as we see in the Welsh section is a professional acquaintance of Sir Mortimer Wheeler. In Merriman we see a representation of the power of both scholarly and magical knowledge and the authority that it offers him. The respect of the characters makes it easy for him to achieve his goals and go where he likes and his profession is depicted as being an obviously compatible one with his magical life especially since he is able to go on lengthy foreign sabbaticals. However, it is worth contrasting him with the professors at the British Museum who are perplexed by the grail when it is donated to them, are unable to decipher the meaning of its inscription and are only able to describe it as of “significance” to scholarship – their profession alone is not sufficient to grant them knowledge.
Clearly there is something complex going on with Cooper’s relationship to traditional education (possibly represented by Classics in this section) and the idea of arcane knowledge contained in myth and story-telling and intuition that suggests she is interested how they balance.
The second section that relates to the Classics is much longer and more complicated. By using the visual trigger of a Victorian print Will is able to shift himself into Roman Britain in order to retrieve an object of power that he and Merlin/Merriman hid there away from his own twentieth-century existence.
The picture shows Roman soldiers building a complex building at Caerleon and when he arrives in the past Will finds himself at the construction of an amphitheatre and appears as the apprentice of Merlin who is greeted politely by the Roman centurion as though he were a Druid. Cooper takes the opportunity to describe the process of the construction complete with sweaty slaves and blocks being rolled on logs and then there follows some musings from Merlin and the supervising Roman on the relative differences between the two cultures- Britain and Rome.
The soldier looked at him reflectively. ‘A strange land,’ he said. ‘Barbarians and magicians, dirt and poetry. A strange land, yours.’
This section offers a discussion of the role of the Roman Empire in Britain and the idea of its possibility as a civilising force but note that Cooper presents the skills of the British as of perhaps equal value albeit different in style. The tone is one of mutual respect but also a clear acknowledgement of the fact that Rome had a long-term effect on Britain and especially on the people. This is a much more nuanced view than is presented in the first book and probably represents a development both of Cooper’s own style and of her expectations of the readers.
Empire is not presented as unproblematic for either side. For example, the centurion is not convinced that the maxim he offers Merlin that “Rome is the Empire and the Empire is Rome” is true and although this amphitheatre in Wales will be the same in shape as ones built in Sparta and Brindisium Britain is not Italy. It is worth noting that Cooper draws attention to the fact that the soldier talking is not from Rome, not from a city, but rather lives in the countryside – a fact which makes him seem less of a representative of an elite. Furthermore the soldier misses his home and family who are still living where he grew-up. He comments on the river and the olives and vines that he misses and this makes it easier for the readers to relate to him and emphasises his actual connection to specific parts of the landscape like the other characters in the books.
It is the same sense of homesickness that helps Will to travel back to the present day and identify the similar feelings in a young American archaeologist working on the excavation of the amphitheatre in the twentieth-century who is missing his girlfriend and the flowers of Florida. It is not clear whether there is any relevance to the fact that he is an American and therefore a far-removed cousin of the British Empire or not. The readers are, however, invited to reflect on the similarities demonstrated by individuals across history but also note how both of the descriptions of home are specifically about the land and the people that they miss. By this stage in her life Cooper had herself moved to America and was in her own right an exile (a fact which surely has a bearing on the idealistic images of Britain in the works) and it seems that she is trying to reinforce the notion of being connected to the Place one grows up. This is further emphasised by the fact that the soldier contrasts himself to those 2nd and 3rd generation “Romans” who were born out in the frontiers of the empire and who are better acclimatised to being in Britain.
This is in some respects quite a nuanced picture of the complexity of the relationship of people to their country in that it considers the impact the land has on them, the impact they have on the physical, social and emotional landscape around them and recognises both similarity of experience and the process of change.
It is worth noting that later in the same book (the youngest Drew) Barney is transported to medieval Wales where he meets Owain GlynDwr who is trying to repel the English. In that section the forces of Dark are compared to invading forces like the Vikings, Saxons etc. In response Barney laments that he is a mix of all those races and must therefore be bad himself but he is told in no uncertain terms that since he has indeed inherited a blend of all of those peoples and more and because he has the benefit of temporal distance from the invasions he is himself blame-free. This is clearly a comment on the realities and perhaps advantages of Britain’s mixed heritage. It also possibly functions as an apologia for empire in general.
In the section in Caerleon, the idea of empire, invasion and conflict is deliberately refocused into this same sense of mingling and shared experience. It chooses to focus on the deliberate linking of the past and present. As well as having the exact same sense of homesickness across the centuries it also draws attention to the same physical objects and even the process of physical labour in the construction and deconstruction of the site. This embedding of historical consciousness in a location allows Cooper to emphasise the ongoing importance of any one place over time, to highlight the mix of real and imagined and remind Will of the goal of his quest.
Although in her foreword to the book Cooper notes by way of apology that she has changed the date of Wheeler’s excavation at Caerleon to fit it into her timeline it is interesting that she has chosen to include this moment of real world next to such fantastical elements.
It is of course notable that the excavation takes place in Wales which is a key location for much of the rest of the Sequence. Furthermore it is also worth noting that the archaeologist in the Silver on the Tree comments that the locals had previously identified the site of the dig as King Arthur’s table – not only is King Arthur an important figure in the story but this is in fact true of the real Caerleon site. Thus Caerleon recognisably has appropriate features for the books and Cooper was perhaps inspired by the strong presence of Wheeler on TV and Radio during this period and therefore his work may have been something that readers (or their parents) recognised.
Whilst Cooper may have felt that enough was known about Roman Britain that she could not slip wholly into the realm of fantasy and it is also true that she need not have used Roman Britain at all within the predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Celtic tone of the books. However, I feel on a gut level that Cooper believed that she could not tell a story of Britain without including the Roman phase. Despite its peripherality to the time periods most important to the themes of the Sequence I believe that it particularly suited her choice to discuss the idea of connection to one’s country (and the problems of that for the exile or the colonialist) and in fact that the sudden injection of a recognisable and real historical site with modern people working in the same space as ancients only serves to emphasise the relevance of history to place and the similarity of ancient and modern experience in order to prepare readers for the future at the end of the book which exists without the possibility of the return of the ancient heroes that is a more real world without the added fantasy but still imbued with stories of many types.
So why classics?
Firstly it is worth noting that the two scenes that have been discussed have markedly different tones, nuances and functions in their respective books and for the Sequence as a whole. However, Cooper actively uses her classical allusions to further her overall narrative themes. She makes these passages part of her overall imagery and allows them to feed into broader narratives of education, identity and landscape. Particularly with regard to the pages on Caerleon, she is able to use the passages to add layers of complexity to her discussion of the relationship between people and place, people and time and place and time. By encouraging her readers to internalise these issues the characters in the books are reconnected to the real world and their quest becomes more meaningful.
Interestingly, the classical especially seems to represent the status quo and the real world – Latin language is discussed as recognisable skill, useful to the powerful and with a connection to modern English. The classical world, in the shape of Roman Britain, is represented as actually accessible to the contemporary child though the practice of archaeology and because the feelings of its people are relevant and comprehensible to the modern world even if the circumstances are not. This makes the Classics perhaps more relevant (if less enticing) than the myths and legends that only the fantastical characters really inhabit.
C. Butler (2006) Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children’s fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper Scarecrow Press: Lanham MD
J.S. Carroll (2011) Landscape in Children’s Literature Routledge: New York, NY/Abingdon
L. D’arcens and C. Jones (2013) “Excavating the Borders of Literary Anglo-Saxonism in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Australia” in Representations Vol. 121, No. 1 pp. 85-106
M.D.C. Drout (2004) “The Problem of Transformation: The use of medieval sources in fantasy literature” Literary Compass 1.1 pp.1-22
M.D.C. Drout (1997) “Reading the Signs of the Light: Anglo Saxonism, Education and Obedience in Susan Cooper’s the Dark is Rising” The Lion and the Unicorn 21.2 pp. 230-250 (project Muse)
P. Goodrich (1998) “Magical Medievalism and the Fairy Tale in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence” The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol.12.2 pp. 165-177
H. Lovatt (2009) “Asterisks and Obelisks: Classical Receptions in Children’s Literature” International Journal of the Classical Tradition Vol.16 Iss. 3-4 pp.508-522 (springer)
L.R. Kuznets (1985) “’High Fantasy’ in America: A Study of Lloyd Alexander, Ursula le Guin, and Susan Cooper” The Lion and the Unicorn Vol. 9 pp.19-35
S. Murnaghan (2011) “Classics for Cool Kids: Popular and Unpopular versions of Antiquity for Children” Classical World 104.3 pp. 339-353 (muse)
R.L. Plante (1986) “Object and Character in The Dark is Rising” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 11.1 pp.37-41 (muse)
M.H. Veeder (1991) “Gender and Empowerment in Susan Cooper’s the Dark is Rising Sequence” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 16.1 pp.11-16 (muse)
1Quotes from official website: http://www.thelostland.com/about/writingforchildren.html
2M. Drout (1997)
4Donna White mentioned in J.S. Carroll (2011) p.10
6R.L. Plante (1986) p.39
8The Silver on the Tree – “He enjoyed following the formal patterning of the Latin…because of the echoes of it in his own native tongue.” Omnibus p.576