When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back,I first read The Dark is Rising (a children's book series written by Susan Cooper, and also the title of one of the books in that series) when I was 12 or 13. I can't remember exactly how old I was. What I can remember is how completely I was enthralled; it was one of those books that I lost myself in, so completely within that world that I forgot who and where I was and simply lived in the book, emerging for a gasp of real-world air and a snack every now and then, or when my parents annoyingly required something mundane of me, like setting the table or going to sleep. The Dark Is Rising series is about a young English boy named Will who finds he has a special destiny related to the myths and legends of ancient Britain, about three other children named Simon, Jane and Barney who help him, and about a mysterious old man named Merriman who guides the plot towards its ultimate end.
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron, water, fire, stone;
Five shall return, and one go alone.
- Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising, 1973
When I was 15 I became a Christian. I described that experience earlier in this blog-- but one thing that happened as I became more involved in the church and more enmeshed in evangelical Christian counter-culture was that I learned to be wary and suspicious of all forms of literature, music and art that were not overtly Christian. I remember pulling my copy of The Dark Is Rising off a bookshelf at my parents' house when I was temporarily home from college, and shuddering at a scene where the forces of evil ("the Dark") attack during a Christmas service at the village Anglican church:
Farmer Dawson said very quietly but clearly from the group beside the door, "No, Rector."
The rector seemed not to hearing him. His eyes were wide, staring out at the snow. . . He managed to half-raise one arm and point behind him: ". . . vestry. . ." he gasped out. ". . . book, on table. . . exorcise. . . "
"Poor brave fellow," said John Smith in the Old Speech. "This battle is not for his fighting."And then the Old Ones, the more-than-human beings whose destiny it is to war for the Light, place the rector in an oblivious trance and then fight off the forces of the Dark and restore peace. The rector and his Christianity are neither friends nor enemies; they are simply irrelevant. Later Will explains to the rector that
"Everything that matters is outside Time. And comes from there and can go there. . the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or today or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level. . . . And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for. And the opposite, too."The college-age me got rid of the entire set of books and decided never to read them again.
But I always remembered the effect this series had had on me when I was younger. The sheer beauty of the settings and descriptions, the honesty and loyalty of the characters, the poetic justice and fulfillment of the exciting conclusion to each segment. Still, good Christians didn't read neo-pagan books, and there seemed little doubt that The Dark Is Rising was neo-pagan.
This year, though, in the spirit of "testing everything and holding fast to what is good" (1 Thess. 5:21), I decided to pick up the books again. I know the context of that 1 Thessalonians passage is about "not despising prophetic utterances" and "staying away from every form of evil," but I think the principle can be applied to many things. I don't actually know, now, whether Susan Cooper is neo-pagan or not; she is reticent about her beliefs on her website and in her interviews. But she does say in The Camelot Project interview that in The Dark is Rising series
I had to move away from [too close a parallel to King Arthur] because it seems to me that the Arthurian legend is parallel to the Christian story of the leader who dies for our salvation. Whereas what my books were trying to say is that nobody else can save us. We have to save ourselves.Still, is there really nothing such an author can say to me, nothing in her books worth reading? Especially if the author is a critically acclaimed, award-winning writer, for obvious reasons?
I can no longer accept such a simplistic view of reality.
The thing is that, both now and when I was a child, I could recognize that these books are not a "form of evil" to be avoided per 1 Thess. 5:21. There is the homely goodness of a scene like this:
On Christmas night, Will always slept with [his brother] James. The twin beds were still in James's room from the time before Will had moved [upstairs]. . . There was something about Christmas Eve, they felt, that demanded company; one needed somebody to whisper to, during the warm beautiful dream-taut moments between hanging the empty stocking at the end of the bed, and dropping into the cosy oblivion that would flower into the marvel of Christmas morning.Or the ethereal grace of this:
The mare wheeled towards him, snuffling a greeting, and in the same enchanted, music-haunted moment as before, Will was up on the white horse of the Light, sitting in front of Merriman. The ship tilted and swung, fully afloat now, and the white horse wheeled out of its way to stand nearby. . . So the mysterious king lay in dignity still, among his weapons and gleaming tribute, and Will had a glimpse of the mask-like white face as the great ship moved away downstream. . . watching the light glimmer on the golden stag of the prow.And there is the uncompromising commitment to preserving the dignity and freedom of the ordinary individual in the face of dark forces that seek to control and enslave-- a theme arising out of Cooper's childhood in beleaguered England in the midst of the Second World War. There is a quiet celebration of the love of family and the friendship of dogs, of the small English village and the rocky Cornish coastlands. And finally, there is the humor mixed into the magic like salt into soup:
"Too much punch," said James, as his tall brother stretched gaping [yawning] in an armchair.It turns out that my Christianity is not as fragile as the church once led me to believe. I'm not going to leave the faith because I read a book by an author who doesn't share it. And my disagreement with some of her premises need not negate my enjoyment of, and even edification from, the joys of life and love and the beauties of courage and hope which she depicts so well.
"Get lost," said Robin amiably.
"Who'd like a mince pie?" said Mrs. Stanton, coming in with a vast tray of cocoa mugs.
"James has had six already," said Mary in prim disapproval. "At the Manor."
"Now it's eight," said James, with a mince pie in each hand. "Yah.". . .
"Ho-ho-ho," said Will sepulchrally from the floor. "Good little children never fight at Christmas." And since Mary was irresistably close to him, he grabbed her by the ankle. She collapsed on top of him, howling cheerfully.
"Mind the fire," said Mrs. Stanton, from years of habit.
The Protestant doctrine of common grace says that God's mercies are over all the world and that God's gifts and talents are spread generously among all people. There is nothing to fear from a manifestation of that grace in any person, whether they agree with my theology or not. The world is wider-- and God is bigger!-- than the narrow conceptions I had in the youth of my faith.
So I'm happy to once again call myself a fan of Susan Cooper and The Dark is Rising. To have come full circle back to the pleasure I had as a child in a really good story.
And to find the footprints of Christ there, as I may find them anywhere.
I really don't think Ms. Cooper would mind.