Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper



Another excellent book, though markedly different from the first entry in the series.

I was surprised to discover that, rather than continuing the adventures of the Drew children, Cooper presents the reader with an entirely new batch of characters. The only familiar face in the book is that of Merriman Lyon--and a most welcome familiar face, at that.

This time, too, the child at the center of the story is not an "everyman" sort of character. Will is worlds removed from the normality of the Drews. He is not swept along on the tide of circumstances, guided by forces he cannot understand, but is himself a director of circumstances, a powerful force with which to be reckoned. This power sets Will apart from his family, and, as a result, the book lacks the familial relations and camaraderie that characterized the Drews' adventures. Though Cooper makes it clear that Will loves his family and in some ways misses being more completely a part of that family, the bulk of his story revolves around him alone, or occasionally him and another like himself. In that sense, this second book is perhaps representative of adolescence itself, as children move from identifying themselves as part of a larger unit (like the Drews) to seeing themselves as individuals independent of their families and engaging in their own struggles.

Fantasy literature often presents a temptation to draw conclusions about the author's theology, and this book is no different. While the first book relied heavily on the concept of fate and preordained events--the children trusted that they would be guided to the right course of action, even though they were not certain by whom--this book seems to push the idea of free will and personal choice.

The story of Hawkin is the clearest example. Hawkin is repeatedly assured that he can choose to align himself with right, and just as repeatedly refuses. (His initial betrayal has undertones of Eden--a man challenging his master's decisions with regard to his fate and believing he knows best.) Yet for all these assurances of free will, it does not really seem as if, given the state of his heart, he could choose anything other than what he chose. In other words, he is a classic example of the Edwardsian idea of free choice dictated by a bound will. He chooses freely whatever he wills, but his will is corrupt, and so he cannot will anything but evil.

While the final partial redemption of his character and his dying submission to and recognition of his master appear to imply that an evil man can indeed choose good of his own accord, but earlier encounters with Hawkin seem more consistent with Edwards (at least, once the initial betrayal takes place--it is implied that Hawkin's will really was free prior to his betrayal of Merriman).

There are, too, hints that Hawkin's fall from grace may be Merriman's fault. Merriman--the master--expected too much of him, put more trust in him than his humanity could bear. Whether this is an indication that Cooper believes (as do many others) that it is unreasonable for God to expect man not to sin--that God had to know man wouldn't be able to resist temptation, and thus that it is somehow God's fault that man chose sin in Eden and continues to choose sin today--is unclear.

Will Stanton presents an interesting counterpoint to Hawkin. There is no indication that Will chooses anything. He simply is. He has a different nature, and as far as the story goes, is never tempted to evil at all. He may be tricked by the dark, by its manipulation of otherwise noble emotions. But he faces no real choice between good and evil. He is, by his very nature, different from Hawkin (indeed, he is of the same substance as Merriman, the master, and thus may be more analogous to the Christ figure, albeit without a temptation encounter or self-sacrifice), so it is difficult to compare their choices.

One final point: It is always interesting to see how a fantasy author handles the intersection between the magic of their world and the religion of ours. When the forces of dark attack a church, the rector is presented as misguidedly believing he is to engage with the forces of evil. The "Old Ones" explain to Will that this is not the case--this battle between good and evil is independent of the church, and possibly predates the church (they note that the "signs," though containing a cross, predate the crucifixion, though, as the rector points out, they do not predate God). There is some indication that Cooper views her world of magic as being on the same plane as Christianity--that the good and evil in her story exist, like God, out of time. This is a tricky way to present magic, though it is a clever attempt to sidestep the issue of religion. I tend to prefer mythologies that make their magic subservient to religion--churches that can offer sanctuary against fantastic creatures (the bulk of vampire lit), "gods" and mythical creatures who are more than men but less than gods (The Chronicles of Narnia), or magic that functions like a supernatural sort of science (the Harry Potter series). These approaches can make it easier to help young readers distinguish between reality and fiction, without blurring the line between magic and faith. Where the two are presented on the same plane, as here, or intermingled (in Madelaine L'Engle's classic series), parents may need to be more careful in helping children process the story.

Theological implications aside, the story is quite enjoyable and well-told. There is something in humanity that responds to the quest for objects of power. Cooper tells a compelling tale that will please (and has pleased) fantasy fans both young and old.

(As with Over Sea, Under Stone, the audiobook is worth a listen.)

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