December is perhaps not the ideal month to read “Silver on the Tree”, the final book in Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence; the second book in the series is rooted in the winter and its weather and festivals, whereas this one is firmly in summer. However, the readalong was structured in a way that we reached the end as the year ends, and I spent a happy weekend being transported by the climax of the story. Whether I can get down on paper my feeling and thoughts about it is another matter, but I will do my best.

The previous four books in the sequence have ranged over a number of settings and involved differing groups of characters. “Silver..” is the place where Cooper gathers all these threads together for a final showdown between Dark and Light. It’s the longest of the books, split into sections, and opens with Will Stanton and his brothers in the middle of summer in the home counties. But their idyllic time is disturbed by the appearance of a couple of alarming stoats; Will’s ability to slip between times and places is well to the fore as he searches for magic items lost for centures; and his seafaring brother, who it seems has encountered a number of Old Ones with messages for Will on his travels, is asking more questions than Will is comfortable with. As well as the stoats, evil is represented strongly by an unpleasant act of racism which the Stanton boys not only witness but also intervene to stop. It’s a jarring note and a reminder that all is not well in 1970s Britain.

The second section of the book sees Will back in Wales, reconnecting with Bran and also the Drew children. There are inevitable tensions at first, as the group feel threatened by the Dark all around, and learn to trust each other. As in “Greenwitch”, it is Jane who will come to the fore to connect with a powerful character from earlier in the series to find out the next step. Old legends, old rhymes, are vital all the way through this quest.

In the third part of the story, the focus is on Will and Bran as they make their way through time to the Lost Land, in search of the Crystal Sword that will prove crucial to their final confrontation with the Dark. Guided by the minstrel Gwion (aka Taliesin) they make their way through mazes, past the Black and White Riders, battle the terrifying Mari Llwyd and finally confront a king in exile.

Finally, the last section of the book is race against time to search for the titular Silver on the Tree, and sees the reappearance of the massed Old Ones, Herne the Hunter and the frightening forces of the Dark. The Wild Magic, which stands apart from Light and Dark, is invoked, and one character will have to make a most heartbreaking decision. The battle is a dramatic one, and leaves you rather breathless; but once the fighting is over, there are still decisions to be made…

That’s just a brief summary of what is a complex and multi-layered book, and I read this over two days in huge gulps, absolutely absorbed in it. As always, Cooper is the consummate storyteller, in control of her material and relating the most marvellous, spellbinding and often terrifying story. As a book supposedly for children, it’s a head and shoulders above much adult writing.

…a thing may be for ever, a life or a love or a quest, and yet begin again, and be for ever just as before. And any ending that may seem to come is not truly and ending, but an illusion. For Time does not die, Time has neither beginning nor end, and so nothing can end or die that has once had a place in Time.

As with the previous story, the forces of Dark are truly wicked and very threatening; but there are subtleties involved, as Cooper shows how the smallest chinks in a person’s armour, just a tiny weakness or a crack in someone’s personality, can allow darkness in and let evil take over. Whether it’s the racist neighbours or a character who we’ve known throughout the stories, no-one is immune and everyone must be on their guard.

Interestingly, in this book Merriman, though present, takes something of a back seat, and Will is in many ways the guiding force all the way through; although he and Bran are colleagues in the quest for the sword, for example, it could be argued that he takes the role of mentor, much as Merriman did with him. It’s worth remembering that Bran is not an Old One, just a very special boy with some rather spectactular heritage; and although Old Ones are guiding the actions, humans are essential to it.

There are several episodes of timeslip in the story which are rendered beautifully; one involves John Rowlands and Aberdyfi in the past, which is one of the few occasions Merriman appears; and another takes Barney back in time to encounter a great leader. Cooper is brilliant at not only handling these transitions but also in drawing vivid pictures of the past which will stay with you.

As I’ve mentioned previously, it’s decades since I read these books, and although much had faded from my mind, I *did* recall a couple of vital plot points, and ones which are sometimes criticised by readers. I won’t reveal what they are, but frankly they didn’t bother me at all. In particular, one element of the ending seems completely the right one for me, emphasising the humanity of the stories and the importance of the human race going forward.

I’ve seen it said that the books can be read as an anti-religion tract, particularly the final one, and would accept that’s possible. However, I read this more as a warning. Cooper’s message to the future is that the old customs and the old magic are no longer there to help in modern times, and that it’s up to humans to mend their ways and look after their world. It’s a warning which in many ways still stands today as we continue to destroy our planet with war and hatred and disregard for nature.

But that aside, “Silver on the Tree” is a fitting culmination of what is a marvellous series of books which draw on so much history and mythology, and create an incredible adventure through time and space. Cooper’s imagination and writing are superb; the extended sequence in the Lost Land is particularly stunning, and I can’t imagine why I had forgotten so much of it. She creates a credible fantasy setting, vividly portrays it and draws you in so you feel as if you’ve experienced events yourself. The weaving together of Welsh legend, British folklore, Pagan myths and actual history is epic, and there are probably many layers and references I’ve missed – I think the series would require several readings to pick up them all! And this is no cardboard cut-out, surface level battle between good and evil; there are subtleties, real peril, moral decisions to be made and believable dilemmas. The books deserve and repay a sensitive reading to pick out the nuances and decode her meanings, and the rewards are wonderful.

Well, I could go on and on about how good the books are, but I’ll stop here. Suffice to say, I can’t thank Annabel enough for setting up her #TDiR readalong. It’s been a wonderful and emotional experience, and I finished the book feeling quite drained! I’m not sure what I’ll read next – I have a big book hangover! – but it will have to go some to compete with these books! ๐Ÿ˜€