Quests, battles, reunions and partings… #TDiRS22 #SilverontheTree


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! 😀

Darkness over the Welsh mountains… #TDiRS22 #TheGreyKing


November’s book in the readalong of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence is the fourth in the series, and the title is “The Grey King”. I approached this particular title with interest; and it does seem to me that as I move on through the sequence, I’m actually remembering less and less about the books! “Grey…” is set in Wales, which is pretty much all I could recall as I started the book, though as I read on I began to remember more about the story…

“Grey…” is very much Will Stanton’s adventure; although he was the focus of the second book, “The Dark is Rising“, and a part of book three, “Greenwitch“, here we find him on a solo quest of his own, and at the start of the story he’s very vulnerable. Recovering from a serious illness (which we later find out is hepatitis), he’s weak and convalescent; but most crucially, he’s forgotten his quest and the rhyme which sets out how the Light must fight the Dark. Sent off to Wales to stay with family, there is no sign of his usual ally, Merriman Lyon, and Will cannot recall the power he has or what he can do.

Will is billeted in the hills of North Wales, around Tywyn, staying with the Evans family in their farmhouse, and of course farming is crucial to the people of this area. He soon encounters a strange albino boy, Bran Davies, who lives with his father and roams the local hills in the company of his beloved dog, Cafall. Before long, Will has been prompted to recall everything – his quest, who he is and why he has been sent to Wales. However, he is up against a deadly foe in the form of the titular Grey King, one of the oldest Lords of the Dark, although he has limitations; he cannot break the laws of High Magic, and may be restricted to his stronghold on Cader Idris. The Dark Lord is aided by the Milgwn, huge grey foxes who are threatening enough in their own right but who can also bring sorrow to the forces of the Light. And another opposing force is the twisted local man, Caradog Prichard, who spews bile and evil at every turn.

Will is not without allies, though; the Evans family and local man John Rowlands are on his side; and Bran, despite his strangeness and potential hostility, provides support. But the road Will takes to complete his quest is not an easy one, and it will involve loss, madness and all the bravery he and Bran can muster.

Needless to say, this was just as powerful a read as the other books in the sequence which I’ve revisited so far; and in fact it’s one of those works which transports you. The books, as we know, draw on the Arthurian legends and here the connection and influence is particularly strong; but in addition there is the source of Welsh folklore and the location itself, and this added an extra element for me. You see, when I first read these books, I think I’d only visited Wales once or twice and very briefly; but since that time, I’ve spent regular holidays in North Wales, and so the landscape, the language and the whole feel of the area was so much more familiar to me on reading “The Grey King”. In fact, I had to laugh ruefully at one section when Bran tries to teach Will the proper pronunciation of some Welsh names, as I’ve had that experience myself.

Once again Cooper creates a wonderful book which not only is an absorbing, exciting and often very moving book, but also manages to incorporate some very adult themes. Bran’s parentage is complex, with his mother who appeared, left him with Owen Davies, and then vanished, the subject of unwanted attention from Prichard. Prichard himself is portrayed descending into madness, demonstrating that negative human emotions can let the dark in to anyone’s mind. And Will has some very mature discussions with Rowlands regarding the battle between Light and Dark, and how the effect on humans is not necessarily of any concern to those involved in that fight. It’s frankly not the kind of material you’d expect to find in something billed as a children’s book, and it’s all the more powerful for it!

Really, there are so many layers to the book that I could talk about it forever! The character of Bran is a particularly memorable one, with his complex backstory, his loyalty to his father and his dog, and his friendship with Will. That relationship is not always easy for either, but it’s wonderful to see that his loneliness may be assuaged towards the end of the book. And those more compex issues are powerfully presented: from the effects on humanity of the actions of the light through Caradog’s madness, Owen Davies’ powerful passion, Bran’s solitary life and the effect on the farming humans plus the destruction caused by the Grey King and his servants, these are difficult topics and all add to the richness of the narrative.

The more I read my way through this sequence, the more I become convinced of the stellar literary talents of Susan Cooper. Her language and description is as ever stunning, conjuring the landscapes whether real or imagined, and her characters struggle with real human emotions and issues. As always with these books, there is real peril and moments of tension where you fear that the Light will lose, despite your knowledge that they must prevail. And there are moments of sadness and poignancy, as well as startling revelations at times when you suddenly realise important things about Bran’s parentage, or the reason his dog is named as it is.

Revisiting “The Grey King” was an absorbing and compelling experience, and I had to resist the temptation to continue reading the sequence; part of me wanted to rush on to the final book, but another part of me doesn’t want to finish this wonderful readalong. Re-reading “The Dark is Rising” series is turning out to be a highlight of my reading year, and I will be sad to see it coming to an end!


As I side-note, I couldn’t help notice that this book is dedicated to J.B. and Jacquetta – i.e. Priestley and Hawkes! I didn’t know that Cooper was friendly with this illustrious pair, and it does remind me I should get on with reading the books of theirs I have lurking on Mount TBR…

“..an old spring rite…” #TDiRS22 #Greenwitch


October’s book in the “Dark is Rising” sequence sees the series reaching its midpoint, with a slim but powerful read which focuses on the feminine. Susan Cooper had, by this time, an established plan for the five books of the series, and book three was “Greenwitch”. Set once again in Trewissick, the story brings the Drews back to Cornwall for a short visit, after the Grail they found has been stolen from the British Museum. However, this time Great Uncle Merry has contrived to bring along Will Stanton, his fellow Old One who was the focus of the second book “The Dark is Rising”. Can this group work together to fight another attack from the Dark?

Not quite sure who the old lady on the cover is mean to represent… 🤔🤔

“Greenwitch” looks to be the shortest of the books, but it doesn’t lack in impact. The focus is squarely on Jane Drew, as this is the time of year of the building of the Greenwitch; an ancient custom carried out by the women of Trewissick to bring good luck for the fishing and harvesting. Jane, as the closest female to Merry, is allowed to attend the ceremony where the Greenwitch is constructed from leaves and branches, then cast into the sea. She’s allowed a wish, and it’s one which may have unexpected consequences…

Fighting against the forces of good this time is a man of the Dark who appears as an artist, producing brilliant, violent and threatening paintings. He’s a malevolent presence throughout the book, threatening the Greenwitch, the children and the Light. Yet it is Jane and her link with the Greenwitch itself who will prove crucial to the battle.

So this the book where Cooper weaves together the strands established in the first two works, bringing together the Drews and Will Stanton (which was, of course, necessary for the progression of the sequence); and once the initial (and inevitable) resentment of the Drews is overcome, the two sides work together to fight the Dark. Interestingly, we now see, too, the differences between those involved; there is a line drawn between the Drews and the Old Ones, with the former only knowing as much as they need to help in the battle. You suspect that this is as much for their own protection as anything else…

As well as the characters we know, Captain Toms (owner of the Grey House from the first book) makes his entrance, with Rufus the dog reappearing. I thought I remembered little of the book, but as I read much came back to me – the construction of the Greenwitch, the artist from the Dark with his wild paintings and of course the landscape around Trewissick. And once again, this is a book with many, many layers.

Interestingly, I felt that art was actually at the heart of the story; whether the skill of the women in creating their totem, or that of those involved in the more traditional arts, there was a strong contrast between the art of Light and Dark; with, perhaps, the folk art of the women standing apart from that of the male characters. Barney is developing strong skills as an artist; he can appreciate the expertise of the Dark’s artist while hating what it produces and stands for. However, while those two male artists are opposed, the women just get on with what they’ve always done.

Once again, this is a marvellous piece of storytelling, brilliantly capturing a looming sense of danger; Cooper’s skill at superimposing the supernatural world over the everyday one, and allowing them to co-exist, blurring the lines between the real and the magic, is unsurpassed. There are sequences which occur out of normal time which are stunningly written and hypnotic. The sense of traditions, the oldness of the land and things outside the realms of Light and Dark, is quite fascinating, and again Cooper creates a world in which old legends are still alive, paganism is a vital force and both still have relevance today.

Under the sunset sky the sea was glass-smooth. Long slow rollers from the Atlantic, rippling like muscles beneath the skin, made the only sign of the great invisible strength of the ocean in all the tranquil evening. Quietly the fishing-boats moved out, a broad fishtail wake spreading behind each one; the engines chugged softly through the still air. Jane stood at the end of Kemare Head, on the crest of a granite outfall that tumbled its rocks two hundred feet to the sea, and she watched them go. Toy boats, they seemed from there: the scatter of a fishing fleet that every week, every month, every year for endless years had been going out after the pilchard or the mackerel before dusk, and staying at the chase until dawn. Every year there were fewer of them, but still every year they went.

Running through the book, too, is the importance of empathy and compassion – traditionally considered feminine values but I think essential in all human beings. It is Jane’s compassion which brings about the result of the quest and without that I don’t think the Light would have done so well…

I don’t know quite what I was expecting when I started “Greenwitch” but it was actually a much more powerful read than I anticipated; perhaps, after “The Dark is Rising”, I thought that all the other books might be less impactful. But this is an immersive, engrossing read, beautifully written and with so many interesting threads; another triumph from Susan Cooper, and I frankly can’t wait to see where things go next!!

“…all times coexist…” #TDiRS22


Last month, Annabel kicked off her monthly readalong of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” sequence of five books, and I found my re-encounter with the first volume “Over Sea, Under Stone” to be such a joy: wonderful writing, very vividly drawn locations and a real sense of danger. This month’s book is the second in the sequence, “The Dark is Rising” (from which the series takes its title) and in it the excitement, tension and sheer menace take a step up!

The story opens on Midwinter’s Eve; it is nearly the eleventh birthday of Will Stanton, who lives with his parents and large family in a rambling house in the south of England. Will seems an ordinary boy, wishing for snow on his birthday and looking forward to opening his presents in the morning. However, what happens to him over the course of this story is anything but ordinary, and it’s not long before we’re having hints that there is much more to Will than meets the eye. The two family dogs, and indeed other animals, are wary of him; the radio lets out alarming screeches when he goes near; and he and one of his brothers witness a shocking attack on a tramp by a group of rooks. Onto the scene comes Merriman Lyon, that pivotal figure from the first book in the series, and it is revealed that Will is not only the seventh son of a seventh son (a fact he was unaware of up until that moment, as he didn’t know he had a brother who died in infancy); he’s also an Old One, beings who must protect the world from the powers of evil.

That’s a lot to grasp for an 11-year-old boy, but he’ll soon have to step up to the mark and fight the forces of Dark which are massing for an attack on Will and his fellow Old Ones, representing the Light in the world. Over Christmas, and on to Twelfth Night, the battle will range over different times and places, drawing in myths and legends, old friends and new enemies, and the moumental figure of Merriman will be a constant throughout. Will is the ‘Sign Seeker’; his quest is to bring together six signs of power which will help defeat the Dark, but it’s a race against time to see if he can find them all. Can Will and his fellows defeat the Darkness? Or is it too strong for them this time?

The rhythms of his voice, which had been rising and falling in an increasingly formal pattern, changed subtly into a kind of chanted battle cry; a call, Will thought suddenly, with a chill tightening his skin, to things beyond the great hall and beyond the time of the calling. “For the Dark, the Dark is rising. The Walker is abroad, the Rider is riding; they have woken, the Dark is rising. And the last of the Circle is come to claim his own, and the circles must now all be joined. The white horse must go to the Hunter, and the river take the valley; there must be fire on the mountain, fire under the stone, fire over the sea. Fire to burn away the Dark, for the Dark, the Dark is rising!”

“The Dark is Rising” is a stunning piece of writing, it has to be said; although ostensibly written for children, it packs a strong narrative punch and is gripping from start to finish. I commented in my post on “Over Sea…” how well Cooper conveys a real sense of danger and menace, and that’s well to the fore here. I read the opening chapter of the book at night in bed and totally spooked myself; and there were many moments like that throughout the narrative where the force of the Dark was almost tangible. Cooper’s inventiveness has to be praised, too – drawing on folklore, particularly that of the Thames Valley and Herne the Hunter, she builds a believable world in peril which is of course recognisably ours, yet populated with Old Ones who have been protecting it during the centuries. Good and bad in our world do seem to be like yin and yang, needing to be balanced and so often out of alignment…

There are so many elements of this book I could comment on; the brilliance of her storytelling is remarkable, for example the slipping in and out of different times, and at points in the book the Old Ones seem to inhabit two times at once which is cleverly done. Additionally, the balancing of Will’s ‘real’ life alongside those times when he’s fighting the Dark is done so well, as Cooper never lets us forget this is an 11-year-old boy who’s suddenly found he has great power but has to weigh that against the fact he needs to live his ordinary life. He develops as the book goes on, yet never loses sight of his everyday existence.

The wind rose. It whipped screeching at the window. There was a tremendous thump of a knock at the door. Across the room, the Walker jumped up, his face twisted again, tight with waiting. Paul played, unhearing. The crashing knock came again. None of them could hear, Will realised suddenly; though the wind was near to deafening him, it was not for their ears, nor would they know what was happening now. The crash came a third time, and he knew that he was bound to answer. He walked alone through unheeding people to the door, took hold of the big iron circle that was the handle, muttered some words under his breath in the Old Speech, and flung open the door.

Merriman, of course, is a joy all the way through; a solid and reliable Old One, ready to support Will but also willing to leave Will to find his own way when he must, he is also fallible and has his own griefs to bear. And the other characters are vivid and alive, from Will’s family through the local people who turn out to be allies to Hawkin, Merriman’s foster-son. The forces of Dark are well-drawn, and at points we’re reminded that Will is regarded by his family as just a child and it’s hard for him to convey the peril to adults without giving too much away, a situation which came up in “Over Sea…” too.

The book does, of course, draw on many mythologies, whether Arthurian, Celtic or from further afield; however, I can’t help feeling that Cooper created her own modern mythology by so cleverly blending all of these elements. It’s quite some time since I read the books, and most of my memories centre around the cold and the threat from snow and nature. However, I was interested to pick up this time round that Cooper is not altogether parochial with her mythology, as there are Old Ones all around the world who not only appear in group gatherings, but also have an important part to play in the climax of the story (which is really very exciting and had me glued to the book). I have to say, though, that I had forgotten the part Hawkin plays in the narrative and found this to be particularly moving.

Well, I could go on and on, but you get the picture – this really is a quite magical book and deserves all the praise it gets. One of the things I’ve loved about the books so far is how they give you a sense of the oldness of the country, its history and its legends, and make you look at the old paths, ways and names in a new light – no wonder Robert Macfarlane loves the series! There are no doubt all manner of references to myth and legend built in which I’ve missed but which other more erudite commentators than I will explore; but you don’t need to know all of those to enjoy “The Dark is Rising”. All you need to do is give yourself up to the story and be transported to other places and times, following Will on his quest for the signs – it’s a journey you won’t forget!


It’s worth mentioning that when Cooper wrote her Grail story, “Over Sea, Under Stone”, she hadn’t conceived of a follow-up or the series as a whole. However, the end of “Dark…” states quite firmly that this second book gives the sequence its name and that there will be five of them. Thank goodness she decided to carry on with this series!

And as an aside, my poor fragile Puffin paperback struggled to cope with being re-read; it is, alas, over 40 years old and the paper and binding have become very brittle. It made it, and as it’s the longest of the books, I hope the others will survive too as I do want to re-read my original copies!

In search of an Arthurian relic… #TDiRS22


Recent months have seen me enjoying a number of wonderful re-reads, returning to pivotal books in my life which I haven’t been back to for ages! This was kick-started by the Narniathon, and having revisited all of C.S. Lewis’s wonderful stories, I also re-read The Lord of the Rings and the second book in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast sequence. So I guess it was kind of inevitable that when Annabel announced she was hosting a readalong of Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series of books that I would want to join in. As I mentioned before, I’ve intended to go back to these a number of times in the recent past, as there are regular readalongs hosted on Twitter; however, this time it’s for real, and as the books are spaced out one a month I shan’t get overwhelmed and pressurised and will enjoy the event!

Unlike the other books I mentioned above, I first read the Cooper books in my early twenties; I was very into exploring the Arthurian legends at the time, and so they were a natural fit as they draw on that mythology. But I haven’t been back to them in a very long time, so I did wonder how I would find them! The first book in the series is “Over Sea, Under Stone” and it introduces us to the Drew family: the children Simon, Jane and Barney, plus their mother Ellen and father Dick. The family is visiting Trewissick in Cornwall to stay with Great Uncle Merry at The Grey House. Merry is not an actual relation, more of a long-term family friend, but he and the dog Rufus will join the children in their adventures.

The West Country is, of course, always connected with Logres, the ancient realm of King Arthur, and young Barney is steeped in the stories and legends of that time. However, the children are initially attracted by more prosaic matters, in the form of a shining yacht in the harbour, owned by the smooth Mr Withers and his sister. However, when exploring the secret rooms and attics of the Grey House, Barney stumbles across an ancient document with some kind of map or diagram on it. The children instantly think of treasure, and try to make sense of their find.

…You have heard me talk of Logres. It was the old name for this country, thousands of years ago; in the old days when the struggle between good and evil was more bitter and open than it is now. That struggle goes on all around us all the time, like two armies fighting. And sometimes one of them seems to be winning and sometimes the other, but neither has ever triumphed altogether. Nor ever will … for there is something of each in every man.

However, it soon becomes clear that other forces are after the map, and events take a dramatic turn. There are burglary attempts on the house; the Drews are invited on a trip aboard the yacht; Jane has an uncomfortable encounter with a local vicar; and Great-Uncle Merry turns out to have more power than the children might have expected. There are explorations in the dark around strange standing stones; and the children don’t know who they can trust: from the vicar to the Withers pair to the housekeeper Mrs. Palk, everyone seems to be acting suspiciously. What is actually at stake here, and can the children find it before the forces of evil??

Well – what struck me on this revisit (as with Lewis, actually) is how well children’s books were written during the mid-20th century!! “Over Sea…” is gripping from start to finish, with a wonderfully exciting and imaginative plot, atmospheric descriptions and settings, and a real sense of menace from the baddies. Cooper is brilliant at ramping up the tension as the story reaches its climax, and even though I knew the plot and that good would prevail, I found myself on tenterhooks, mentally shouting warnings to the Drews! There’s a really exciting set-piece involving cave exploration which made my claustrophobia kick in, and a lovely linguistic twist at the end. As for the children, well they’re real, believable children with flaws and tempers, and the narrative very cleverly lets them operate in acceptable paramenters: there are times when the adults *won’t* let them go out, their worries can be dismissed because they’re youngsters, and they have to be creative to get the chance to investigate and find the truth.

Looking back, I can see why I loved this series of books; they weave an exciting children’s story into a mythological setting with ups and downs and tension and triumphs and it all works wonderfully well. You get a real sense of the oldness of the landscape, of the fact that things could be lost in the distant past and still be there to be found if you know where to look, and it’s all presented in a beautiful seaside setting. As an opener to a series that I recall will become darker, it’s a real winner, and I’m so glad Annabel’s set up this reading event because this was the perfect time to revisit the books. A marvellous start to #TDiRS22, and the only problem I had was that I was desperate to pick up the second book and carry on reading – but I *will* pace myself!!

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