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Reading The Dark Is Rising is a holiday tradition for me. This is when the book takes place. It begins on Midwinter’s Eve. For us, the winter solstice is considered the official beginning of winter, but in the pagan tradition, it’s Midwinter. So, the book begins on the night before the solstice, and ends on Twelfth Night (January 6).
The Dark is Rising is a fantasy-type story, like the Narnia books, Harry Potter books, and the currently controversial Golden Compass. It is a Newbery Honor Book, and one of its sequels, The Grey King, won the 1976 Newbery Award.
Like The Golden Compass, and unlike Narnia, The Dark is Rising is not intended to be a Christian book. It focuses on a conflict between Light and Dark, or good and evil. It recognizes these two sides, plus a High Magic that is above both. God is not in the picture. The book doesn’t criticize the organized church, like The Golden Compass does, but the author doesn’t seem to think the church is particularly important, either.
Some Christians have a problem with the Cooper books (there are five of them in The Dark is Rising series) because they think they promote paganism and magic. I think they are stories. Good ones. I don’t think they’re intended to promote anything.
Like Philip Pullman, Cooper based her stories on older texts — the Welsh Mabinogion and other sources of Arthurian material. Pullman drew on Milton’s Paradise Lost in his stories.
The Dark Is Rising focuses on the story of Will, an ordinary boy who finds out on his eleventh birthday (Midwinter’s Day) that he’s actually one of the Old Ones, those who fight for the Light, and who have special powers they can use in that fight. His task, in this book, is to find six signs, made long ago for the Light, which must be joined together to help in the fight against the Dark.
Yes, the Old Ones can do things that we might term “magic.” And yes, there is pagan imagery, of Celtic origin — most obviously in the case of Herne the Hunter, who has an appearance like the “horned god” in Celtic traditions:
“The head from which the branching antlers sprang was shaped like the head of a stag, but the ears beside the horns were those of a dog or a wolf. And the face beneath the horns was a human face — but with the round feather-edged eyes of a bird.”
Cooper herself says that she turned away from Christianity at age sixteen, but does not criticize Christianity as openly or flamboyantly as Pullman has been known to. She does say, in an interview for Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children, that she tried to stay away from “the Christian story of the leader who dies for salvation.” Instead of returning to save the world, her King Arthur (who does eventually appear) helps win the final battle of the series, but then sails away, and “saving the world is up to the people in it.” Those who live on the earth have the responsibility to choose good or evil for themselves.
This is actually pretty close to my own theology as a Christian. Yes, Jesus came to “save” us. He shows us that God’s love is infinitely strong and never-ending — even dying to make that point. He also told us, and showed us, how to live a life in the Kingdom of God — a Kingdom where we love one another, and take care of one another, with mercy and justice. He told us that we have the Kingdom of God within us, and it is our responsibility to help create that Kingdom, here on earth — not just to wait for Jesus to come back to take all the believers to heaven.
I like The Dark Is Rising, and its companion books, better than The Golden Compass (part of the His Dark Materials trilogy), but that’s just because I think it’s a better story, not because of any theology (or lack thereof).
If you read The Dark Is Rising series, be sure to begin with Over Sea, Under Stone. That is actually the first book in the series. It introduces a different set of children, and does not include Will, but eventually the whole thing comes together.
I also enjoyed Susan Cooper’s book Seaward. It doesn’t take place in the world of The Dark Is Rising, but is an enjoyable fantasy.
As for the movie version of The Dark Is Rising — yes, it was released this year, although you might not have noticed it. At first, it was promoted as The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, but by its release date it was simply titled The Seeker, and apparently it is quite different from the book. I haven’t seen it, and don’t plan to, but word is that Arthurian and pre-Christian references were stripped out, and Cooper doesn’t sound happy about it.
I will, however, be continuing to read the book in snatches during these hectic, pre-Christmas days.