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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.
by Kathleen McDade
I recently read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman. The soon-to-be-released movie The Golden Compass is based on the first book of this trilogy. I enjoyed the books, although I found the end of the trilogy somewhat unsatisfying.
The movie looks promising as well. I’m sure it differs from the book at least some of the time (what movie doesn’t?), but the mood and the characters in the preview look fairly accurate (and exciting).
However, some religious groups are not happy about this movie. It’s anti-religious, they say. Or it’s actually anti-God. Or, too many of the religious/anti-religious statements have been removed for the movie. Is there really a problem?
It seems to depend on your point of view. When I read the trilogy, I did notice that it was very much anti-organized religion, and perhaps specifically anti-organized Christianity. The church is portrayed as an enemy, as more interested in keeping its own bureaucracy alive than anything else. I think that’s a valid criticism; in fact, there’s a growing trend away from organized Christianity even among Christians right now.
The books never say, however, that there is no God. The story does tell that the God (called the Authority) that the church worships is not the one who created the world. He is basically an angel who took over from the Creator and decided to rule the world. Part of the storyline has the children trying to defeat and/or kill this Authority.
Author Philip Pullman does identify himself as an atheist, and he has said that the book is about killing God (Sydney Morning Herald, 12/12/2003, http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/12/12/1071125644900.html). For an atheist, however, he includes a great deal of spiritual content in these books. Even as he criticizes the church, and the version of God that it has created, he also recognizes that there is a spiritual dimension to human beings. For instance, in main character Lyra’s world, each person has a daemon, sort of an animal spirit that goes everywhere with the person and is an integral part of the person. When a human dies, the daemon dies with them. Human and daemon cannot move too far from each other without physical pain. And finally, if human and daemon are mechanically separated from each other, both die – or at best, the human becomes catatonic and unable to function normally.
The human-daemon relationship seems to recognize the existence of something more than the physical body in a human being – such as a soul. Whether Pullman himself is an atheist or not, it’s there.
I don’t agree with or like everything that happens in these books, but neither do I think they are intrinsically harmful. Pullman tells a good, engrossing story that makes you think. The strongest critic of the books and the movie right now is the Catholic League, which feels the story is anti-Catholic. Again, yes, the books are heavily critical of the organized church, and certainly the church of the books heavily resembles the Catholic Church. Are these criticisms perhaps too accurate?
Do these books promote atheism? That’s a little more difficult. After reading all three, I’m not sure what they really say about God. I don’t think they say that there is no God, which presumably is what a truly atheist book would say.
Donna Freitas, a blogger on BeliefNet’s Idol Chatter, recently interviewed Pullman about his agenda in writing the books. He basically said that his agenda was to tell a compelling story, not to promote atheism! It’s a great interview – I was practically standing on the edge of my seat, cheering and clapping after watching it. You can check it out here.
Should you let your children read the books or see the movie? Well, as with any book or movie, that’s up to you. I wouldn’t let someone else tell you what you should let your children do. Borrow the book from the library and read it, or see the movie for yourself first, and then decide.
And for yourself? There are some campaigns out there that will actually tell you not to see the movie or read the book yourself, lest ye be corrupted! Well, again, shouldn’t you be the judge of that? Use your own mind to decide what you think about it.