Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Christmas in The Dark is Rising

When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.

Every year around this time I find that verse jingling around in my head. I might be a little obsessed with the book that the verse comes from, Susan Cooper's 1973 book The Dark is Rising. It's the second in a series of five books, but it was the first Susan Cooper book I read when I was a child. It's my favorite in the series, and it works as a stand-alone novel too (although I can't imagine anyone not wanting to read the entire series after this one). And it's a wonderful Christmas book.

If The Blue Castle has the most romantic Christmas, The Dark is Rising has the most magical one. The story begins on midwinter's day and ends on Twelfth Night, and it features lots of the English and Celtic traditions associated with that time. There are traditions that I've practiced myself, like hanging up holly and going caroling, and there are folk rituals that I only know about from The Golden Bough, like the Hunting of the Wren. In The Dark is Rising, all of those traditions are recast as part of a literal battle between light and dark.

This book has some of the same plot points that I love in the Harry Potter books: an epic battle between good and evil, a boy who finds out on his eleventh birthday that he has special magical powers, a kindly but cryptic wizard who mentors him. But The Dark is Rising is more mysterious and sometimes scarier than the Harry Potter books. Susan Cooper can make the basic elements of winter -- snow, long nights, flocks of winter birds -- seem eerie and threatening. Behind the whole book is the idea that this time of year is dangerous; that the sun might not actually return. It makes the fires and festivities of Christmas seem all the more joyous in contrast.
(Christmas in The Dark is Rising features terrifying mobs of rooks like the ones in this picture.)

I love the Christmas Eve scene in The Dark is Rising, where the children go caroling, and the song "Good King Wenceslas" becomes a time-traveling device. And I also love Christmas Day with the family of Will Stanton, the hero of the book. He's the youngest of nine children, so he has the kind of busy and bustling holiday that you get in a big family, with all of its traditions and quarrels and merriment. This is what Christmas is like in Will's household:

"Hints and glimmerings and promises of special things, which had flashed in and out of life for weeks before, now suddenly bloomed into a constant glad expectancy. The house was full of wonderful baking smells from the kitchen, in a corner of which Gwen could be found putting the last touches to the icing of the Christmas cake. Her mother had made the cake three weeks before; the Christmas pudding, three months before that. Ageless, familiar Christmas music permeated the house whenever anyone turned on the radio ... Straight after breakfast -- an even more haphazard affair than usual -- there was the double ritual of the Yule log and the Christmas tree.
"For it was Christmas, which had always been a time of magic, to him and all the world. This was a brightness, a shining festival, and while its enchantment was in the world the charmed circle of his family and home would be protected against any invasion from outside. Indoors, the tree glowed and glittered, and the music of Christmas was in the air, and spicy smells came from the kitchen, and in the broad hearth of the living-room the great twisted Yule root flickered and flamed as it gently burned down."

(I would like to have a Yule log! If I had a fireplace.)

I can't think of Christmas without thinking of that scene. Also, every time I hear that it's going to snow, I quote The Dark is Rising to myself: "This night will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining."


  1. Oh, it gets stuck in my head as well! There is so much to love in this book - starting with Merriman and the Lady. And oh how I wanted to read The Book of Gramarye.

  2. I wanted to read the Book of Gramarye too! And I wanted Merriman to be my great-uncle.

  3. I have loved that series for many years. My wife was a librarian, and we were both sf/fantasy fans from childhood, so naturally we had all of them.

    Julia Ecklar made a song of the prophetic verses, which won the 1997 Pegasus Award for "Best Sorcery Song". It's been recorded several times, most recently on Julia's newest and finest album, Horsetamer, also available through iTunes ($0.99).

    While writing this, I'm listening to the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem's album Ain't It Grand Boys. A little while ago I heard "Children's Medley: Shellicky Bookey; Ilee Alee O; Recitation; Wallflowers; Mary the Money; Frosty Weather; There Was a Man of Double Deed; the Wren Song". Their spoken introduction to the Wren Song was about how, as boys they would go out on Christmas day and kill a wren, and on the next day they would go from house to house singing this song and asking for money "to bury the wren"... though that's not what they spent it on.

    I heard that and my jaw dropped as I thought of The Dark is Rising and the boys carrying the wren. That started me looking for information about that; and that search brought me here.