I don’t usually do much re-reading of books – I never have time to get through as many new novels as I’d like, so doing so seems like a waste of time.
Today though, travelling back to Yorkshire to visit my parents for Christmas, I couldn’t resist a bit of unorthodox Christmas re-reading – Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. Whether you’ve read the book before or whether it’s a new one on you, I’d strongly suggest you do the same.
At the younger end of my teens, this book and the series of the same name were some of my absolute favourite works. It’s an epic five part series about the battle between “the dark” and “the light,” mixing tales of modern teenagers (well, modern when it was written in the seventies) with Arthurian and other British/Celtic legends.
If you’re thinking that neither this brief description nor the title makes the book sound like obvious Christmas reading, you’d be wrong. The book spans the period from Midsummer’s Eve (December 21st) to Twelfth Night (January 6th) and has an incredible sense of time and place. It’s probably my favourite written depiction of Christmas and the surrounding period.
The hero, Will Stanton, celebrates his eleventh birthday on Midsummer’s Day, and discovers he has amazing powers and a great destiny. But this is only one part of who he is – he’s also the youngest child of a family of nine, who live a rambling upper-middle class existence in a Buckinghamshire farmhouse.
In large part, his Christmas is utterly idyllic and lovingly described : going out with his father to collect a Yule log, buying and decorating a huge royal Christmas tree from a farmer neighbour, trudging back through the snow laden with Christmas presents, journeying through the village on Christmas Eve singing carols by candlelight to all the neighbours and enjoying punch and mince-pies at the local Manor House. The family dynamic – both the love and the bickering – is wonderfully depicted, as is the village’s sense of community.
What makes this so much more enjoyable then other, more fundamentally sentimental depictions of family Christmases is that all of this is interwoven with the sinister threat of the Dark (a sort of all purpose eternal evil), Will’s quest to collect the mystical signs that can defeat them and ancient British folklore. There’s also a wonderful blurring of the mystical and the everyday – the holly over the mantelpiece that the family regard as a Christmas tradition but Will knows is a protection against the Dark, the singing of carols helping to keep evil at bay.
The Victorians loved a spooky story at Christmas, and here, the fear and struggles of the battle against evil only make the joyous family times more profound. It’s the same sort of logic that makes the ultra-bittersweet Fairytale of New York my all time favourite Christmas song over other more simplistically cheerful ones.
It’s definitely aimed at a fairly young audience – after all, the main character is eleven, and I’ve always thought that with most books, the protagonist’s age is a good guide to the intended reading age. Perhaps my continued love of it is based at least in part on nostalgia for the first time I read and enjoyed it. Nonetheless, I think a first time adult reader would still enjoy this as an easy to read (it’ll only take a few hours) Christmas Eve treat to get you feeling Christmassy – maybe before you go off carolling, which after reading this, it’s almost impossible to resist doing!
I’m hoping to squeeze in writing another post tomorrow, but if I run out of time amidst assorted Christmas Eve fun, I hope everyone reading this has a wonderful Christmas.