Sunday, 30 March 2008

Silver on the Tree

He accepted everything that came into his mind, without thought or question, as if he were moving through a dream. But a deeper part of him knew that he was not dreaming. He was crystal-clear awake, in a Midwinter Day that had been waiting for him to wake into it since the day he had been born, and, he somehow knew, for centuries before that.
Thus Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising: Will Stanton has woken into a dream, with all of the sudden shifts of place and inexplicable certainties that a dream has, but a dream that is more real --- closer to the truth, about the world and about himself --- than what he has taken to be his waking life.

For it is Will's eleventh birthday, and he is finally, truly awake: seventh son of a seventh son, he has woken into his powers as an Old One, an immortal warrior of the Light, fated by birth to take his part in the Law-bound struggle with the Dark. He is the last of the Old Ones, completing the Circle, and is bound to play the central role in the final struggle between the powers: the Dark, seeking to swallow up human agency by means of its own weakness; and the Light, fighting to preserve the world free, and at last give it back to man. It is a frozen, oddly static kind of struggle --- no-one gets killed, at least not directly --- but the stakes are high, the Dark truly terrible, and the Law and the High Magic within which all is bound are merciless; and even the Light can be cruel. "This is a cold battle we are in", says Merriman Lyon, Will's mentor, first of the Old Ones, the historical Merlin, "and in it we must sometimes do cold things."

It is a humourless vision of the world: not lacking in joy, perhaps, but excluding all play. "In this our magic," Merriman scolds Will after a heedless act, "every smallest word has a weight and a meaning. Every word that I say to you --- or that any other Old One may say." From that point onwards, Will accepts his responsibility without complaint, and (for the most part) without regret. It's a measure of the writing's power that you still believe him as a pre-teen boy: a boy with normal tastes and habits who can nonetheless step, at a moment's notice, into a vast timeless struggle where everything is freighted with significance. The contrast with the Earthsea books, written around the same time and themselves pretty serious, is signal: "a mage", Le Guin says, "is a trickster", and the (original three) books are full of delight in the lesser enchantments. The exultation and danger of the great spells, and the concern with Equilibrium, are visibly continuous with the ordinary pleasures and risks of life. But, of course, the mages of Earthsea are mortal men. It's to Cooper's credit that she doesn't just tell us, she shows us that Will and Merriman and the others are "not properly human".

The Old Ones are a triumph; Will's compatriots Simon, Jane, and Barney are another matter. They are drawn well enough, and believable in their way, but there is something Enid Blyton-ish about the Drew children, and it jars with the high seriousness of the books. You really do not miss them in The Grey King; in Silver on the Tree they are a positive intrusion. And in the Trewissick scenes, where they are joined by the (otherwise unexceptionable) red setter Rufus, the dread spectre of Timmy the Dog does rather haunt the proceedings.

The books have other flaws. They are quest stories: searches for a grail (Over Sea, Under Stone), for six Signs of Power (The Dark is Rising), and for a vital, lost piece of parchment (Greenwitch); the winning of a harp, to wake immortal warriors (The Grey King); and a vertiginous race across space and time to final confrontation with the Dark (Silver on the Tree). Few real decisions are ever made, although one scarcely notices this, as one event follows another, fulfilling old prophecies in the long waking dream. Our real world intrudes --- and it does feel like an intrusion --- in the final book; and the ending is rushed. (Let the reader understand: why did there have to be a boat? Why, why, why?) As with any story where the characters slip about in time, there are plot holes through which one could drive a truck. And so on; and so forth.

They are children's books. Written for older, serious, literate children, who can cope with long sentences and complex clause structures. They are Celtic. They are pagan, although pleasingly free of anti-Christian posturing. And they are assured: what sells them in the end is their almost-unfailing assurance of tone, their conviction that the dream is real. One of the few times that assurance slips, the narrator makes a defensive comment on the childishness of the two prophetic rhymes that summarize the action. She need not have bothered, for here is the last verse of the simpler poem, which is surely effective enough:
Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold;
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.

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