1974 Almost Newbery: The Dark is Rising

VERDICT: Treasure

Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5

One of the 1974 Newbery Honor books, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising is the second book in her series of the same name. Because the next Newbery Winner to be read is the fourth book in the series, and features the same main character, I figured I’d also review this title.

Will Stanton is the seventh son of a seventh son and turns eleven on Midwinter’s Eve. He begins to enter into his powers as an Old One, a guardian of the Light, just as the Dark is at its height and mustering for an attack. Will’s quest is to hunt the Six Signs: iron, bronze, fire, water, air, and stone. In so doing, he learns to look beneath a person’s surface, to act even when frightened, and to think creatively. The author does an excellent job portraying Will’s growth and development in a realistic, non-cheesy manner. While no major characters die, Will doesn’t win every battle or instantly master a given skill. He causes injury to someone by giving into emotion and is nearly trapped by the Dark when he reveals himself by trying out his new fire-starting skill. In the end, Will succeeds in his quest to gain the Six Signs and free England of a bitter blizzard called up by the Dark. He does so on Twelfth Night, which, depending on how you count it, is either tonight or tomorrow. Having just suffered through a mini-snowstorm myself, I feel their pain!

I’m very torn about The Dark is Rising. I had a hard time getting into it, at points. The feature that drew me in, Cooper’s use of language, particularly detailed description, was also one that made it a slow read. The whole series is based on Welsh mythology and is paced something like a myth. Cooper’s description is intimately tied to the symbolic nature of mythology.

Overall, this book has more good than bad (or Light than Dark). It gently teaches a lot of hard truths, particularly through the character of Hawkins. A liege-man of Will’s mentor Merriman, Hawkins is imbued with the power to open a hiding place of knowledge; scared of the risk Merriman takes by using him thus, Hawkins listens to the whispers of the Dark, hidden under the facade of a sweet-faced maid servant/witch-born girl. His betrayal opens a hole through which the Dark can strike. Cooper does a great job of translating into very physical terms the impact that a betrayal can have. In the end, Hawkins chooses redemption, and death. The character building is impeccable, with the transition from ordinary boy to Old One handled particularly well, as was the building of secondary characters.

I would highly recommend this to late elementary/early middle school students who are interested in fantasy. It’s not a bad read as an adult, but I do remember liking it a lot more when I was about that age.

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