The first book in the “Dark Is Rising” sequence is actually Over Sea, Under Stone, originally a standalone story about four children on a holiday on the coast of Cornwall with their mysterious Uncle Merry. After accidentally discovering an ancient and cryptic map, the children are thrown into a race to find King Arthur’s Grail. It turns out that Uncle Merry has long been battling the Dark, and the Grail is a potent object that the Dark to could use to overwhelm the Light—for whom King Arthur fought as the Dark overwhelmed him. The Grail was hidden by a monk with a map that contained riddles on how to find it. Chased by the Dark, the children track down the clues and the youngest is kidnapped, before they find the Grail in a cave revealed by the lowest tide of the year, narrowly escaping with it in the speed boat that Uncle Merry arrives in at the very end.
The second book, The Dark Is Rising, begins the sequence proper. On his eleventh birthday, Will, one of nine children on a small English country farm, discovers that he is an Old One. He is the last, in fact, of these supernatural beings of the Light, that oppose the very similar beings of the Dark. He is shepherded by Merriman Lyon, one of the oldest, who moves him through times and spaces in teaching him his calling, which is the collect the six Signs and complete the circle of Light, which will prevent the Dark from being able to overwhelm the Light like it did in King Arthur’s time. The Signs are objects of Power, and have been hidden or will only come into existence in the right conditions. Merriman also has Will read a magic book that instills in him the full knowledge of the Old Ones, although the skillful use of that knowledge still takes some practice. Will finds the signs during the twelve days of a snowy, country Christmas, growing in power and ability to skillfully defeat the Dark.
I remember reading these as a kid (although probably not the first one) and not really remembering what they were about. Now I can see why: The Dark Is Rising is a surreal montage of English countryside, other-dimensional conflict with ancient beings, animistic magick power, fluid time, fear, betrayal, pain, and redemption, mixed together with some English mythology. It is a little abstract because the Dark cannot harm the Light directly, so the battle is fought indirectly. It is surreal because the world keeps changing fairly fluidly as Will moves in and out of times. And the metaphysics is not something that would be familiar to a kid, as it is a blend of animism and Zoroastrianistic concept of Light and Dark being born to fight eternally except that Light has a slight advantage if they are able to muse it.
I wanted to like the series, but I found them frustrating enough they I abandoned the effort after the first two books. For one thing, they are non-stop suspense, which is tiring and feels artificial, especially in the first book, where the children figure out the clues but never get ahead of the Dark because the Dark simply watches them, and then kidnaps one. And when all hope is lost, Uncle Merry comes out of nowhere with a speed boat! The second book is better from a plot standpoint, which is actually fairly complicated (although simply told), but the Dark just keeps up a relentless attack that Will despairs of beating, but somehow he manages to find what needs to be done in the nick of time.
I know that adults are not the target audience, but it seems really hard to believe that all the adults—who turn out to be hundreds of years old—would entrust the finding of ancient objects of Power, the loss of which would cripple the Light, to inexperienced children, and willfully stand out of the way to let them figure it out on their own. That is all very good leadership for training the next generation, but you do not use your untrained men as the only soldiers in your critical battles, expect them to learn as they go and successfully defeat the very experienced enemy. Oh, and do not fail, because the fate of the world is dependent on you succeeding in something you had no idea even existed just a week ago. The Light takes pretty huge risks, such as the final sign requiring Will to make a choice to not save his sister, while Merriman stands by and entrusts the fate of the Light on Will’s brief training enabling him to understand that the situation requires abandoning his sister (who turns out fine). To top it off, Cooper does not even use the opportunity to demonstrate the importance the Light places on personal choice, even though it seems to be a characteristic of the light. It is just a complete gamble that Will will make the right decision, and if he does not, hundreds of years of planning will be for nought as the circle will not be complete. But it does contribute to a sense of suspense.
One thing the books do well is that the Dark is truly evil, although this also is a major reason I do not have much desire to continue the series. The Dark uses fear to manipulate people and hold them slaves to its destruction of humanity, and it has a certain dark numinous quality that show up in animistic religions. Cooper’s Dark is in some ways much darker than Tolkien’s Sauron or Narnia’s witches, who are largely just power-hungry, while the Dark is more a feeling of fear and consuming that will destroy the good life. In some ways, Cooper’s Dark is more evil. The problem is, I do not enjoy experiencing the Dark. The fact that Cooper portrays it well becomes the reason I do not enjoy it.
Perhaps the deeper reason is that the Light is actually of the same character as the Dark, just benevolent numinous power. The Light does not overcome by virtue or righteousness or character, but because character, preparation, and strategy (above-mentioned foolish risk-taking notwithstanding) procure Power. Both are still after numinous Power; the Light just uses it benevolently. Contrast with Gandalf, who refuses to wield the Power of the ring, because he realizes that the domination of wills that is the ring’s Power is the evil they are fighting against. Likewise, Harry Potter overcomes Voldemort—who constantly seeks after more Power—through love, which turns out to be more powerful.
I also have a strong dislike of animism, in addition to the darkness that is inherent in it, because I do not believe there is such a thing as naked Power. It is clear where the power of Sauron’s ring comes from: Sauron placed the power in his person within the ring, which seems to enhance it. Animistic magick gives objects some vaguely articulated Power whose source is unclear. Why do the Signs have power? What does this power enable? Where does the power come from? Is it some sort of vague, New Age “energy” that has no definable source but manages to produce definable results? Did the Light create the Signs as artifacts that contain the power? If they did, what is the advantage to putting the power in something as easily lost as a physical object? How would you transfer power? Power does not work that way in the real world; a generator is not an artifact that contains electrical power that can be harnessed, rather it is a device that converts heat into electricity.
The story in The Dark Is Rising is well-told, though. The six Signs serve as waypoints in the story, and each reveals a new aspect of what it means to be an Old One and how the Dark resists the Light. Will moves from being a human child to being a young Old One, with skills and character learned in battle. Meanwhile, the scenes fluidly shift among time and enable a cosmic-sized battle to be restricted to twelve days in a single English country town. The, err, theological, elements are blended evenly, and feel more like an acorn squash soup than a stew where you can clearly identify the source ideas. This all becomes a smooth progression, as the reader learns along with Will, almost transforming with him as he comes of age as an Old One.