It’s that time of year again: the annual reading of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, the second volume of the Dark is Rising series. I haven’t, it turns out, ever reviewed it. Can’t think why; likely because it’s so spectacular I have been worried I wouldn’t do it justice. Many a fabulous book has suffered thus. Regardless, I really should. But this year I’m feeling rather fatigued, so I’m only going to write a bit.
One of the reasons I love this book—other than its superior quality as mythic fantasy—is that it is set in the Thames Valley near Windsor, England, where we spent the first four and a half years of our married life. Our first wedding anniversary, early December 1991, was in the fields near Huntercombe Lane, with the grasses covered and bushes covered with hoarfrost. I can picture all of the places Will’s adventures take him, and know that Oldway Lane parallels Huntercombe Lane today (Google maps will show you this…).
This brings me to a point that initially bothered me about the books. Will lives in an area that is just outside of Slough, towards Maidenhead, both of which are in Berkshire. But in the novel, Will lives in Buckinghamshire; he explicitly passes over the boundary from Buckinghamshire into Berkshire during the flood. Turns out, the boundaries were changed in 1974, and Maidenhead and Slough, as well as Eton and a number of other haunts of mine, became part of Berkshire at that time (Berkshire lost land to Oxfordshire at the same time, but those changes did not impact the setting of the novel).
The snow, too: our first winter there, it snowed. Nothing impressive to us: we had just moved from Ottawa, but for the locals, it was either troubling or exciting. They hadn’t had snow in Windsor for years. The conversation Will has with the other passengers on the bus was one I had too, only in front of the shops on High Street.
Another of the moments in the book that both bothers and satisfies is Herne’s Oak, which grew in a field which is not actually part of the Great Park of Windsor Castle, but in the adjacent Home Park. There’s a plaque there, but the tree itself has long been gone, having been (according to one tradition) felled in 1796. That story has it that a new tree was then planted, which was subsequently also destroyed, either in 1863, or 1906, or… Regardless, the tree is no more, but a commemorative plaque remains. Theory is that the public cannot get to it, as it is on royal property, but I know I did… Still, I didn’t have my camera with me, and that was before the days of iPhones…
It is great fun to read the story and think of the fields and hills as I know them. Then I think: it must be this way for so many of her young readers who actually live in England, this welcoming sense of familiarity. Then I remember the thrill of reading The Robot Detective (an adult murder mystery set in the Nicola–Tulameen Valleys in the 1930s), which is the only published work of fiction I know of in which my home town (Princeton, BC) appears. When I was in grade 4, too, there was a poem in our school reader about rain: it culminated with the lines “I have to love rain, I live in Vancouver!” and I was flabbergasted that a published work actually mentioned a place that was within my ken! Coming from small towns, always, I felt that everything was written about elsewhere, that everything was manufactured elsewhere, that everything happened elsewhere… So when an elsewhere that has become part of my here (granted through years of peregrination) appears in fiction, it makes the story doubly more dear to me.
This year, I’m rereading the entire series. Total indulgence.