Susan Cooper, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965)
Susan Cooper, The Dark Is Rising (1973)
Susan Cooper, Greenwitch (1974)
Susan Cooper, The Grey King (1975)
Susan Cooper, Silver on the Tree (1976)
There are very few living authors who have not just one title, but an entire series of books given the Folio Society treatment. So when I learned that the Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, one of my favorite fantasy series of all time, was available in beautiful new Folio editions, I was thrilled! And I was not disappointed in my investment: these are lovely books in every way.
The juxtaposition of the strange and the everyday is what I believe gives the sequence its distinctive appeal. In spare yet vivid prose, Cooper evokes the details of a specific place and way of life — whether a Cornish fishing village, a small Buckinghamshire town, or a Welsh sheep farm—with utter conviction, and then with equal conviction opens our eyes to the mythological depths that underlie every mundane moment: the great battle between the Light and the Dark. Introduced already in Over Sea, Under Stone, but handled with increasing mastery as the sequence progresses, it’s a mix that I found completely enchanting as a ten-year-old, and still do today.
The sequence is a masterpiece of atmosphere, with scenes that are creepy, homely, sordid, domestic, heartbreakingly lovely, and uncanny by turns. When we have glimpses of ancient myth and folklore (Wayland Smith, Herne the Hunter–even Arthur himself), they remain appropriately veiled and mysterious, as the deep past must always be to us, caught as we are in the cage of modernity. This is one of the touches that Cooper gets just right.
When Cooper’s own inventions are interpolated, as in Greenwitch, they are equally evocative and haunting — true in a deep archetypal sense, if not in actual fact. She reveals in her preface to the Folio edition that the Greenwitch — an image that has for centuries been made and thrown into the sea by the women of a Cornish village — is her own creation and no such custom exists in this precise form. This does not prevent readers from writing to her or even journeying to Cornwall in search of the “real” Greenwitch. (Note that these prefaces by the author contain many such fascinating details, but should be skipped by any first-time reader who wants to avoid spoilers.)
Crafting an ending to such an epic is difficult. Having lived through so much with these characters, suffering and striving with them, it’s hard not to feel betrayed when we are returned to our everyday lives, no more to join the transcendent circle of the Light. But the experience has changed us, and lives within, and thus can never truly end. This is the mark of a superior work of fiction, to my mind.
The Folio editions have spines bound in buckram, a different jewel-toned color for each book, with Modigliani paper sides each printed with a complementary design by the artist, Laura Carlin. Each book also includes eight full-color illustrations printed on the heavy, textured Modigliani paper. The books are a good size for holding in the hand, and typeset in the slightly jagged, antique-looking typeface Elysium, which is nevertheless eminently readable. As with all Folio books, they come accompanied by a protective slipcase, in this case dark gray to match the endpapers of each volume.
The illustrations, done in rich, glowing colors without sharp lines, occasionally jar against my personal inner images, especially in the depiction of the figures, which sometimes have strange proportions or odd expressions. In general, though, I find them a fine complement to the text. Because they are not too narrowly representational, they evoke a mood rather than making a photographic record, leaving room for ambiguity and mystery. Like the stories themselves, they have beauty without sentimentality, a sustaining faith in light and love that nevertheless can look clear-eyed at darkness and cruelty. That is what I prize about the Dark Is Rising sequence, and I’m glad that these marvelous books have been put into a form that is worthy of their content.