Thursday, December 14, 2006

Last night, I read Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper, thereby completing my first-ever reading of The Dark is Rising sequence.

By the way, I know I haven't mentioned it before, but I find it way cool that it is called "The Dark is Rising sequence" and not a "series." Somehow, sequence is a much cooler word. Also, you can pretty much read the first two books in either order and not be confused in the slightest, which makes "sequence" a better term anyhow. Given the slipperiness of time within the books (and boy does it get slickery by Silver on the Tree, with everyone falling through centuries almost randomly at times), you could theoretically read them in any old order, but I would have to say that reading Silver on the Tree anywhere but last would make a reader's head explode. Or implode. Either way.

A quick recap of the sequence: Will is the last of the Old Ones to be born. He's an immortal associated with the Light, who seeks to banish the Dark forever. And, lest you have any doubt, the Dark is rising. Simon, Jane and Barney Drew are normal kids (who have well-developed premonitory skills, an abundance of curiosity, and, in Jane's case, some latent magical quality that goes unspecified and unspelled-out (yeah, pun intended) throughout the entire sequence). Merriman Lyon is the oldest of the Old Ones (and is known to readers by at least one other name as well), and is a mentor to Will and a "great-uncle" to the Drews. The Drews had found a chalice hidden Over Sea and Under Stone, Will has found all of the Six Signs in The Dark is Rising, the Drews and Will have salvaged a secret from the Greenwitch, and Will has met another key kid, Bran, who is an albino with a wild family background. Bran, it turns out, is the Pendragon, although the meaning of that term is never, ever given in any of the books, which I found annoying and frustrating because the author makes a big deal out of it, but never ever explains it to her (presumably) young readers. And expecting young readers (or, in my case, not so young readers) to be fully versed in Arthurian terminology and lore is unreasonable. But I digress.

We met Bran in the fourth book, The Grey King, in which the story was as much about discovering Bran's true identity as it was about waking the Six Sleepers from the Welsh hills. And now, in Silver on the Tree, we've rounded up all the players from all the books for a final showdown between the Dark and the Light. Will starts slipping between centuries on a hillside in Buckinghamshire, and that's his cue that it's time for the final countdown. That, and the appearance of a mink (and later, stoat-like pole cats). The ominous use of weaselly creatures by the Dark is let go, though I'd have liked to see them come forward throughout the book. Will heads off to Wales for a visit, and so do the Drew children. They all meet up on their latest adventure -- a quest to find a crystal sword.

Jane interacts with the Lady, who is imbued with High Magic as well as the Light. Will and Bran enter the Lost Land on a very long and at times bewildering quest for the sword. They meet Gwion, who I really, truly loved -- he's part of the Wild Magic, which isn't supposed to aid the Light or the Dark, but Gwion doesn't roll like that -- he's pro-Light, anti-Dark. Meanwhile, back in modern Wales, Jane, Simon and Barney slip back through time somehow and end up in an earlier time. This is where I think the book got tricksy, to borrow a term from Gollum for a moment. The fact that not only the Drew children, but also John Rowlands, start time-slipping makes the whole book have a different feel than the others. Sure, Jane saw apparitions in Greenwitch, but she wasn't an active participant in what she saw. Somehow, this makes a difference.

One of the true heroes of the book is, in my opinion, the good John Rowlands, a man who knows Will is an Old One, and wants to help the Light, but doesn't really want to know what's going on. He acts nobly and well throughout. He is called to make a decision that will affect the Light's ability to vanquish the Dark, and he does so in an admirably well-reasoned way, and with great personal sacrifice. He also steps in at THE critical moment in the battle between the Light and the Dark, allowing Bran to cut the silver on the tree. And yet none of the reviews I've found thus far really focus on this good-hearted soul who repeatedly does what he can to protect the children he's grown fond of (from jumping in the water to standing by the tree). So here's to you, John Rowlands!

Silver on the Tree is far more disorienting than any of the other books, or perhaps than all of them put together. There's a lot of time-slippage, as I already mentioned, and a lot of Arthurian and Welsh history and folklore, only some of which will be familiar to the readers, and there's a lot of whirling, swirling goings-on that are hard to get a clear handle on. The text can literally make your head spin, so that you experience the confusion and pandemonium that the characters are undergoing. Which is, on the one hand, a great bit of writing and a nice trick, and is, on the other hand, a bit confuzzling and potentially bewildering. Also, there's a lot more "big words" in this book. More eloquently written passages, more lyrical examinations of the mental conditions of the characters in the book, etc. , but it's interspersed between action passages. The result is that it reads like an adventure/quest interrupted by esoteric ruminations. That sounds like a negative criticism, probably, but I didn't mean it to be -- I quite enjoyed the book, although I think it's "higher" literature than the other four books because of the bigger philosophical/theological/ideological issues and whatnot raised in the book.

I very much enjoyed the time in the Lost Land, a place of Wild Magic. It included a mirrored maze, a beautiful fountain, a hideous horse skeleton-beast and more. And it was creepy and beautiful and wonderful and wild. And the people of the Land were noble and good and true (a series of qualities that we've seen in some of these books before). And as I already mentioned, I loved Gwion, also known as Taliesen. Taliesen, I have learned, is the earliest known Welsh poet, and the namesake for a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Wisconsin. Again, I digress.

As a writer who sometimes has a down day, I was particularly taken with this description of the King of the Lost Land, now living in a "paralyzing melancholy":

"So the Dark did a simple thing," he said. "They showed the maker of the sword his own uncertainty and fear. Fear of having done the wrong thing -- fear that having done this one great thing, he would never again be able to accomplish anything of great worth -- fear of age, of insufficiency, of unmet promise. All such endless fears, that are the doom of people given the gift of making, and lie always somewhere in their minds."

It sounds like several of my writing friends, and probably like several of yours as well. Having completed a book/sold a book/won an award for a book, they sit in fear that they cannot write/sell one again, ever. Fight the Dark, my friends. You can do it, even without 6 signs, 7 riders, and a crystal sword.

Here endeth the sequence.

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