Sunday, January 20, 2008

Susan Cooper

The Boggart
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 10+

The author intrigued me because her book The Grey King is on the Newbery Medal shelf at Barnes and Noble. The title intrigued me because there are boggarts in the Harry Potter universe, and I wondered if they were the same. Not quite. In the Harry Potter books, a boggart is a shape-changing, mind-reading creature that feeds off fear, so it always assumes the form of whatever you fear the most; and it lives in wardrobes and cupboards and things like that. But in Susan Cooper's vision, a boggart is sort of the national spirit of Scotland, an "Old Thing" in capital letters, a wild magical creature that is like a tiny, invisible man who can sometimes assume some visible form or other (like a hockey puck or a black cat). It lives to tease people and play lighthearted pranks on them, its very reason for existence is to become part of a family and amuse them with its annoying little tricks.

This particular boggart comes from a castle in the Western Scottish Highlands, where he has merrily pulled the noses of countless generations of a particular clan--and fallen tragically in love with two clan chiefs whose eventual, inevitable death caused him intense grief. The latest one leaves the castle to his only living relatives, who happen to be a Canadian family living in Toronto. They decide to sell the castle after visiting it once, but they bring home some furniture including a roll-top desk in which the Boggart is inadvertently trapped and transported to Toronto.

Naturally, all haggis breaks loose, as a creature from old world magic mixes explosively with new-world technology. And though he takes a liking to his new family and certain modern conveniences (like peanut butter and electricity), the Boggart desperately wants to go home to Scotland. But how can he communicate this desire to his human family, and what can they do about it?

That's what the story is about, and a pretty good story it is. I like it a lot, and not just because the song quoted from Shakespeare's Cymbeline is one that I sang in college. In fact, I have to admit, I love this story, as I am obliged to love anything that makes me laugh and cry, and I was particularly impressed with the fact that the story made me cry in the first chapter. That's an achievement!

The boggart is a character you can really love, and I mean the word "love" in a profound way. I hope I can find a copy of the sequel, The Boggart and the Monster. [UPDATE: Obviously I did; read on.]

The Boggart and the Monster
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 10+

From the author of the award-winning The Dark Is Rising sequence, not to mention wife of the great actor Hume Cronyn, comes this delightful sequel to The Boggart.

Once again, Canadian siblings Emily and Jessup are in Argyllshire visiting the boggart-haunted Castle Keep which their father inherited then sold to his Scottish lawyer, Mr. Maconochie, who is just now figuring out that he has a real, live boggart for a housemate.

Together with Tommy, the boy from the local store who befriended them on their previous trip, the children go camping on the shores of Loch Ness while a team of researchers uses high-tech equipment to search for the fabled monster. The head of the project believes Nessie to be a plesiosaur; but when the Boggart comes along on the trip, he discovers a long-lost cousin slumbering at the bottom of the loch, stuck in the form of an enormous sea monster, for the Loch Ness monster is not a plesiosaur (or a kelpie, either), but a boggart!

And now, what with researchers on one hand and a media circus on the other, the Boggart of Castle Keep and the children have their hands full. They have to get Nessie out of Loch Ness and out of the shape of the Loch Ness monster, so that he can go back to being a respectable, mischievous boggart. With Tommy’s journalist father running around with a load of cameras, and car accidents and other misadventures strewn in their way, it will take the combined concentration of two boggarts and five people to help Nessie make the journey to Loch Linnhe and freedom. And indeed, it may take more magic still.

Backed by the awe-inspiring scenery of the Scottish highlands, perfumed by the heady scents of the Old Magic, touched by romance and mischief and deep sorrowful longing, this is another terrific and spirited adventure to delight anyone interested in magical beasts! (Besides boggarts, you may also learn a bit about selkies in this story.)

Green Boy
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 10+

Trey is very protective of his sensitive, mute little brother, Lou. They live with their grandparents on an outer island of the Bahamas, from which they often cross to an uninhabited isle to look at shells, birds, and fish. But now Long Pond Cay is threatened by powerful developers who want to build a hotel and casino on the spot and spoil all the beauty and life that is there.

Grand and Gramma fight a losing battle against the developers while Trey and Lou fight a different kind of battle: in another world called Pangaia, where they are magically transported. Pangaia is like a nightmare of earth’s future, where mankind has destroyed the environment and clothed the planet in endless, noxious cities. The boys join a group of underground rebels who believe that an ancient prophecy says that Lou will be their savior. But at what cost?

The relationship between the boys is very effective, and the story itself is gripping. I’m afraid I don’t endorse the ridiculous Gaia hypothesis which underlies much of this book, however. You’ll have to take it as you find it. You may (as I did) enjoy this book in spite of its strange spirituality. Most of us would do well to think about our relationship to the environment, though (again) I disagree with the idea evident in this book: that we need to develop a “global consciousness.” I think that’s asking a bit much of the average person. It would mean a lot more - and, I hope, accomplish a lot more - if we all looked out for our own little corner of the globe and felt ourselves to be stewards of the life and systems that dwell there.

Over Sea, Under Stone
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 12+

The first book in the award-winning The Dark Is Rising quintet happens all upon a summer holiday in the south Cornish seaside village of Trewissick, where the Drew family have rented the imposing old Grey House, along with their mysterious and scholarly Great Uncle Merry. The three Drew children, Simon, Jane, and Barney, find that Merry is the only person they can trust as they get swept into an adventure full of mystery and peril.

It begins when they discover a secret door up to an attic, and an ancient manuscript lying as if carelessly dropped in a corner. The manuscript leads them on a latter-day quest for the Holy Grail, connected with the rising and falling battle between Good and Evil--or the Dark. The possibility of proving the King Arthur legend isn't their only motivation. They also have to make sure the manuscript, and the grail, don't fall into the hands of a group of enemies who are determined to use it for some dreadful purpose.

The ages have come round again, it seems, to another time of grave danger and an epochal battle against the rising Dark. And the children must do what they can, while the servants of the Dark run closer and closer at their heels. Some people are not as they seem; there are betrayals and surprises, good and bad, in store for our heroes. In a climactic race against the tide and a heart-pounding confrontation with the horrible Mr. Hastings, the Drew children win a mixed victory - at least, the other side doesn't win, so that the battle can go on - but even then, tantalizing mysteries remain.

The Dark Is Rising
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 12+

This 1973 Newbery Honor Book is the second book in the sequence of the same name, which began with 1965's Over Sea, Under Stone.

On Midwinter's day, Buckinghamshire lad Will Stanton turns eleven years old. The youngest child in a large family, he has little idea that he is also the last-born of the immortal Old Ones, who lead the forces of the Light in their age-long fight against the Dark. Weird things begin happening on the eve of his birthday, but just as Will is learning of his true destiny, the Dark begins to rise in earnest during the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Helped by a handful of other Old Ones, and hindered by betrayal and outright attack from the powers of darkness, Will must find six magical signs and unite them together before Twelfth Night, when the Dark will wage its last and greatest attack on the world.

"Uncle Merry" from the first book returns as an Old One named Merriman Lyon, who (among others) helps Will find the signs of iron, bronze, wood, stone, fire, and water that he needs to hold back the Dark. Meanwhile a red-haired, blue-eyed Rider in Black menaces Will and his family at every turn...a strange, tormented Walker is abroad...the powerful Book of Gramarye waits...and Will discovers the ability to travel through time, plus other exciting powers.

Though Cooper distinguishes these powers from magic or witchcraft - which, when it's actually genuine, is a tool of the Dark - she does not go as far as to explain where the magic of the Light comes from. We only know that it is as old as the world, or older; that it is eternally at war with the Dark (otherwise known as Evil); and that one of its great heroes was King Arthur.

And again, although Cooper presents us with a tale that resonates with biblical imagery (especially the moving betrayal and fate of Hawkin) in a way that constantly reminded me of C. S. Lewis' tales of Narnia and Space, her outlook is not distinctly Christian; she seems to lump all religions, gods, and what they stand for together in one category, and to set the powers of the Light beside them as something else altogether.

English folk-mythology, Arthurian legend, British family drama, and classic "Good guys ride a white horse, bad guys ride a black" metaphysics join here in a tale of suspense and terror, beauty and wonder, holiday cheer and meteorological nightmare. Plus it has scenes that will remind Alfred Hitchcock fans of "The Birds" and Diana Wynne Jones fans of Dogsbody, not to mention a family so large (including twin boys) that it makes the Burrow seem sparsely populated.

So from the standpoint of "concerned Christian parents," it is an ambivalent story. You're just going to have to read it yourself and make up your own mind. But from the standpoint of an mind-engaging, thrilling fantasy-mystery-adventure with a terrific battle between good and evil, there can be no question. Cooper has it nailed. [UPDATE: The recent film The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising was based on this book.]

by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 12+

This is the third and shortest book of five in The Dark Is Rising sequence. It brings the Drew children and their Great Uncle Merry from the first book (Over Sea, Under Stone) together with Will Stanton from the second book (The Dark Is Rising), with an encore of their quest for the Cornish Grail in the fishing village of Trewissick.

Almost a year has passed since Simon, Jane, and Barney discovered the grail, but as their Easter holidays begin, the grail is stolen from its museum showcase. Gummery (a.k.a. Merriman Lyon) gathers them together with Will and fellow Old One, Captain Toms (who owns the Grey House of the first book), in an attempt to retrieve the Grail and/or the lost manuscript that unlocks the secret of the Grail's inscription, before both parts of this Thing of Power fall into the hands of the Dark.

This time the Dark is represented by a dark, long-haired, gypsy artist who exercises ghastly powers over the Drew boys. Also involved is a thing of Wild Magic called the Greenwitch - an effigy woven of hawthorn branches, weighted with stones, and thrown into the sea every year for good luck. A girl's wish, a boy's sketch, and the fears and shame of generations of villagers come to a hair-raising head the night the spirit of the Greenwitch rises from the sea.

The concept of "Wild Magic," which is almost impersonal and neither of the Light nor of the Dark, deepens the texture of this series of magical adventures. And the fact that the Drew children and Will Stanton don't immediately hit it off, also shows the author taking us to unexpected places. Again the story is essentially a showdown between classic Good and Evil, but with the reservation (for concerned Christian parents) that a form of "nature magic" is involved.

It's a moving and exciting story, and interesting new facets of the familiar characters continue to be revealed. Ultimately, another prophecy - if that's what it is - comes to light, pointing perhaps to a return of King Arthur and a final battle between the Dark and the Light. As such, the series continues with The Grey King.

The Grey King
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 12+

This fourth book in The Dark Is Rising quintet won the 1976 Newbery Medal.

Will Stanton, the youngest of the Old Ones, is still at the same time a small boy. And so he is vulnerable to illnesses, such as an attack of hepatitis that nearly killed him and left him weak and missing important memories - such as the quest he is supposed to be on.

Sent to convalesce in Wales, on the farm of an aunt and her family, things start coming back to Will when he meets a strange, albino boy named Bran Davies, who plays the harp and owns a dog named Cafall with silver eyes that can see the wind. Together they overcome the malice of the Grey King - a Lord of the Dark whose spirit haunts the surrounding hills - and recover a golden harp that is one of the ancient objects the Light needs to defeat the rising Dark.

This done, however, their quest is only half done. And because of the malice of a man named Caradog Prichard, and the evil pranks of the silver-gray foxes that ordinary mortals cannot see, Cafall is killed and Bran's friendship with Will, and with the Light, seems irretrievably shattered. And while Will tries to find a way to awaken the Sleepers who must help defeat the Dark, the powers of the enemy are gathering to stop his quest cold.

The upshot is a dreadful confrontation between Bran, his adopted father Owen Davies, the maddened Prichard, a strangely wise farmer named John Rowlands, and almost helplessly caught between them, our own Will.

The interesting and ambiguous relationship between Cooper's conception of the Light and the Dark, in distinction from any religious (say, specifically Christian) concept of good and evil, is illustrated by this speech by John Rowlands:
Those men who know anything at all about the Light also know that there is a fierceness to its power, like the bare sword of the law, or the white burning of the sun.... At the very heart, that is. Other things, like humanity, and mercy, and charity, that most good men hold more precious than all else, they do not come first for the Light. Oh, sometimes they are there; often, indeed. But in the very long run the concern of you people is with the absolute good, ahead of all else. You are like fanatics. Your masters, at any rate. Like the old Crusaders - oh, like certain groups in every belief, though this is not a matter of religion, of course. At the centre of the Light there is a cold white flame, just as at the centre of the Dark there is a great black pit bottomless as the Universe.
An interesting fantasy concept, that, whose full shape is not yet seen at this point in the series. It is basically pointing out that the aims and choices of Absolute Good sometimes go very hard on ordinary people, and that innocent individuals often pay dearly when the interests of universal good are being served. The climax of this story hinges on the question, who will pay this time and how? And what exactly is the destiny and nature of the mysterious Bran Davies?

Silver on the Tree
by Susan Cooper
Recommended Age: 12+

The fifth and last book of the Dark Is Rising series brings back together "the six": Great Uncle Merry and young Will Stanton, the first and last-born of the Old Ones; Bran Davies, the Welsh albino boy who is destined for great power; and the three Drew children, Simon, Jane, and Barney. With other characters old and new, the battle between the Dark and the Light rises to its final climax.

One way or another, the five children have been brought together to the Welsh seaside down of Aberdyfi, so that they can play their part in the final battle. With help from Merriman Lyon and "the Lady," among others, and hindrance from the Black and White Riders of the Dark, the children go on a quest full of perils and tests, for the Crystal Sword which can cut the silver blossom off the Midsummer Tree. But the Dark wants to get there first, because which ever side does so claims the right to drive its enemy out of Time, forever and ever.

Complete with more magical riddles and poems, a gripping journey through a Lost Land, an encounter with something like the Loch Ness Monster, and another heartbreaking episode featuring the good man John Rowlands and his wife Blodwen, the story culminates in another spectacularly tear-jerking scene of partings as a ship sails to the "quiet silver-circled castle at the back of the North Wind, among the apple trees." Oh yes, the ending also includes a rather preachy, secular sermon on the theme that mankind holds his destiny in his own hands.

All in all, it's an exciting book, full of suspense and terror, charm and humor, and a view of the world that does justice to both the good and the bad side of human nature. You may wonder, at the end, what (if anything) the Light and the Dark are really about. In a way, Merriman's sermon at the end of the story cancels out the whole concept of the series. But you could also look at it from the Lord of the Rings/Prydain Chronicles point of view, as the endings of these three sagas have a lot in common. And their essential message is that the magic of fairy tales, legends, and myths is limited by the bounds of their own world, bounds that the story creates. Sadly, perhaps, we have to carry on without that magic in our lives. But perhaps the memory of the world we have left behind--in the story, when everyone sails off into the sunset; in real life, when you close the book with a sigh--may help us to do what is given to us, and to be what we are called to be, in the here and now.

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