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Top 100 Children’s Novels #22: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper

#22 The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)
78 points

Sure, it’s long, and it’s very, well, 1970s, but the language is gorgeous, and you can’t top the Arthurian-inspired sweeping story. Just don’t see the movie. – Melissa Fox

My favorite book to reread at Christmastime. As atmospheric as they come. – Susan Van Metre

The plot from the publisher reads, “When Will Stanton wakes up on the morning of his birthday, he discovers an unbelievable gift — he is immortal. Bemused and terrified, he finds he is the last of the Old Ones, magical men and women sworn to protect the world from the source of evil, the Dark. At once Will is plunged into a quest to find six magical Signs to aid the powers of the Light. Six medallions — iron, bronze, wood, water, fire, and stone — created and hidden by the Old Ones centuries ago. But the Dark has sent out the Rider: evil cloaked in black, mounted upon a midnight stallion, and on the hunt for this youngest Old One, Will. He must find the six great Signs before the Dark can rise, for an epic battle between good and evil approaches.”

Anita Silvey says in 100 Best Books for Children that the story came when Susan Cooper lived in America and “found herself homesick for Britain.  So she turned to the folklore, fairy tale, and myth of her childhood, notably Arthurian legend, for the material in The Dark Is Rising.  Not only did she recreate the setting, Buckinghamshire, England, where she grew up, from a distance, but the ice and cold that permeate the book emerged while she sat in her bathing suit, with her back to the Caribbean Sea, a small lizard standing on her typewriter.”

Now if you’re gonna get technical about it, this isn’t the first book in The Dark Is Rising sequence. Technically that honor belongs to Over Sea, Under Stone. Be that as it may be (and due to the fact that the books are called the Dark Is Rising series and not the Over Sea, Under Stone series) most folks associate this book as numero uno. Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers says that in terms of Cooper’s writing, “Her first work for children, Over Sea, Under Stone, came as a response to a contest designed to honor the memory of E. Nesbit.” There she is again! Half Magic was an ode to E. Nesbit and now, incredibly, so was the first of (of all things) The Dark Is Rising books.  Most strange.

In Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children Cooper says that she didn’t intend to go back to the kids in Over Sea, Under Stone until five years later when she went on a skiing trip and decided, “to write a book, set for the most part in thick snow like this, about a small boy who woke up one birthday morning and found he was able to work magic.” Says British Fantasy and Science-Fiction Writers Since 1960, “A few years after that, rereading the passage in Over Sea, Under Stone about the Dark and the Light gave her the pattern for the rest of the series.”

The original title of this book? The Gift of Grammayre. The publisher didn’t like it, to which we say, smart publisher.  Thank you.

In Leonard Marcus’s The Wand in the Word Cooper says that much of this book was inspired by her experiences during WWII. “I think the whole Light and Dark thing in the Dark Is Rising books goes back to my being a child during the war. We thought in terms of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ We were so soaked in that we didn’t have to be taught to feel that way. It was a kind of prejudice, really, and after the dropping of the atomic bombs by the Americans, I realized that the good guys could do bad things too. And so I think the books try to say that extremism of any sort is bad and that at either end of the spectrum you are in danger of damaging people.”

During her college years she attended lectures by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien so no surprises there. She says of that time, “We were all waiting for the third volume of The Lord of the Rings to come out. The grandeur of the whole concept – the scale of the books – impressed me. Also Tolkien’s strong sense of place. I loved Gollum. And I loved the sense of Frodo as a very small person pitted against this huge might of evil. That certainly must be one of the things behind the patterning of the Dark Is Rising books.”

It was a runner-up for both the Newbery and Carnegie Medals. On the Newbery side of the equation it lost out to The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox (spoiler alert: Not on this Top 100 list). On the Carnegie Medal side it lost out (if I’m reading this correctly) to Mollie Hunter’s The Stronghold.

A filk song (yup, I thought it was a typo too, but that’s how it’s spelled and I’ve just learned the entire filk history) was, as mentioned by Maggi Idzikowski, created for this book series by Julia Ecklar. She set the rhyming prophecy of the stories to music. You can hear a selection of the cover of it here.

For a good time, read D. Keith Mano’s review of the book in The New York Times Book Review. Critiques don’t begin much better than, “This is a muscular fantasy. Characters bounce through time, transcendental yo-yos. ‘The Dark Is Rising’ houses a mail order gift catalogue of magical equipment: six secret signs that must be collected (circles quartered, looking, I judge, like so many jeweled hot cross buns); rings, doorways without walls, grotesque carnival heads; a Manichean world conflict between the dark and the light. The book will thrill children. It thrilled me—and I presume that speaks more for Susan Cooper’s craft than for my somewhat arrested development.”

I remember that when I first heard that they were going to make a movie version of this book I got very excited.  That happiness was swiftly crushed by what I’m going to take the liberty to call the-most-disappointing-children’s-novel-to-film-trailer-in-the-history-of-man:

Makes me shiver with disgust just rewatching it.  Clearly they learned nothing from the success of the Harry Potter films.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. There were three books in today’s results that I considered voting for, but I can’t remember which ones (if any of these) I actually went with. This was one of them. Honorary .5 points from me.

  2. Children's Librarian says

    I completely agree with you about the movie, Betsy. I remember being excited when I heard they were doing it and then extremely dismayed when I watched it and learned that they’d made Will American. American! In a book that couldn’t be more British! I love this series and introduced it to my fantasy book group with moderate success. I first read the series in high school– somehow I missed it as a child even though I’d read most of the other great classic children’s fantasy series– and really liked it, but I liked it even more when I listened to it on audio my first year as a children’s librarian. I finally got all of the Arthurian references, and my King Arthur obsessed heart swooned.

  3. This is one of my favorite fantasies. I always loved the Walker – a great anti-hero for my younger self. The film was a blight on mankind. Blech.

  4. And don’t forget! We’ve got a chance to hear Susan Cooper at the Margaret Edwards Luncheon at ALA Annual Conference! (Anyone who reads this blog who will be there, tweet me! @Sonderbooks) I’m really looking forward to hearing her speak, because her books about writing — Dreams and Wishes referenced above — are also excellent.

  5. My dad read this book first, to make sure it wasn’t too scary for me (easily prone to nightmares as a kid). He loved it so much that not only did he give me the okay for it, he ended up buying the entire series for himself. I think the last fiction books he’d purchased for himself before then were James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. Must be something about the last name!