Looking back, it was a year that really started the process of maturity for me, of becoming a fully formed adult, full of passions and proclivities. It was a year of new interests and of solidifying burgeoning talents. It was a year of reading the books and the genres that would influence me in all aspects of my life, forever.
In a previous “On” column, I wrote about author Lloyd Alexander and his book series The Chronicles of Prydain, which I enthusiastically read that very year.
But I also read Susan Cooper’s beloved The Dark Is Rising Sequence in grade five, a series of five books that was shared communally between both me and my friend John, who, luckily, introduced the novels to me.
The titular book, The Dark is Rising, the second book in the series, cemented not only my love for the Cooper novels, but also the bond shared between the best of friends.
John suggested The Dark is Rising to me. We had already been sharing Choose Your Own Adventure books and a whole host of comic books and we had been actively creating, sketching and writing about our own fictional heroes: boys and men that were more than they seemed, characters who went on adventures with magic or super powers or burgeoning life skills at the ready. John had already read The Dark is Rising and loved it and he wanted me to love it, too, while he went on to read the other books in the series.
And I did. Oh, how I did!
The Dark is Rising tells the story of Will Stanton, the seventh son of a seventh son, who begins to encounter strange and foreboding experiences on his eleventh birthday. He learns that he is, in fact, an “Old One”, a servant warrior of the Light in their ever-lasting crusade against the forces of the Dark. Aided by a mysterious and aged advisor, Merriman Lyon, Will is, in fact, the “Sign-Seeker” – a sort of magical archeologist searching for six signs: powerful artifacts made of wood, bronze, iron, water, fire and stone that would aid the Light in their final confrontation with their timeless nemesis. An old poem, itself a mystery to be solved, guided Will in his search. And, of course, the Dark would stop at nothing to prevent the signs from being found and gathered together in battle against them!
Will’s age and his experiences with choices, both good and evil, and the grey that often lies between the two, crossed neatly into the more global-centric experiences I was having as a boy maturing into a young man. The hardcover book showcased drawings of an ominous mist surrounding dark figures clad in cloaks and oversized hats, while a murder of rooks flew overhead. In the background could be seen a silhouette of a gloomy figure atop a rearing horse, sword drawn in anticipation. That image, and the story inside that cover, left an indelible mark on my mind.
Living out our own adventure during the winter of grade five, John and I set ourselves to finding our own signs: six relics that would echo Will Stanton’s search for weapons of power against the Dark, while cementing our own friendship and our common interests. I found sea shells while visiting Hutchinson Island in Florida during my March break – a sure sign of water – and brought one home for John. He found two old, iron relics on his trip to the Nova Scotia at the same time and shared one with me. We collected intricately time-and-nature-carved wood pieces from our forays in the nearby forest, and added flint from an antique camping set to signify the Seeker’s search for the fire sign.
Soon, we had completed our own collection of artifacts and carried them with us in our backpacks, to and from school, as good luck charms and wards against any perceived, or, perhaps better put, imaginary, malevolence. Our minds were racing and the only way to satiate the explosion of our creativity was to draw, to write and to read – read more!
While John finished reading The Grey King (winner of the 1976 Newbery Medal) and Silver on the Tree, the fourth and fifth books in The Dark Is Rising Sequence that spring, I went next to the first book of the series, Over Sea, Under Stone, and got acquainted with Simon, Jane and Barney Drew, children who would come back as main protagonists in the third book, Greenwitch. I learned that Merriman Lyon could, in fact, be a modern day Merlin, and I instantly became interested in everything that had to do with Arthurian legend, the basis for the Susan Cooper series.
That summer I caught up to my friend in his reading, enjoying the final acts of the novel series, steeped in Welsh and English mythology and folklore, that would stay with me to this day.
I’ve read the books many more times since then, even on a few occasions in adulthood. Although seemingly more simplistic now than when I first read them as a child, they are no less magical, no less enjoyable. The Dark is Rising was adapted into an unfortunate film called The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising in 2007, a fleeting fabrication of the deep experiences I originally had with the book.
And somewhere in the back of a dresser drawer, I still own the six signs that John and I had assembled all those years ago and I often remember the poem that went along with them:
When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back;
Three from the circle, three from the track;
Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone;
Five will return, and one go alone.
Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long;
Wood from the burning, stone out of song;
Fire in the candle-ring, water from the thaw;
Six Signs the circle, and the grail gone before.
Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold;
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the light at last, silver on the tree.
To echo Cooper’s poetry, in The Dark Is Rising Sequence, I discovered that two friends shall ride – and that six signs shall burn – forever. What power books have, indeed!