The Dark is Rising series was the Harry Potter of the 70s, meaning it was a fantasy tale written for British children and modeled its battle between good and evil on the strength of one’s character.
My children’s librarian coworker recommended the series to me months ago, but it wasn’t until the YALSA Best of the Best Reading Challenge began that I convinced myself to take the ride. She told me to start with book two, as book one was too dry for an introduction, but that I should go through book one then the rest of the series if I liked book two.
If there is anything dry in The Dark Is Rising (book two of a series named after it), it is the quaint farmhouse existence of the protagonist’s family. They sing carols together during Christmas, attend church on Sundays, and share the descriptor “withering” for their nastiest expressions. If someone yells out, the family races over to help. But you know what? There’s nothing wrong with showing how a supportive, loving, religious family functions in a story. Leagues of religious parents scorned Harry Potter for supposedly substituting “magic” in the place of Jesus. Here, a pastor tries to reconcile the existence of magic and attributes it to God. Will Stanton, the 11-year-old Chosen One of this series, argues that magic and God both come from something infinite and eternal that is beyond the surface-level perception of mortals. The pastor is delighted to hear such talk and asks for future conversations. The (wholesome, Christian) heroes are internally glad they don’t have to tiptoe through a discussion of magic without offending anyone. Too bad that issue still speaks to truth.
Will Stanton is in over his head compared to Harry Potter: he learns magical abilities through a sort of instant transmission from an extremely rare and extremely powerful book, but the knowledge it grants him brings the sorrow of history’s long view. He has barely started his adventure and already knows how the last millennium’s worth of heroes bit the dust. He has some super-powered older friends, but they have their own tasks abroad while Will simply fights to keep his family from freezing to death in winter.
That winter freeze is no accident, and that indirect influence is what makes the conflict between good and evil so compelling in The Dark Is Rising. The stakes are handled differently than “my lightning bolt is stronger than your fireball.” It’s more a matter of “my shield protects against your turning my friends into traitors.” The forces of good are threatened on all sides, but the means of attack could be as innocuous as hearing a loud noise while standing at the top of a flight of stairs. Self-awareness and principles are as strong as magical McGuffins, even though Will needs the six “Signs” if he is to defeat (As in drive away? Kill? I shall see!) the Dark.
My favorite part of The Dark Is Rising was when Merriman, the Gandalf/Dumbledore of the book, tells Will about the difference between good and evil: Good asks for personal sacrifice toward a delayed reward, but that reward will be unspoiled. Evil offers nothing but rewards up front then takes more back from its patron than the spoils were ever worth.
I think there’s a moral about credit cards in there somewhere.