So I just finished The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper, the second book of The Dark is Rising children's fantasy series, and my favorite book when I was a kid ... the book that was supplanted only by Pride and Prejudice, which tells you something about when and how my adolescence started.
I read right through to the last chapter yesterday (finished the last chapter this morning) and then had a bit of an epiphany regarding my own YA fantasy novel. To wit:
There are two plots in The Dark is Rising. The main plot centers around 11-year-old Will Stanton, an English village boy and the baby of a family of ten kids (seventh son, as it happens, of a seventh son.) Will wakes up on his eleventh birthday to find that he is an Old One, basically one of a line of wizards going back into human prehistory who make up "The Light" a side on the battle between good and evil. The other side is, of course, called "The Dark."
Will is the last of the Old Ones, and the Dark is rising for the last time, for a final, multi-year battle that will decide the fate of humanity forever.
But no pressure, right?
I make that snarky comment because Will's arc in the book is predetermined. Everything he does, he does only half understanding what he does. Every act he performs is part of a much older, and more elaborate ceremony that Will does not initiate, or even understand. In this adult reading I have just done, I'm seeing how Will's role in the book is that of someone stepping into a part in a play--or a role in a ceremony, of course--which is set. He can only complete it or fail to complete it. He can't really deviate.
Will's character only really comes out in the small opportunities he has to add his personal style to the actions he performs. He bows to a magical road, for example, to honor its magic, or he puts out a huge hearth fire, rather than a small candle, to practice his magic. He is fooled by The Dark at one point in breaking the circle of Old Ones, and puts everyone in danger, but it all comes right in the end.
For kids, seeing their proxy, the child-protagonist, stepping into a pre-ordained role is very, very satisfying, particularly for kids around the age of eleven or so, tweens, reaching their greatest maturity as children, but not yet raging with hormones. Kids of that age love order. They love to know the way things are supposed to be and to see things fall into place the way they're supposed to.
More than that, of course, this situation mirrors that of older children, who are not yet adolescents, and still look like children, but are being expected to perform responsible roles in family, school, and community, without entirely understanding what those roles mean. Giving this situation layers of depth, history, tradition, and importance is what is so compelling and satisfying for kids that age.
The Dark is Rising is particularly satisfying in this way because the book constantly references ancient English traditions based in magic and the supernatural, as well as legends and myths. These traditions are almost never explained in the book, but rather described in a slightly formal, intensely lyrical language, in a sweet, melancholy, and often cold and distancing tone. It's a tone that's reminiscent of that moment, during class field trips to old buildings, when you looked on someone's grave, or some historical figure's portrait--or the MS of the Declaration of Independence--and realized that a real human hand, or a real human spirit, was behind all of this, and that that human was long dead. That they were just like, but didn't think like, you. And the hairs on the back of your neck went up.
So the order that falls into place in The Dark is Rising is not merely the order usually displayed in children's books: that of contemporary morality and contemporary society, i.e. a very recent, and not deeply-rooted order. The order in The Dark is Rising is a pre-Christian, almost tribal order, created by the understanding of Dark and Light (not even good and evil, because the Light often performs cruel acts.) The book refers often to conflicts between Christianity and pre-Christian supernaturalism, or to class differences: Will is descended from yeoman farmers and artisans, and Will's father deeply resents the squire-like manorial behavior of the lady of their local great-house, and of her butler, who happens to be the first of the Old Ones, and himself a former feudal lord. The book makes the point that the fight between the Dark and the Light transcends these smaller conflicts, but doesn't gloss over the conflicts at all.
Of course, I didn't notice any of this when I was a kid.
When contemplating this book, and the movie that just came out which I'm afraid to go see (the trailer showed a scene of the now American, 13-year-old Will performing a Matrix-like roundhouse kick) the only filmmaker I can think of who could do the book true justice would be, of all people, Peter Greenaway. The Peter Greenaway, of course, not of The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover, but of The Draughtsman's Contract, and especially of Prospero's Books. Because this strange and wonderful, and beautifully written, little book (which the movie's Merriman Lyon called "a slog," the bastard) is more of a series of set pieces rich in history, and cultural relevance and reference.
It is a series of beautiful, half-strange/half-familiar tableaux of humans taking on ritual aspects of the natural world to acquire power and perform rites that will arouse and channel the supernatural. It's a series of aesthetic investigations into where human artifice and common culture intersect with the natural world, and where these two interact with and are enhanced by the numinous.
It's really an amazing book.
This would, of course, be enough to make me happy for the rest of my life, but the book has a second, sub-plot, which I never noticed before underpins the entire structure of the book and brings all this lofty, high-fantasy stuff down to a human level. This sub-plot centers around The Walker (SPOILAGE AHEAD!), the 13th century servant of Merriman Lyon, the first of the Old Ones. Merriman raised this guy, named Hawkin, as his own son, and is terribly attached to him, but in Merriman's cold way, more like a pet than a human.
Because of the love and trust between them, and because, although humans are stuck in time, Old Ones are not, and may move themselves and humans back and forth in time at will, Merriman weaves Hawkin into a spell he makes to protect a book that needs to be kept out of the hands of the Dark until Will wakens into his power. The book can only be taken out of its hiding place by Merriman if the he is touching Hawkin with one hand. This protects against Merriman's being turned by the Dark, because, if the other Old Ones suspect anything, they can kill Hawkin and keep the book safe. So for the sake of Will's magical education, Merriman forces Hawkin to risk his life.
Hawkin deals with it until the time comes to remove the book and give it to Will, and then he realizes viscerally exactly the kind of peril Merriman has willingly put him to. That same night he goes over to the Dark and endangers the Light by giving the Dark a doorway--his own mind--into one of the Light's strongholds. Throughout the book, we see him confronting Merriman three times, and each of these confrontations is painful in a way that nothing else in the book truly is. Where ritual and ceremony and magic are being performed elsewhere by our protagonist, always, in a corner, Merriman and Hawkin play out their human tragedy over and over, with magic having no real part of it. And in this tragedy, it is Hawkin who has all the power, because he has free will, and the endlessly powerful, all-seeing Merriman can't affect his decision at all.
Hawkin is hands down the strongest character in the book, and the thing that makes this book still the best fantasy I have ever read.
My personal epiphany yesterday was about exactly that: there needs to be a much more down-to-earth, adult conflict in my book to counterbalance the children's coming-of-age, magical education story that will be the main story. I have no strong adult characters who make it all the way through the book, and I need some. In children's lit, especially middle grade and YA, the child-protagonists' growth is measured against the performance of the adults around them. There need to be strong adult characters, and these characters need to show their quality in acting against their own conflicts, for the book to have true depth.
I'll have more to write about TDIR later but that's all for now.