Saturday, 7 February 2009

another essay, and Dark is Rising and Greenwitch

This is The Language of the Night, the book of essays by Ursula K Le Guin that many of you have been asking me about. I have the 1979 edition, which is trade paperback. I'm not sure if it is still available, I don't think so, at least according to, it is only available used. This book has a collection of essays and speeches given by Le Guin over her early career as a writer, because of course she has continued to write these past 30 years since this book came out!

I have been reviewing - or rather, writing about - the essays in her book, in some of my posts this month, because each one is so important to understanding why we all (or most of us in the book blogging community that I have met) read fantasy. In the wider world, of course, we are reading a genre that is treated as only slightly above horror, and barely tolerated as literate, never mind as great literature. This despite the efforts to recognize within the fantasy and science fiction book world excellence in writing. She extends this to children's literature as well. Le Guin addresses all of these concerns in her essays. She also talks about the act of writing. She writes about writing, and reading, and what we find when we go on a voyage into these books. Because I love fantasy first and foremost, her books seem to talk directly to me, affirming to me what I have long ago thought in my heart about fantasy, and what I discover in my soul every time I venture into a fantasy book.

Here is what I discovered in today's essay, "The Child and the Shadow". I read this over a toasted bagel with cream cheese, and a cup of tea, and about half-way through the essay I realized I had eaten most of the bagel without tasting it, because there was so much other food for my mind in the essay.
She opens with a quick retelling of one of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, about a man and his shadow. The essay asks, Is it appropriate for children to read? Because society - parents,school boards, etc, are always asking what is 'good' or 'appropriate' for children.
She writes about the Andersen story: "I don't know. I hated it when I was a kid. I hated all the Andersen stories with unhappy endings. That didn;t stop me from reading them, and rereading them. Or from remembering that after a gap of thirty years, when I was pondering this talk, a little voice suddenly said in my left ear, "You'd better dig out that Andersen story, you know, about the shadow.
At age ten I certainly wouldn't have gone on about reason and repression and all that. I had no critical equipment, no detachment, and even less power of sustained thought than I have now. I had somewhat less conscious mind than I have now. But I had as much, or more, of an unconscious mind, and was perhaps in better touch with it than I am now. And it was to that, to the unknown depths in me, that the story spoke; and it was the depths which responded to it and, nonverbally, irrationally, understood it, and learned from it.
The great fantasies, myths, and tales are indeed like dreams: they speak from the unconscious to the unconscious, in the language of the unconscious - symbol and archetype."

Isn't that somehow perfectly said? As if Le Guin herself had bypassed all the reasons why we should read fantasy, and said why we do read it - because it speaks to something deep inside us, the place in our hearts and souls that other books that are 'reasonable' and 'good' for us don't reach. I think the idea of morality is very important, and Le Guin goes on to make a much deeper connection between fantasy and morality in this essay: she says that instead of dividing good from evil, that we must learn, what our souls know, that good and evil are intertwined. Not mixed, but rather, in order to live a whole life, we must face the darkness in ourselves, in order to contain that darkness. If we don't face it, we become lonely, because we are cut off from our deepest source of creativity and understanding about the world. If we do face it, we show the world that evil can be contained in ourselves, and we show the way for others - for children, in our stories, how to do this. How to face our shadow, and win. She also makes the important statement that we can't cut off the shadow, we can't forget about it, or ignore it; it just grows stronger, until we, the conscious self, becomes the shadow of the Shadow, which is now corrupted with the evil we wouldn't admit to. It's not easy to say, I can be like her - the worst crimes committed, but if we can find a way to acknowledge the seed of the idea might possibly exist in us, no matter how dark, we are saved.

So how do we find our way to our shadow? "How do you get there? How do you find your own private entrance to the collective unconscious? Well, the first step is often the most important, and Jung says that the first step is to turn around and follow your own shadow."

And children, I believe, instinctively know this. Le Guin makes this point again and again: they see with an uncluttered mind, uncluttered with reason, logic, all the ways adults use to stop themselves from seeing. Even if the child doesn't understand all the facets of the story, they instinctively know it's true in its depths. Not just the battle between good and evil, which we all face every day as adults, but how we live our lives. They know if someone or something is true. So my favourite Andersen tale,

is one that I have both feared, dreaded and loved dearly. All at the same time. As an adult, I can acknowledge that the Snow Queen lives in me, that I have the fearsome and awesome capability to freeze my emotions if I have to, in order to survive. If I am in danger of doing this, my dreams tell me - I'll dream I'm in the arctic, or ice or snow is all around me. And the way home for me is to love, is to feel again, to be passionate. So, fairy tales are true. How did my child-self know all those years ago? The fairy tale is my guide and my instruction home again. So is The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, so is Beauty and the Beast, so are the best fantasy books and fairy tale books and our cultural myths we tell. Le Guin says fairy tales give children the chance to see yes, the world is full of danger, and yes, there is a way to survive. We do have to be careful with children, to not shatter them with too much knowledge too early. What we can show them, she says, is this: "And it seems to me that the way you can speak absolutely honestly and factually to a child about both good and evil is to talk about himself. Himself, his inner self, his deep, the deepest Self. That is something he can cope with; indeed, his job in growing up is to become himself.....He needs to see himself and the shadow he casts. That is something he can face, his own shadow, and he can learn to control it and be guided by it......
Fantasy is the language of the inner self."

Anyway, that's why I forgot what I was eating for breakfast, because her essay swooped me away into my deeper self, where I remembered that going within is the most important journey each person makes, and necessary to the well-being of the world. So, what is your favourite Andersen, or other, fairy tale? Is there a relation between that story and you?

So, with all that in mind, how does a classic children's fantasy series measure up?

The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch, books 2 and 3 in the Dark is Rising series by Susan Cooper. This is a fantasy series written for children, and won two Newbery Awards - for The Dark is Rising volume, and The Grey King.
I read Over Sea, Under Stone last year, and my review is here. The next two volumes are even better.

Dark in Rising
introduces Will Stanton, and what happens to him on his 11th birthday. It is a true fantasy story, filled with Old Ones, magic, items to find, protecting the world from Evil, and in this book, the wonder of a Christmas with the Stanton family with their 10 children. This is a classic book of good vs evil, with a delicious sense of danger and malevolence that I love: 'And then in a dreadful furious moment, horror seized him like a nightmare made real; there came a wrenching crash, with the howling of the wind suddenly much louder and closer, and a great blast of cold; and the Feeling came hurtling against him with such force of dread that it flung him cowering away.'
I love this bit, which Cooper does in all the books: weave in a bit of local lore, that grounds the books in Cornwall (Over Sea) or The Thames Valley (The Dark is Rising), using existing magical lore to deepen the connection of how to find your way in the land of magic and dream:
"Here," Old George said, appearing suddenly at Will's side as they all pushed the cart out of the gate. "You should have some of this." He thrust forward a great bunch of holly, heavy with berries.
"Very good of you, George," said Mr. Stanton."But we do have that big holly tree by the front door, you know. If you know anyone who hasn't -"
"No, no, you take it." The old man wagged his finger. "Not half so many berries on that bush o'yours. Partic'lar holly, this is." He laid it carefully in the cart; then quickly broke off a sprig and slipped it into the top buttonhole of Will's coat. "And a good protection against the Dark," the old voice said low in Will's ear, "if pinned over the window, and over the door." Then the pink-gummed grin split his creased brown face in a squawk of ancient laughter, and the Old One was Old George again, waving them away. "Happy Christmas!"

This book is filled with danger, and evil, and goodness, and light, and those that stand eternal guard against the dark. It's a wonderful story, and I really enjoyed it. I also really wanted to go and put some holly and berries over my doors and windows!!

Greenwitch brings together the children - Jane, Barney and Simon Drew from Over Sea, Under Stone, with Will from The Dark is Rising. They are again in Cornwall, and they are brought there under the guise of a week's holiday in April (a school break time in England). Really, they are looking for the Grail, which at the end of Over Sea, Under Stone had been placed in a museum. It has been stolen, and Merriman, the Old One who is the Merlin-like figure of aid to Will in the stories, knows they have a small window of time to find it before it is lost forever. Being the Grail, it is indispensible in the fight against evil. This story took a while to find a balance; it read more like an adventure in the Enid Blyton style, then when it was involving Merriman and Will, suddenly it had the more mythic overtones that The Dark is Rising contains. Over Sea, Under Stone had the same juxtaposition of adventure fun with mythic overtones. Cooper is a good enough writer that she in the end pulls it off, and Greenwitch works on a much deeper and better level than Over Sea, Under Stone does.

I think this is because Greenwitch is based on a Cornwall ritual of making an offering to the sea. Whether this is based on a real Cornwall ritual, I couldn't say, but it feels like once upon a time, it could very well have been done. It is very simple, the creation of statue of branches - for those who know their trees, rowan and hawthorn especially are used. How the Greenwitch figures in the story, I don't want to give away, but I do want to say that this is again a magical story, with old magic and Wild Magic, which are two different things. I like this too, that there are different kinds of magic in the world. It works especially because what Jane does crosses the divide between the Wild Magic and Old Magic, something no one else is able to do because it doesn't come from knowledge, but understanding, and sympathy. So often, the greatest fantasy stories are about this act of sympathy - remember, Bilbo doesn't slay Gollum when he has the chance, and so he saves the world. What Jane,Simon, and Barney do, make up the bulk of the story, and it is believable in the way adventure stories must be for children, as well as full of wonder, as magical stories must be. Will and Merriman are more watchers, seeking the Grail specifically; I think their story is the whole of the 5 books put together. I think Cooper put ordinary children into a mythic story to see what would happen, and it is fun, exciting, and dangerous, just like the best stories for children are.
"Barney felt again the power and the nastiness that had leapt at him from the canvas he had seen the man painting in the harbour; up on this ceiling too he saw the particular unnerving shade of green he had found so unpleasant out there. He said suddenly to Simon, "Let's go home."
"Not yet," said the dark man. He spoke softly, without moving, and Barney felt a chill awareness of the Dark reaching out to control him."

Very highly recommended. I have to buy the last two in the series, and that will be later this month. I have to know how it ends!


Kerry said...

The book of essays sounds really interesting. I like what it says about fantasy, as often the books that talk to me best are the ones where I can't explain the what or how or why of that resonance.

I'm currently rereading (or technically listening) to the Dark is Rising books, and enjoying them all over again. I finished Greenwitch back in January and hope to start The Grey King soon. It introduces a new set of characters as I recall and then it all comes together in the last book. I don't remember a lot about them, so I'm enjoying the rediscovery.

Ana S. said...

"In order to live a whole life, we must face the darkness in ourselves, in order to contain that darkness."

It makes sense that she says this, because I can see this theme in so many of her stories. Thank you for reminding me of how much I need to get my hands on this book! And yes - fairy tales are true :) My favourite Andersen fairy tale is actually The Snow Queen really resonated with me as a child, and it still does to this day.

I'm so glad you enjoyed the two Cooper books as much as I did! I wonder if the Greenwitch ritual was based on a real tradition too. In any case, it definitely feels real. Thanks to you I'm even more excited about reading the rest of the series now, so thank you!

Susan said...

Kerry: fantasy - actually, anything creative that comes from within, has that resonance, I think. It's at a non-verbal level too. So it's difficult to put into words. It's the same with any creative act, what we envision is not always what ends up being created, but to others, sometimes it's perfect anyway.

This is my first time reading the Dark is Rising series, so I am really happy I'm enjoying them so much. Let me know if you have done any reviews, and I'll add them to my post.

Nymeth: I have to come find your review for the first three books, I know you have done them! lol and add the link to my post.

You like the Snow Queen too? I think you are the only other one I've met who does! Is there one part that makes you cry? Actually, from the time he leaves her, I usually start feeling the tears swell, then the bloody footprints, and then her tears when he rejects her - its' a 4-hanky story for me! a Beautiful story about love, for me. I'm so thrilled you loved it too! A long time ago I said to you I thought we might be kindred spirits, I've never forgotten that. If I didn't already have 3 sisters, I'd call you my long-lost one! lol

I just read your email - it came in this afternoon here :-) so hurray! we'll read the last two Rising books together - I'll try and get them this week so you can finish your challenge on time! :-D

more on email....and now to go answer your questions, lol! thanks! :-D

Kerry said...

Susan - I have reviews for Over Sea, Under Stone ( and Greenwitch ( and a very short comment on The Dark is Rising (

Once I finish my current audiobook I'll be starting The Grey King.

Susan said...

Kerry: are you going to be reading Grey King or listening to it? I have to get it - as you know from my reply to Nymeth, I am aiming to get it this week, since she has to read it soon for the Arthurian Challenge. You can try reading with us - not sure how this works with 3! In different countries! but we could do an interview (all three of us)about the books - email me, if you're interested, at and let me know :-D

Shelley said...

I can't believe I've never read anything by Le Guin yet! I already know I would her writing. I love the Dark is Rising Series. I read them out loud/listened to audiobooks with my kids a few years ago. I would like to just read them on my own sometime. But I should get to A Wizard of Earthsea first, I think.

DesLily said...

I have that full set of cooper books in my tbr pile... i'm working hard to get the pile down so I many just get to them soon! (great post susan!)

Ana S. said...

Susan, I can't remember if the Snow Queen made me cry, but I remember how much the feeling of loss and longing got to me. And, like you said, love. Normally I much prefer the Grimms to Andersen, but this fairy tale in particular really stands out for me.

I don't have any sisters, so I'll be happy to call you my long lost one :D

I have an idea for co-reviewing the last two Susan Cooper books with you and Kerry. What if we came up with a questionnaire? We'd each suggest, say, 2 discussion questions, and then all 3 of us would answer the 6 questions. Then we'd post everything together...the questions followed by the 3 different answers. If you have any other ideas I'd love to hear them too!

Ana S. said...

Or maybe we could suggest 3 questions each, and then each one of us would post the 3 different answers to 3 of the questions and link to the other two posts. Then we'd all have different posts that complemented one another. What do you (and Kerry, of course) think?

Susan said...

Shelley: can you believe that I haven't read the Wizard of Earthsea books yet? Even my 20 year old has given me one of his copies, so I have all three, and I still haven't read it! So don't feel too badly, this book of essays is the first thing I've read. I haven't read Left Hand of Darkness, her classic SF, either....

Deslily: I've been meaning to read the series for TWENTY years, so please don't feel too badly! lol though i know what you mean about the TBR pile, which they sat on for all those years. Every time I get something off the pile, I end up adding to it!

Nymeth: I think I prefer the first version, though funny enough I was thinking through both options last night and this morning too, before I read your comments! I think of it like a round table, and I think if we each post all three sets of answers to the questions on our blogs :-D I think we could link to each other's posts then too.

As soon as i can find them this week, I'll let you and Kerry know. this is fun!

I'm not sure that I cried so much as a child, but certainly now I do reading The Snow Queen. I know so much more now! lol And I like the Grimms too, but funny enough, I'm not sure we had any Grimm's fairy tales, when I was growing up, but the Disney versions!

*hugs* to long-lost sis :-D

Kerry: can you let me or us know which question posting you prefer? And if you want to join? We really want you to! :-D

Kerry said...

Susan and Nymeth: On reflection, I think I like the first idea best too. It'll be interesting to have all the answers together and in the future if someone is going back through any of our blogs, they get to find everything together. As this answers shows, yes I'm delighted to join in. I'm going to start listening today, but will dig out my paper copy too so that if I get too far behind I have a faster way to catch up.

Jeane said...

I love that series. It's been a while since I've read them; have to go open them again sometime soon. Your discussion of LeGuin's essays is wonderful, now I'm itching to get my hands on that book myself. I'm sad to know it's out of print, but maybe I can get my hands on a used copy.

Jodie Robson said...

This is a wonderful post, Susan! All the way through I was dying to start writing a comment because I too loved The Snow Queen best (you can imagine that when one of my first boyfriends said I was like the Snow Queen I was both thrilled and horrified - but I think that was partly because it was his favourite too; he went on to have real snow queen girlfriends after me).

And then you went on to The Dark is Rising, a lovely series. I read them when they first came out, and remember that it was a long wait for the story to be completed. re-read and enjoyed them all a couple of years ago; I think I like The Dark is Rising best, it's such a wonderful Christmas book, and I have always had something of an obsession with Herne the Hunter.

Haye you read the two tilogies by Jan Siegel/Amanda Hemingway, which have something of the same feel to them?

Susan said...

jeane: I hope you can find Le Guin's book, I think I'll start looking out for a copy here - sometimes our used bookstores are very good - and I'll let you know if I find one. thank you for the compliment, too about the essay. They are so interesting to read. It's so hard to find anything thoughtful about why fantasy is good to read. I think I and Nymeth might be one of the last people to read The Dark is Rising series! Did you read them to your children?

geraniumcat: Not only can I not believe that a boyfriend actually said that to you, which is so mean! unless he meant you were like Gretel (is that her name?) who saves the boy, then it would be a compliment. I like how you get revenge on him though! Nice. But that you loved the same fairy tale by him - that does surprise me, because so few people have heard of it, never mind like it. YOu can see by what I wrote to Nymeth (who also says it's her favourite. I think blogs/the internet are wonderful!)that it's moving for me to read. I'm delighted you and her feel the same too. Some day we'll have to put all our versions together and compare the illustrations etc :-) this is so much fun!

Herne the Hunter, wow, I haven't heard him referred to in years. I can see what you mean, there is a feeling of the hunt in the book. I was getting some Merlin though from the figure of Merriman. It's such a good series, I'm really curious to see how the last two books pull it off. I do love that Christmas feeling about The Dark is Rising, which may be one reason why it won the Newbery that year. I like how there is the Celtic feel to the myths, without - so far- any particular Arthur or the Hunt or faerie being referred to.

Is Jan Siegel's series the one with Prospero's Children as one of the titles? If so, I've read the first one - I really enjoyed it, and have picked up the second one now to continue it. Did you enjoy it?

Jodie Robson said...

Susan, my boyfiend definitely didn't mean to be complimentary, though I think I'm much more the Little Gerda type. I'd have done it all wrong though, trying to persuade the Snow Queen to let Kay go, and probably meeting a sticky end myself.

I think that Herne reappears in the final book of the Dark sequence, but it is a couple of years since my re-read. Time to go back to it maybe. My obession began with Alan Garner's Moon of Gomrath, and later I spent much of an out-of-work summer researching Herne and the Green Man.

Yes, Jan Siegel wrote Prospero's Children, which is followed by two more in the series: The Dragon Charmer, and Witch's Honour. Then as Amanda Hemingway she wrote The Sangreal Trilogy: The Greenstone Grail, Traitor's Sword and The Poisoned Crown. I've just looked at what I had to say about the Siegel series ( - I sounded perhaps a little more lukewarm than I meant to, because I really do like her writing, and The Sangreal Trilogy is excellent (reminds me that I still want to write about it, too). Oh, and in the US Traitor's Sword was called Sword of Straw, I think.

Susan said...

geraniumcat: I wasn't sure, I thought he might not have been complimentary. I sure wouldn't take it that way if someone called me the Ice Queen! One point Le Guin makes is that in fairy tales, the characters know what to do because they follow their instincts to do the right thing. Because it's unknown, there is no clear way, and that's when instinct comes in. I thought that was a very interesting way to look at fairy tales and the better fantasy novels. So Little Gerda somehow knows her tears will heal. Isn't that beautiful? that's my excuse for crying so much! lol

I'm about to reread Alan Garner's series later this year! It's been such a long time since I last read anything by him and I really did love his writing. Now that I know more about Celtic Myth, I'm very curious to see how Garner uses it. Speaking of Herne, have you read Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood? It's a fabulous fantasy and features Herne.

I have Dragon Charmer to read on my TBR pile, but I didn't know about her pen name, so I will look for that series too. Thanks for telling me!

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