Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Silver on the Tree - Final thoughts with Nymeth

Nymeth, Kerry and I reviewed The Grey King here, last month. We were all three slated to do Silver on the Tree together, but sadly life got busy for Kerry and she couldn't complete her reading, so asked us to go ahead this time. So this time Nymeth and I emailed our final questions on The Dark is Rising series, by Susan Cooper: Silver on the Tree, the final book in the sequence.

Nymeth has already done her post, here, and as before, she has done a quick plot review. For those who have not ever read this series, the three Drew children - Jane, Simon and Barney, plus Will and Bran, are facing the greatest challenge as the battle between the Light and Dark comes to its final great conclusion.

Nymeth asked first: Early in the book, there's a scene in which Will and his brother stop a group of schoolmates who are harassing a Pakistani boy. Why do you think Susan Cooper included this scene? How do you think it relates to the series' themes?
Susan: Ouch! This is a hard one, possibly one of the most difficult scenes in the book. Actually, when I first read it, it was so unlike anything else in the book that I paused and asked myself, why is this here? I wasn't sure I liked it, at first. It seemed out of place, too real, in a book about higher magic and old magic and light versus dark; but then I thought about what the racism did. It was hard to hear the word Paki - which I remember from my childhood, being used to those of Pakistani descent - it was hateful and hard. But that was the point. The evil that Will and the others would have to face at the end, was going to be on a real, daily world level.

The scene also pointed out, like the bad-tempered Caradog in The Grey King, that people have a choice in how they behave, and sometimes in choosing light or dark, they become tools for that side - open up themselves to do greater good or evil. This is a constant theme in the books, from the agent of the evil in Greenwitch, to Caradog, the painter in Over Sea, Under Stone, to Richie Moore, and later one particular character (nameless to preserve some surprises!). They all are human beings, who in hurt, rage, fear, or greed, chose to do bad things. It's that choice that Susan Cooper is interested in, because she carefully shows one of the good characters always pointing out they could stop, choose another approach, and the bad character always says no. In this particular case, the evil of Richie Moore had its beginnings in his father, who turns out to be the worst prejudiced sort or person. This is Will's reaction:"'The mindless ferocity of this man, and all those like him, their real loathing born of nothing more solid than insecurity and fear....it was a channel. Will knew that he had been gazing into the channel down which the powers of the Dark, if they gained their freedom, could ride in an instant to complete control of the earth." At the end of the book Merriman says all the characters, all the people, will still have to fight to keep the world good, that though the battle of time has been won, the daily battle to keep the world good goes ever on.

Nymeth's response: I love how you linked this scene to Caradog in "The Grey King". I made that connection as well. My reasons for liking this scene are similar to yours. I have a hard time taking an abstract concept like “The Dark” or even a decontextualized notion of “evil” seriously, but there are many instances in the series in which Susan Cooper concretizes it in everyday things, and that’s what makes the whole thing work for me. Also, I agree with you that she’s most of all interested in the choice – what makes people act kindly rather than unkindly, what’s behind hostility, what’s behind compassion. The characters you mentioned are all human, and despite the existence of supernatural forces in the story, their actions are justified in human terms. Again, this is what I love about this series.

Susan asked next: “What do you think of the fact that some of the characters had their
memories of their contact with the forces of Light and Darkness wiped? Why do you think it was done? Do you agree?”

Nymeth's reply: I think this goes with what we were talking about in our previous answers: how regardless of all the magic in the books, Susan Cooper keeps things very human. The characters in question forget so that they may continue to be human. Forgetting means that they remain as lost and as uncertain as the rest of us, making what they hope are the right choices as they go along. If they remembered, they would have definitive answers, which in real life none of us do. I especially liked how one of the characters in particular was given a choice about whether they wanted to remember or forget. Although the Old Ones have the power to do so, they don’t decide for people. They give humankind the autonomy and responsibility of choosing freely.

Susan's reply:
I liked your answer, although I have to say at first what happened to the characters very much upset me. I was mad when the first character had it done, because I felt it unfair, and I almost yelled at the book when the other characters had it done. I really had to reason with myself, think it out, because I thought it unfair they should have no memory at all. something great like that should be remembered, that's how our myths get told, and legends. Joseph Campbell says we can't have contact with the numinous without being changed, and I think that is part of the richness of myth and the call to the threshold - each character has done something special, and why couldn't they be allowed to be a little changed? I'm not so sure it was a gift to have their memories wiped, because the whole point of re-enacting a myth, is to bring back something for humanity to use and learn from. The burden of all they saw and did was very much, I agree, and they couldn't have had a normal life after, and the point of the battle, was that in the end, control of the world passes to humans, as the scene with the Pakistani boy in the first question showed, the battle between good and evil continues on a human level. I just think it's unfair that after all their choices, everything they saw and learned, that they weren't allowed to keep some of it - wouldn't Barney have painted some fabulous paintings, then? And who knows what Jane and Simon would have gone on to do. So in a way, I thought this was the easy way out. You can tell I feel passionately about this question, I really spent a fair bit of time thinking it through, when it happened in the book!

Nymeth then replied: I guess that in this case, my uber scepticism influenced my reaction. You see, at the end of the book I did feel that they had been changed, even if they didn’t explicitly remember things. I guess it’s strange, and it's hard for me to explain why I think so, since obviously forgetting an experience would keep you from learning from it. But I guess I justify it to myself by seeing these supernatural forces in more symbolic terms. So for me, by forgetting they internalized what I always saw in more interior terms.

Susan: Now, on to your excellent question which is one I would have asked if you hadn't beat me to it!

Nymeth's next question: Without giving it away, were you satisfied with the
ending? Why or why not? How do you think this book compares to others in the series?

Susan's reply: Even given how upset I was with the loss of memory in the book (see previous question), I'd have to say that on the whole, I was satisfied with the ending. They are allowed to be children. I still think they should remember something, though! The best touch is what happens with the choice a character has to make in the ending - that touch of love humanizes the whole ending, and shows that in the end, it is our connection with one another that matters most. Love will always overcome darkness, is always the right choice. It is a huge choice at the end that is the right one, and that was very good, and ends the series on a powerful up note. The memory loss, not so good! In a funny way, while the book ends overlooking a lake in Wales, and the series begins overlooking the sea in Cornwall, there are other physical similarities too, such as most of the series takes place in the countryside, and that was satisfying as well. It makes good use of the natural surroundings and highlights the Celtic nature of the landscape to go with the myth being reworked. The book itself was one of the least satisfying to me to in the series, and I wondered why: was it the juxtaposition of the Barney children with Will? This time, no, I think it wasn't that. It was how the items of light were found, and the tone of the book - there was tone of coldness, distance, in this book, that made the book the least likeable for me. It was too remote.

The books are uneven, with Over Sea, Under Stone being universally the hardest one to get into and like (at least I've found, and with other comments sent to me). I did like Greenwitch, I found it very haunting. I loved The Dark is Rising. And I enjoyed The Grey King very much. Those are my favourites in the series.

Nymeth's answer: I was satisfied with the ending, yes. It reminded me of the ending of some other fantasy series, namely The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Prydain, which makes sense, as they draw from some of the same myths. That whole theme of an era ending and humankind being left with the responsibility for the world they inhabit is there in them all, and I like that a lot. "Silver on the Tree" is probably also my least favourite after "Over Sea, Under Stone", but I still enjoyed it a lot. My favourites are "The Grey King" and "The Dark is Rising", with "Greenwitch" in the middle.

Susan: My next question to you is: Did you find a difference in how the Barney children were written versus Will and Bran?

Susan's answer: I'm not sure if Susan Cooper liked the Barney children. It is very difficult to warm up to them, although I wanted to, and I liked them. As Over Sea, Under Stone, and Greenwitch went on, I liked the children more and more in each book. I really liked Jane. But Susan Cooper uses a different tone for the characters, and the love she feels for Will spills over whenever he appears. I'm not sure how she does this, but he was such a fully realized character that I wanted the series to be about him, with him as the central character. Which it was! By the fifth book, the children were more familiar with one another, so it wasn't so awkward, except for meeting Bran, and I thought that was well done. And of course Bran was very interesting. I know that she was trying to show that the mythic battle for good and evil must be played out at the personal level, and she needed characters who were ordinary as well. It was always awkward though, I felt, in the series, when the two worlds collided. I'm not sure if that was on purpose, or by accident. I really think I would have liked to know a little more about the Barney children, because they did play an important part, and one of the pivotal scenes in the whole series involves Simon and Barney at the caravan, in Greenwitch. There, they had no help but what was in themselves, to guide them forward. That was very well done and was when I thought all three Barney children had a right to be in the series, if that makes sense! Jane already had because she was involved with the Greenwitch.

Nymeth: “I guess we disagree on this one. I didn’t see all that many differences, other than the fact that Bran and Will were more than what they seemed, whereas the Barney children were “just” children. But they all played an important role in the final outcome of the whole thing. But I had no trouble at all warming up to them. I liked Jane best, though, and I like the fact that she was give a more central role as the series advanced, especially in "Greenwitch". I fully agree with you on why ordinary characters were necessary,
though. That’s really what makes this series work so well for me.

Susan came up with the final question to the series: I think the only question I have left is, would you recommend this series to children to read?

Susan's answer: I know it's kind of a silly question, but we're adults reading this series, and it's written for children especially. Myself, I know I'm going to read it out loud to my kids, and hope one day they read my copies! I really enjoyed this overall, and would have no problems giving this to any child who reads fantasy, or who enjoys reading. I think Will and the Barney kids and Bran are great kids to grow up with, along with the Narnia kids. (My daughter loves Lucy, the one closest in age to her right now).

Nymeth: I'm probably the least indicated person there could be to answer this question, as age appropriateness almost never crosses my mind when I'm reading. I don't have any children myself, and I grew up with unsupervised access to any book in the house. This resulted in my reading "The Lady of the Camellias" by Alexandre Dumas, which is about a prostitute dying of tuberculosis, when I was in my pre-teens. And you know what happened? I didn't understand what was going on for the most part, and I was bored by it. Anyway...my default answer to these questions is almost always yes. I enjoyed the series as an adult, and would have enjoyed it as a kid too. And I'm sure plenty of other kids will as well. I love the fact
that you plan to share it with your children!

Susan (Note to Nymeth: I was too late to email this to you, I'm sorry!): It's funny how we come to read books too advanced for us. I think I read Arthur Hailey at this age, and Rosemary Rogers - and adult Isaac Asimov. So it's a question of finding the right books, and all we can do as adults is guide our children to them, and hope they find answers and treasures and all the delight that we find in them.

So, thus ends The Dark is Rising, a series I had wanted to read for 20 or so years. I've finally read it, and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend this series for anyone looking to give a special gift of children's book to a child in the 8-12 range especially, depending on how much they read. Of course, I am much much older and I would quite happily give this series to anyone who wants to read good fantasy, regardless of age!!!! It really is interesting, and tackles a matter that we are all familiar with - the Arthurian myth - and changes it without altering the structure at all.

Thank you to the wonderful Nymeth for her keen insight and gentle wisdom. She makes me see things in books that I don't readily see often on my own! I really enjoyed it, so I am quite happy to do this again with any of you, my Gentle Readers, if we happen to be reading the same book around the same time.


Ana S. said...

Thanks again, Susan! And I'm so sorry I didn't wait for that last bit! It's just that I didn't realize you'd say more. I really didn't mean it!

You also made me see things in the books I wouldn't have seen otherwise, and that's part of what made this such fun :D

Kailana said...

I am really going to have to try and finish this series this year!

Susan said...

Nymeth: It's my fault, I didn't look at my emails on Monday :-P or I could have sent it back to you in time!

Kailana: Now that I have read it, I'm really glad I did read it, and even more that I enjoyed it. Honestly, the rest of the books are better than Over SEa, Under Stone!

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