Over the Christmas season, Rob McFarlane and Julia Bird have been leading a re-reading of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising on Twitter with the hashtag #TheDarkIsReading. This has led to some fascinating conversations, including on the theology of the book.
There were some very interesting comments by neo-pagans and others who felt that Cooper’s focus on Arthurian legends and folktales, such as Herne the Hunter1, were more in line with pagan theology than Christian theology.
This isn’t surprising, as Cooper structured the books round pagan festivals and, as we’ll discuss, explicitly rejects a Christian world-view in one of the chapters. However, I don’t think that what she is doing is that simple.
To start with, it’s worth noting that the Arthurian legends are Christian, and stories such as Herne the Hunter and Beowulf existed within a Christian world-view. Certainly, the surviving manuscript of Beowulf has significant Christian elements within it (there is an ongoing argument about whether these were always integral to the story, or were added to a later version). I also read a comment about the pagan nature of the numbers, but which quoted 7 as an example. Seven is highly significant in biblical symbolism.
Someone on Twitter complained that the Dark/evil wasn’t explained, but was just assumed, which links to both Christian and pagan understandings. In the Bible, and in Greek and Norse mythologies evil is assumed rather than explained; an approach that links with our experiential understanding of the world.
In many ways, most of the worldview and theology of The Dark is Rising overlaps in different ways with both Lewis, in the Narnia books, and Tolkien, in The Lord of the Rings. This is particularly evident in the use by all three of both Christian and pagan elements, but goes beyond this as well.
For example, the understanding of non-linear time and the struggle of Light and Dark is fairly similar to Lewis. Meanwhile, the Light is presented as an agent of Good rather than Good itself (or God himself) as Tolkien does. Cooper’s Old Ones feel very similar to Tolkien’s Istari (wizards); both are sent by an external power, both are wiser and more powerful than humans, and both are fallible. Merriman, one of the greatest Old Ones, makes a mistake that leads to a significant betrayal, whilst Sauraman falls and Gandalf is defeated by the Balrog, makes mistakes, and so on. Both, in short, feel rather like a Christian (although not particularly biblical) understanding of angels.
However, whilst Lewis (overtly) and Tolkien (less obviously, but just as deeply) drew on their Christian faith, Cooper is explicitly non-Christian. This is particularly evident in the chapter Christmas Day, where Will and some of the other Old Ones fight the Dark in church, after the Christmas Day service.
The Old Ones find one of the six Signs that is Will’s quest and the central part of the book. The signs are each shaped as a circle, quartered with a cross. After the Dark has been driven back by them, The Rector, Mr Beaumont, sees them:
He too looked at the Signs on Will’s belt, and he glanced up again, smiling suddenly, an almost childish smile of relief and delight. ‘That did the work, didn’t it? The cross. Not of the church, but a Christian cross, nonetheless.’
‘Very old, them crosses are, rector,’ said Old George unexpectedly, firm and clear. ‘Made a long time before Christianity. Long before Christ.’
The rector beamed at him. ‘But not before God,’ he said simply.
This was the bit that I remembered, not having read the book for a number of years. I still think that Mr Beaumont’s answer is a good one, and better than the responses. The Old Ones don’t want to offend, so don’t say anything. What I’d forgotten is that Will continues this conversation, giving the Old One’s (Cooper’s?) non-Christian theology:
‘There’s not really any before and after, is there?’ he [Will] said. ‘Everything that matters is outside Time. And comes from there and can go there.’
Mr Beaumont turned to him in surprise, ‘You mean infinity, of course, my boy.’
‘Not altogether,’ said the Old One that was Will. ‘I mean the part of all of us, and of all the things we think and believe, that has nothing to do with yesterday or today or tomorrow because it belongs at a different kind of level. Yesterday is still there, on that level. Tomorrow is there too. You can visit either of them. And all Gods are there, and all the things they have ever stood for. And,’ he added sadly, ‘the opposite, too.’
Cooper’s portrait of the Rector is attractive and sympathetic. She presents him as motorbike-riding, music-loving, and brave enough to attempt to exorcise the Dark. His response to Will’s theology is to start a dialogue rather than simply tell him he is wrong.
But, the responses of George and Will jar with me (and with other Christians I discussed this on Twitter with). They seem out of character, and out of the worldview of the rest of the series. It seems to me that this is Cooper’s worldview breaking through into the narrative.
In his fascinating blogpost on this, Rob Maslen also critiques this chapter, and argues that in it Cooper unshackles the Old Ones from the narrative of history and separates pagan magic from religious belief, in ways that he finds bewildering and unconvincing.
The theology/worldview of The Dark is Rising has been described as Manichean, where good and evil are, more-or-less, evenly balanced. But, I’m not convinced. The Light and the Dark seem fairly evenly matched, but there is the Wild Magic as a third pole, while the Light and the Dark are limited, are part of the created order, even if they can transcend time.
In an interesting interview on the Arthurian elements of The Dark is Rising series, Cooper says:
I had to move away from it because it seems to me that the Arthurian legend is parallel to the Christian story of the leader who dies for our salvation. Whereas what my books were trying to say is that nobody else can save us. We have to save ourselves.
Except that, the books are all about the opposite. How a few can save the many. How the Light sends saviours. How there are powers beyond us, and that we can be part of this larger struggle.
In Transfiguring Transcendence, Mike Grey argues that Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, and the Left Behind series are all “deeply, albeit ambivantently, rooted in the structures of Christian Heilslehre [doctrine of salvation]”. I think that is true of The Dark is Rising as well. Cooper’s gift for writing and blend of different religious understandings mean that it more-or-less appeals to people with very different theologies.
1. I’m very grateful to Dr Dimitra Fimi for pointing out how late the first extant mention of Herne the Hunter is (it occurs in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor). ↩