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Reading the Signs of Light:
Anglo Saxonism, Education, and Obedience in Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising

Michael D. C. Drout

Legendary, mythological, and historical materials have long been sources for English literature, and the study of the ways sources are adapted has been a significant aspect of critical practice. One of the standard assumptions of source study is that sources carry their histories with them, and therefore readers encountering legendary or historical materials are able to supply a fuller context for the reference from their existing cultural knowledge. Part of literary-critical practice for the past hundred years has been the explication of such references and the attempt to understand and explain the contexts they bring to bear. Such work is most evident in the study of ancient and medireview cultures, where it focuses on the recovery of lost contexts, but it can also be found, for example, in the work of Joyce-scholars attempting to unwind the layers of multilingual references in Finnegans Wake.

There are serious theoretical objections to the reflexive practice of source study, the most obvious being that source-based interpretations privilege the experiences of a particular (and perhaps privileged) group of readers who possess the context to which a reference metonymically refers. This objection is strengthened in the case of source-study of children's literature. Whereas it is reasonable to assume that adult readers possess at least a modicum of the shared cultural context necessary to ensure communication through reference, the intended readers of children's books are likely to be encountering many references for the first time. Presumably they do not have what E. D. Hirsch calls the "cultural literacy" (10-18) to reconstruct a reference from an allusion. Nor may they be sophisticated enough to understand fully the idea that the adaptation of a source is equivalent to its modification, or that adaptations [End Page 230] often work to fix ambiguous meanings. What would appear to an adult reader or critic as the adaptation of source material would seem to be to many (particularly younger or less acculturated) child readers either authorial invention or, more problematically, factual history.

Source study would therefore seem to be an unrewarding approach to the analysis of children's literature. Such study privileges one sort of reader, the informed, educated critic, at the expense of another, the less educated (perhaps naive) child and replicates in discourse the sorts of vertical power relations stereotypical of the interactions between adults and children. These sort of objections are reasonable, and I do not intend to refute them in this paper. I hope to demonstrate, however, that examination of the sources for a certain type of children's literature can be a fruitful critical practice. I will argue the counterintuitive proposition that even though children cannot be expected to reconstruct the cultural context of historical and mythological allusions, these allusions--or, more accurately, the allusions intertwined with their previous political appropriations--fundamentally shape the text beyond the control of the author and beyond the conscious apprehension of the child reader. That is, traditional and historical materials (of certain traditions and histories) carry with them coded meanings at a level that is not immediately apparent but that nevertheless operates to exercise ideological control of the text.

The object of my study is Susan Cooper's five-part fantasy series, The Dark is Rising (published 1965-1977) and the medireview myths, legends, and historical materials that are its sources. Although critics have focused on Cooper's reworking of Celtic and Arthurian legends, they have missed or ignored a third strand of the author's "magical medievalism" (the phrase is Peter Goodrich's), her use of Anglo-Saxon source materials. In this essay I will identify these hitherto unremarked sources for Cooper's epic fantasy, sources which include Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, various Old English poems, and the persona of King Alfred. I will then show that Cooper's uses of Anglo-Saxon sources are allusions that fit into a schema of history rather than (in the words of one reviewer) being merely tossed "pell-mell" into the mythical pot in a fashion "aimed chiefly at engendering breathless bewilderment" ("Imaginary" 685). I will then demonstrate the ways the sources ideologically shape Cooper's texts and contribute to "Anglo-Saxonism," the construction of a "a self-conscious national and racial identity . . ." (Frantzen, "Preface" 1). 1 It is Cooper's Anglo-Saxonism, I argue, which generates the notions of British national identity explicated in the novels, notions that contradict the author's overt political stance. In addition, Cooper's particular version of [End Page 231] Anglo-Saxonism, with its strong focus on teaching and learning, is isomorphic to the ideology of adult/child power relations represented in the novels, an ideology that puts great weight on the value of obedience to authority. Adult/child power relations are both replicated and reinforced by two other sets of opposed terms: British/non-British and supernatural/mundane, and all of these terms are finally subsumed in Cooper's Manichaean binary, Light/Dark, leading to a closed symbolic economy which exalts personal obedience to authority and views Anglo-Saxons and their ideologies--as they were for the Venerable Bede in A.D. 771--as clearly on the side of the angels.

The Dark is Rising is the second book in Cooper's sequence (it also provides the title for the entire series), 2 and it is in this novel that the author truly began to shape the structure and metaphysics of her fantasy universe only hinted at in the first book, Over Sea Under Stone (244-52). Will Stanton, the likable protagonist of The Dark is Rising, discovers on his eleventh birthday that he is not merely a young boy growing up in Buckinghamshire, but also the youngest and last of the "Old Ones, who are as old as this land [England] and older even than that" (32). The circle of the Old Ones spans both time and space, representing the power of the Light, one of the primal forces of magic and morality, and Will is the first to be born in 500 years (36). Set in eternal opposition to the Light, in Cooper's Manichaean universe, is the Dark. Will's quest in this novel is to complete his education as an Old One and gather together the six Signs of Light in order to vanquish the Dark, which has begun a great "rising" in an attempt to destroy the Light and take power over the world. The magical signs are hidden in various locations and centuries in Will's Buckinghampshire village. Each is made of or represents a different material (iron, bronze, wood, stone, fire, and water), though all are in the same form of a circle quartered by a cross. Will finds them by luck, predestination, and the interpretation of a prophetic poem. In the later novels the signs are joined by other "Things of Power" (Dark 128)--including a golden harp and a crystal sword. To quote Peter Goodrich: "If all this sounds complicated, I assure you it is!" (166).

The most obvious use of an Anglo-Saxon source in The Dark is Rising occurs when Will retrieves the fifth of the six magical signs, the Sign of Fire, from the "candles of the winter" in a complex scene that shifts rapidly between times, places, and perspectives (Dark 169, 170-71). Cooper describes the Sign thus:

It was . . . one of the most beautiful things [Will] had ever seen. Gold of several different colours had been beaten together with great craftsmanship [End Page 232] to make its crossed-circle shape, and on all sides it was set with tiny gems, rubies and emeralds and sapphires and diamonds, in strange runic patterns that looked oddly familiar to Will. It glittered and gleamed in his hand like all kinds of fire that ever were. Looking closer, he saw some words written very small around the outer edge:
Merriman said softly: "The Light ordered that I should be made." (Dark 170-71)

The Sign of Fire is based on a real artifact: the Alfred Jewel, a relic of Anglo-Saxon England held in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum. 3 Though the Jewel lacks the tiny gems and runic patterns, and it is not shaped in the "circle quartered by a cross" sign of Light, it is marked with a nearly identical inscription in Old English: AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN, literally, "Ælfred commanded to make me." Cooper, educated at Oxford, where she attended the lectures of medievalists C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (McElderry 369), is likely to have known the Alfred Jewel from its display in the Ashmolean Museum. Further evidence for the Jewel as a specific allusion comes from the Old English quotation which, due to the word forms used, is unlikely to have been fabricated by even a fully trained medireview scholar. Even if she had studied Old English, Cooper would be unlikely to translate a modern, fictional inscription into anything other than "standard" West Saxon, while the inscription is in Mercian, a rarer dialect form. 4 Additionally, the Alfred Jewel is the only object from the Anglo-Saxon period (except the probably fraudulent "Sigerie" ring) to contain an inscription in the form "commanded me to be made" (Hinton 40). Cooper means her Sign of Fire to be connected to the Jewel.

This connection is more significant than merely the identification of a literary description as an artifact in a museum. Though the exact date and provenance of the Jewel are unknown, scholars agree that the object, found in 1693 at North Petherton, Somerset, comes from the second half of the ninth or the early tenth century and that "the traditional identification of the Alfred named on the inscription as King Alfred the Great (871-99) is plausible" (Hinton 35, 44). We learn in book five of the Dark is Rising that the Sign of Fire was made by the craftsmen of the Lost Land who "did their most marvelous work" at the behest of the "Lords of the Light" (Silver 160). Since it was Alfred who commanded the Jewel to be made, Cooper must intend the king to be one of these lords.

As well as linking the historical persona of Alfred to the Light, Cooper's use of the Jewel as her template for the Sign of Fire invokes [End Page 233] Alfred's program to revive learning in the aftermath of a century of Viking raids. Scholars are in general agreement that the Jewel is a part of one of the enigmatic "æstels," 5 objects that Alfred commanded to be sent to each bishopric in his kingdom in accompaniment with a copy of the king's Old English translation of Gregory the Great's Pastoral Care (Keynes and Lapidge 205). The "æstel" seems to have been a pointer used as an aid in reading and the Alfred Jewel an ornate handle for such a pointing rod of wood or ivory (Howlett 73-74). The presence of Alfred among the "Lords of the Light" and the use of the Jewel as a source for the Sign of Fire unifies two streams of Cooper's ideology in The Dark is Rising: British nationalism and the importance of education to that nationalism. King Alfred, "England's Darling," is often considered to be the first king to "hold sway over the whole of England." More accurately, he was the first king to rule all of England not occupied by Danish (Viking) invaders, establishing West Saxon political hegemony after fighting off several attempted Viking conquests. In addition to his political accomplishments, Alfred brought about a "reconstruction and reform" of learning in England, including the most significant translation of important religious and philosophical works into the vernacular in the early Middle Ages (Keynes and Lapidge 23-41, 46-48).

Cooper invokes the Anglo-Saxon struggle against Danish invaders throughout the sequence of novels, each time closely associating them with the evil of the "Dark." In Greenwitch, the third novel, these invaders are not identified as Danes (although they wear "boar-helmets" like those described in Beowulf and found in the Sutton Hoo excavation), but in one character's vision they attack the Cornish coast from what seem to be Viking longships (98). 6 In the final novel, Silver on the Tree, Will has a vision of "Saxon boys . . . watching terrified for the marauding Danes" (15). One of the boys relates omens of the impending invasion: "There was blood instead of rain fell in the east last month . . . and men saw dragons flying in the sky" (9). Cooper's source for these portents is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (55), a document written in Alfred's West Saxon kingdom. One of the Chronicle's propogandistic purposes is the glorification of the struggle against the Vikings as part of a general glorification of the West Saxon dynasty of which Alfred was a part.

Cooper receives this glorification of Alfred through previous appropriations of the king by nineteenth-century writers who claimed that Alfred was a national hero, a worthy predecessor of Victoria and an appropriate precursor to the British empire (Richmond 11-13). But Cooper does not, I think, choose Alfred as a Lord of the Light for these reasons; she adds Alfred to her pantheon because his work to contain the Danish invasions [End Page 234] is parallel to her interpretation of the political acts of the one English king she does discuss, the mythical Arthur. Just as in Arthur's time an invasion of the island was temporarily halted, 7 so too Alfred held off violent invaders as cycles of invasion, defense, conquest, and assimilation are repeated. For, according to Cooper, specific waves of invaders may be repelled, but ". . . the force of nature they represent has never yet been driven back for long" (Silver 26). ". . . the peace of Arthur that we shall gain for this island at Badon will be lost, before long, and for a time the world will seem to vanish beneath the shadow of the Dark. And emerge, and vanish again, and again emerge, as it has done through all the length of what men call their history" (Silver 44). But there is hope even in the midst of this fatalism. After invasions, ". . . the Light waits always for the force of the Dark to ebb, so that the grandsons of the invaders may be gentled and tamed by the land their forefathers despoiled" (Silver 240).

One method by means of which this gentling and taming occurs is through the learning and culture that is the other, non-military face of King Alfred, a point to which I shall return. Cooper also suggests that gentling can be accomplished by racial mixing. In Silver on the Tree Will, Bran, and Barney are brought back in time to the headquarters of the fifteenth-century Welsh partisan leader Owain Glyndwr, 8 who laments:

"The Norman rides always on the back of the Dark, as the Saxon did, and the Dane." Barney said unhappily, "And I'm all those things mixed up, I suppose. Norman and Anglo-Saxon and Dane." [Glyndwr is taken aback to learn that Barney comes from so far in the future, but he accepts the boy] "No worry about your race, boy. Time changes the nature of them all in the end" [Glyndwr said]. (221)

Barney is the youngest of the three Drew children, who have aligned themselves with the Light and who perform special roles in the sequence even though they are "no more than mortal" (Silver 264). Their identity as racially mixed and thus representative of modern England shows that although Cooper's construction of identity is far from the overt racialism of early twentieth-century juvenile fiction like M. I. Ebbutt's 1912 Hero Myths and Legends of the British Race (xxi-xxviii), she is nevertheless influenced by the notion that racial blending forms a "distinctive British identity that is largely Northern European" (Richmond 5). This idea, as Reginald Horsman has shown, has a long pedigree both in England and the United States (62-78, 158-86). Glyndwr's pleasantly enlightened attitude towards race (probably far from the true beliefs of the historical figure and certainly contrary to those of his seventeenth-century appropriators) seems an example of the author's speaking through a character and is a good example of her ideology. For Cooper, the Light is on the side [End Page 235] of the good, and good people do not practice race-hatred. Therefore Glyndwr, on the side of the Light, must have an anachronistically modern attitude towards race.

Cooper's most powerful comment on this issue appears at the beginning of Silver on the Tree. Will, his slightly older brother James, and Stephen, his full-grown brother on leave from the Royal Navy, take a short fishing trip to the bank of the Thames. On their return the Stantons see three English boys tormenting a young Sikh child named Manny Singh. After some abusive racial teasing, the leader of the toughs, Richie Moore, throws Singh's music case into an algae-filled stream. Stephen Stanton then intervenes, tossing Richie into the stream to retrieve the case (Silver 18-21). The next day Richie's father arrives at the Stantons' to discuss the matter with Stephen. His suggestion that Richie was justified in teasing the "Indian kid from the Common" and his comment that "coloureds" are "always on about something" (51-52) provokes a heated exchange, including these impassioned comments from Stephen:

"Do you know Calcutta, Mr. Moore?" he said. "Have you ever had beggars grabbing at your feet, calling out to you, children half the size of Will here with an arm missing, or an eye, and ribs like xylophones and their legs stinking from sores? If I lived in a place with that kind of despair round me, I think I just might decide to bring up my kids in a country where they'd have a better chance. Specially a country that had exploited by own for about two hundred years. Wouldn't you? Or Jamaica, now. Do you know how many children get to a secondary school there? D'you know the unemployment rate? D'you know what the slums are like in Kingston? Do you know--"
"Stephen," said his father gently.
Stephen stopped. The raffia string in his hands snapped. (53)

Mr. Moore then launches into an anti-immigrant, racist tirade and rapidly leaves the scene. Will is shaken by more than "the fading memory of a single bigot like Mr. Moore," because he realizes that the man's "mindless ferocity" and "real loathing born of nothing more solid than insecurity and fear" was a "channel down which the powers of the Dark, if they gained their freedom, could ride in an instant to complete control of the earth" (54).

The ideological content of this scene is typical of the time of Silver on the Tree's production. Stephen's refrain of "Do you know?" and Will's analysis (in free indirect discourse) that Moore's hatred arises from "nothing more solid than insecurity and fear" suggests the conventional notion that racial animosity is the product of a lack of understanding. 9 It is fair, I think, and no slight to Cooper, to take this as the ideology (I would venture to guess that she would call it "morality") that she would like to [End Page 236] inculcate in her readers. But this ideology of tolerance, even brotherhood, goes hand-in-hand with an equally powerful ethnocentric strain in The Dark is Rising, a strain that comes from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle through nineteenth-century appropriations of King Alfred. This ethnocentric strain, some might suggest, works to counteract the power of understanding to alleviate racial strife. At its most powerful it suggests British imperialism.

The most obvious ethnocentric element of The Dark is Rising series is to some degree unavoidable in a "High Fantasy" novel that treats cosmic struggles: the story cannot take place in all locations on earth at once, so some places are privileged (in this case, England) 10 over others just as the actions of a select group of protagonists are elevated over the struggles of the rest of humanity. Jack Zipes has noted that in fantasy literature "the small person" is raised "to the position of God" (146); fantasy literature is highly ego-centric, so we should not be surprised to find it ethno-centric. But Cooper does not only privilege the subjectivities of her characters, she develops a trope familiar from the nineteenth-century adaptations of medireview materials, the notion of a unique and superior British identity. This identity is manifested in the behavior of English people faced with danger. In The Dark is Rising, for instance, when on account of heavy snows many of the Huntercombe villagers have assembled in the local Manor--a turn of events Will's father calls "almost feudal" (147)--Will notes:

". . . things are absolutely awful, and yet people look much happier than usual. Look at them. Bubbling."
"They are English," Merriman said.
"Quite right," said Will's father. "Splendid in adversity, tedious when safe. Never content, in fact. We're an odd lot. You're not English, are you?" he said suddenly to Merriman, and Will was astonished to hear a slightly hostile note in his voice. (153)

This construction of a unique and valuable English identity coupled to a mistrust of foreigners occurs in other places throughout the sequence. In Greenwitch, for example, the Cornish villagers will not allow Will Stanton's aunt, an American, to attend the making of the Greenwitch. "She'm a furriner, you see. Tisn't fitting," says Mrs. Penhallow, the housekeeper, who nevertheless invites Jane Drew to the ceremony (26). Jane is not a villager, but she is still English.

These and other expressions of ethnocentrism appear to be somewhat mitigated by the international flavor of the Old Ones' circle. When all the forces of the Light are assembled in Silver on the Tree, Simon Drew describes the many Old Ones on the "time train" as ". . . the most peculiar mixture of people, in all different clothes. All kinds and colours and [End Page 237] shapes. It's like the United Nations" (228). Likewise the carnival head that plays a vital part in the second novel comes from an old Jamaican man (who makes a cameo appearance in Silver on the Tree) who gives the head to Stephen to send to Will (Dark 113-14; Silver 227). But these international touches have an unsettling imperialist edge. The Lords of the Light--Merriman, The Lady, Bran, Arthur--are invariably English, and the circle of the Old Ones reports back to England as if they were colonial governors reporting to the home office: the old Jamaican man tells Stephen to convey to Will that "the Old Ones of the ocean islands are ready"; at Gibraltar (like Jamaica, a former colony) an Arab reports that the Old Ones of the South are likewise "ready" (13). Command and control of the Light is clearly situated in the British Isles, and this power structure reproduces the social relations characterized by the Victorian and Edwardian writers through whose work our perceptions of the Middle Ages are invariably affected.

Cooper's use of King Alfred, therefore, is all the more significant, because the king was the single most important Anglo-Saxon figure to Victorian and Edwardian writers. In an essay important for the study of both medievalism and children's literature, Velma Bourgeois Richmond has shown that in the Victorian and Edwardian periods the figure of King Alfred was consistently identified as the source of English culture. A great number of children's books dramatized Alfred's life, in particular his military successes (11-13). Alfred's educational program of translation and education is also associated with the formation of Anglo-Saxon identity, and it is with education that Cooper weaves together Anglo-Saxonism and the forging of the identity of her characters, both humans and Old Ones.

Education is, in fact, the single most powerful process by means of which the Light wields its power and accomplishes its goals, and an understanding of Cooper's ideology of education clears up some moments in the narrative that have been opaque to previous critics. Lois Kuznets, for example, has noted that in her depiction of Bran, the co-hero of The Grey King (and King Arthur's son brought forward in time to the twentieth century), Cooper takes great care "to establish Bran's bloodline credentials" but pays relatively scant attention "to his training for the task he's assigned." Kuznets believes this lack of training to be a defect in Cooper's work (28). Likewise Raymond Plante finds too much of the children's passing of various tests to rely on their unexplained possession of bits of obscure knowledge: "at . . . crucial points in the battle between good and evil, superhumans succeed through ritual action, unlike ordinary [End Page 238] humans who succeed through virtuous action" (39). These critiques are to some degree correct. There are perhaps too many moments when all of the children seem to reach deep within their minds to extricate some bit of intuition that subsequently saves the day. But the two examples Plante cites do not in fact fit this description.

In The Grey King Bran and Will must obtain the Golden Harp of Light from its keepers, three "Lords of the High Magic" in a cave beneath Craig yr Aderyn (Bird Rock) (90-93). The boys much each answer riddles posed to them by the Lords. Bran is asked to name the Three Elders of the World:

. . . somewhere he knew . . . it was strange and yet familiar, as if somewhere he had seen or read . . . the three oldest creatures, the three oldest things . . . he had read it in school, and he had read it in Welsh . . . Bran stood up straight and cleared his throat. "The Three Elders of the World," he said, "are the Owl of Cwm Cawlwyd, the Eagle of Gwernabwy, and the Blackbird of Celle Gadarn." (92-93)

"This is not the most obvious first guess," Plante writes (39). But neither is it intuitive knowledge magically implanted in Bran. The Owl and the Eagle are mentioned in the story "How Culhwch won Olwen" in the Mabinogion (164-65), and the Three Elders are so named and treated as a group in Triad 92 of the Trioedd Ynys Prydain (The Triads of the Island of Britain), a collection of traditional Welsh poetry (Bromwich 334). 11 As Bran says, he would have read these tales in school and he would have read them in Welsh. He finds the answers to the riddles because he is literate in his traditional national literature, a literature that constructs national (hence ethnocentric) identities in the same ways the use of King Alfred's story did for Victorian and Edwardian writers.

Will Stanton's education as an Old One does not take place in the schoolrooms of his nation, but it is nevertheless Anglo-Saxonist in bent. Will learns the secret knowledge of the Old Ones by reading the magical Book of Gramarye (Dark 88). "Gramarye," as Thomas Shippey explains in his fine analysis of the term as applied to the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, means "occult learning" and was revived in literary use by Sir Walter Scott (40). "Gramarye" is also used by T. H. White in The Once and Future King to describe the kingdom of England in a romanticized Middle Ages (510). In Cooper's works these meanings are blended, and the occult learning turns out to be passed through a very British filter. Will does not need to study the Book of Gramarye: by reading a single line he is actually transported to the place and time he is to study and thus learns the secrets of the Old Ones through a kind of passive implantation of knowledge, "a long lifetime of discovery and wisdom given to him in a [End Page 239] moment of suspended time" (Dark 108). The lines that trigger the transmission of knowledge come from Anglo-Saxon and Welsh tradition (and from nineteenth- and twentieth-century authors' adaptations of that tradition). 12 The phrase from the Book of Gramarye with an Anglo-Saxon source, "I am fire-fretted and I flirt with the wind" (Dark 93) is the first line of Riddle 30a, "Timber-Cross," in the Exeter Book. The Old English quotation, "ice eom legbysig, lace mid winde" (Krapp and Dobbie 195-96) can be translated a number of ways, and Cooper slightly modifies the version in Michael Alexander's 1966 The Earliest English Poems (97). The line from the riddle introduces Will's learning of tree lore, and it is on this lore that he draws for his answer to the riddle posed to him in the chamber under Bird Rock (Grey 95). 13 Both Will and Bran rely on knowledge that arises out of medireview materials 14 that have been used to inculcate in them an identity that grows out of these traditions. Both succeed in their quests because of their knowledge of the same cultural traditions that have been used by many other authors over many years to create a self-conscious national and racial identity in England.

Cooper also draws on the tradition of Anglo-Saxon poetry and its study, an educational tradition, Allen J. Frantzen has shown, that was exceedingly powerful in shaping the study of all literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Desire 74-83). 15 Cooper's most prominent echo of Anglo-Saxon poetic style is the poem that Will Stanton and Merriman Lyon (the greatest of the Old Ones, and in fact King Arthur's Merlin) decipher at the end of Greenwitch:

On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks.
There fire shall fly from the raven boy,
And the silver eyes that see the wind,
And the light shall have the harp of gold. (125)

This poem, which continues for two additional stanzas, fits the definition of the Old English alliterative line, "composed of two opposed word-groups or 'halves,'" and dependent upon "agreement of the stresses in beginning with the same consonant or in beginning with no consonant" (Tolkien, "Preface" xxix, xxxv). Not all of Cooper's lines scan perfectly, and her use of tail-rhyme in addition to alliteration occurs in only one Old English poem, the Riming Poem in the Exeter Book (Krapp and Dobbie 166-69). But it seems clear the Cooper modeled her prophetic lines on Old English verse, thus evoking the cultural connotations of that verse, connotations that--as received through the ideological filter of nineteenth- and early [End Page 240] twentieth-century scholars--include notions of a unique, superior (and Germanic) English identity closely aligned with those evoked by the references to King Alfred and the defense of home soil against invasion.

But Cooper does not merely invoke the general connotations of Old English verse; she explicitly alludes to the most famous of all Old English poems, Beowulf. Will Stanton recovers the final Sign of Light, the crystal Sign of Water, from the hands of a dead king whose funeral ship rises from beneath the earth on the banks of the Thames. The first part of the ship Will sees is an ornament of a stag on its prow. The dead king wears a helmet that "covered the head and most of the face, crested by a heavy silver image of a long-snouted animal that Will thought must be a wild boar." And when he boards the ship Will walks past ". . . fine work of engraved leather and woven robes, and jewelry of enamels and cloisonné and filigree gold" (Dark 189-90). These objects--stag or hart ornament, boar helmet, enameled jewelry--are all familiar from the famous Sutton Hoo ship burial, unearthed in Suffolk in 1939 (Hodgkin 696-734), and they have been long connected by scholars to the poetic world of Beowulf. 16 A boar-helmet, for example is described in lines 303-4 of Beowulf, and King Hrothgar's hall is named Heorot, the "hall of the hart" (Klaeber 12, 129). Additionally, Merriman's explanation of the dead king's history seems to connect him to specific figures in the poem:

"An English king, of the Dark Ages. I think we will not use his name. The Dark Ages were rightly named, a shadowy time for the world, when the Black Riders rode unhindered over all our land. Only the Old Ones and a few noble brave men like this one kept the Light alive."
"And he was buried in a ship, like the Vikings." Will was watching the light glimmer on the golden stag of the prow.
"He was part Viking himself," Merriman said. "There were three great ship-burials near this Thames of yours, in days past. One was dug up in the last century near Taplow, and destroyed in the process. One was this ship of the Light, not destined to be found by men. And one was the greatest ship, of the greatest king of all, and this they have not found and perhaps never will. It lies in peace." (Dark 192)

When Will has received the Sign of Water from the dead king, the Dark, in anger and frustration, strikes the ship with a bolt of lightning, setting it ablaze. Will is upset at the destruction, but Merriman comforts him with the suggestion that flames are an appropriate end for the ship:

When this king's father died, he was laid in a ship in the same way, with all his most splendid possessions round him, but the ship was not buried. That was not the way. The king's men set fire to it and sent it off burning alone over the sea, a tremendous sailing pyre. (Dark 192-93)

[End Page 241]

Cooper here seems to be suggesting that the king on the burning ship is Beow, the son of Scyld Scefing. 17 Scyld's life, death, and funeral pyre are described in the first fifty lines of Beowulf (Klaeber 1-3), and Scyld, Beow and Beow's son Tætwa also make appearances in the West Saxon genealogy of King Alfred as reported by the Welsh monk Asser (Keynes and Lapidge 68). Cooper may intend Tætwa to be connected to Tæppa, the warrior whose burial mound was unearthed at Taplow (Hodgkin 696-734). In any case, Cooper is here again weaving a tapestry of Anglo-Saxon history and culture around historical or literary individuals who, like Alfred and Arthur, are described as "Lords of the Light." These individuals are connected to each other through genealogy and culture, just as Will and Bran are chosen both by birth and by education for their places in the Light. More significantly, Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew are chosen for their roles not because of any supernatural heritage or abilities but because their identity as racially blended, culturally English children prepares them with the qualities of bravery, obedience, and an inclination to the side of the good. The Beowulf-critic whose lectures Cooper attended believed these qualities to be central to the hero of the poem. In the most influential article ever written about Beowulf, J. R. R. Tolkien averred: "Beowulf is a man and that for him, and many is sufficient tragedy" (24), suggesting that the real virtues of the hero are his courage and integrity (virtues possessed by the Drews), not his seemingly supernatural strength. Tolkien also saw the work of Beowulf as closely connected to ideas of nationality: "[the poem] was made in this land and moves in our northern world beneath our northern sky, and for those who are native to that tongue and land, it must ever call with profound appeal" (36). Cooper's characters are "native to that tongue and land" and are in part constructed (just as Tolkien's interpretation was) by the rhetorical and ideological power of the materials she uses as sources.

My project in this paper has been to show that such materials cannot be so easily re-appropriated; that Cooper's Anglo-Saxon sources carry with them cultural values and orders of power and knowledge that are not entirely within the author's control; and that this recalcitrance of the source material includes not only the medireview sources themselves, but their subsequent use by other writers. As Fredric Jameson notes, the appropriation of materials to "express contemporary realities must, willy-nilly, pass through the sedimentary layers of . . . previous appropriations" (141). That is, not only do Cooper's Anglo-Saxon sources resist her control, but they also must be perceived through the filter of their previous uses, including the appropriations of Victorian and Edwardian polemicists and those of other fantasy writers. It is possible, however, that not every [End Page 242] emergence of Anglo-Saxonist ideology in Cooper's work contradicts the author's wishes. Cooper's national identity and her personal experience with invasion may have helped to shape her view of English history. She begins her 1976 Newbery Award acceptance speech by invoking her nationality, calling herself "A very nervous Limey . . . I do, after all, live near Boston, where the history of the wicked British pursues me at every turn. Especially as recounted by my American children" (361). She then goes on to discuss the specter of invasion that haunted her throughout her childhood during World War II and her belief that she channeled some of that "haunting" into her fiction (365-66). But even if she did not consciously choose to portray English history as the struggle against invasion, her sources have worked to do so. As I have shown, these materials construct a political order in which England holds a central and privileged position. They also construct a more personal order of knowledge and power between children and adults.

John Ruffing has recently shown some of the ways Anglo-Saxon materials can subtly (and not-so-subtly) reinforce social hierarchies (68); The Dark is Rising presents a number of supernaturally reinforced hierarchies as natural, part of the "Law." This Law, enforced by the irresistible power of the "High Magic," is constructed as non-partisan, on the side of neither Dark nor Light (Grey 90-91). But in the end--as a result of the Light correctly fulfilling a complicated prophesy--it works to effect the ends of the Light and to preserve a hierarchy in which Old Ones receive eternal life and great power merely on account of their births while "it is better so" that humans lose even their memories of their actions in the great struggle (Silver 262). The notion that the Light knows, always knows, what "is better so" about the actions of humans, particularly children, constructs the great Lords of the Light--Merriman and Lady and to a lesser extent, Will--as figures in loco parentis. Or, more accurately, the Lords take an avuncular position to the children; as Gwyneth Evans notes, "for the child protagonists [Merriman] is the ideal sort of adult: his authority is not that of a parent or a teacher, but they are able to admire and follow his direction wholeheartedly" (22). I disagree with Evans' contention that Merriman is not a teacher, but I think her reading of him as "the ideal sort of adult" is correct. Merriman is always right and always looks out for the best interests of the children, yet he never disciplines them. If the children disobey, the Dark attacks, leaving the children to be saved by Merriman. In the universe of The Dark is Rising, knowledge not only equals power, it legitimates it. Merriman, for example, seems to possess all necessary knowledge, which allows him to exercise power by means of secret spells. Because Merriman is completely [End Page 243] on the side of the good, he is thus constructed as fully deserving the power that goes with his knowledge. This order of power and knowledge reifies existing power relations between adults and children. 18 Rebellion is not considered in Cooper's world 19 not because adults possess complete power to stop it, but because in a world where the "good" adults are always right, it is unthinkable to disobey them.

Critics have disliked this aspect of Cooper's fiction, though they have interpreted it in different ways. Plante, for example, finds that Cooper's ideas of fate and predetermined destiny "[break] down the effectiveness of character and theme, keeping the work from being everything it could" (40). Kuznets finds Cooper's treatment of adolescent development in the series fatally weakened by a too close focus on heredity (27) and wonders how works composed during an "era of turmoil" in the United States "reflect only obliquely and perhaps simplistically America's own agonized crisis of identity" (27, 33). Both critics are reacting to, I believe, a constructed order of power and knowledge which is profoundly conservative, an order in which characters reach their potentials and accomplish their destinies not by growing into them but by accepting the need to obey the properly constituted authorities. This order of power and knowledge in The Dark is Rising arises directly from the Anglo-Saxon source materials, or, more accurately, the ways these have been previously appropriated. As Cooper's invocation of King Alfred shows, a position at the top of the social hierarchy is both earned by birth and legitimated by the possession of knowledge and the power to disseminate learning. Good subjects learn what the king wants them to learn; good children, those on the side of the Light, are good because they absorb passively the traditional culture passed to them from authoritative adults (Will's learning, his "Gift of Gramarye" is the ultimate statement of this passive learning). As Plante notes, "the characters in The Dark is Rising choose sides, but the rest of their choices have already been made for them by the various spells and prophecies; therefore they have no free will at all." Most of their behavior seems to be "ritualistic" (40). Plante's mention of ritual points out the key virtue of the children in The Dark is Rising: obedience. The children (both supernatural and mundane) follow directions they have been given, successfully completing rituals of power so as to produce desired magical results. They are rewarded because they have done everything in accordance with the Law. Bravery, resolve, self-control, and kindness are all ancillary to obedience. Not that Cooper thinks these other virtues unimportant, but they are all put into the service of obedience to those with knowledge (and thus power). [End Page 244]

This order of knowledge and power (traditional as it is) is isomorphic to the political order constructed by Cooper's Anglo-Saxon source materials and their appropriations. Children are to obey benign adults just as the rest of the world (former British colonies) are to report to the highly moral, educated and, most importantly, powerful rulers based in England. Both regimes of knowledge and power reinforce each other, and they replicate the relationships of knowledge, both and obedience that are found in the Anglo-Saxon texts. Thus for all of Cooper's excursions through space and time, all of her nuanced and subtle treatment of historical and legendary questions, all the richness of her source material, and all her obvious political preferences to the contrary, her sources end up re-inscribing their ideology on her fantasy universe. It is no wonder, therefore, that The Dark is Rising is not only popular with children, but with the adults who work to shape them through fiction. Cooper's work ends up reinforcing the ideologies of English and parental superiority traditional in many of her readers. "Good" children, the sort who read complex "high fantasy" at the ages of nine and ten, the sort who choose the side of the Light, like to be reminded that they will be rewarded for their obedience. For centuries adults have worked very hard to encourage them in this belief.

Michael D. C. Drout has just completed his doctorate in English at Loyola University Chicago and this fall will join the faculty as assistant professor of English at Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts.


1. I am grateful to Allen J. Frantzen for allowing me to read his preface and Velma Bourgeois Richmond's essay before their publication and for his assistance with this article. Mary Dockray-Miller's many useful suggestions and her criticism of early drafts of this essay were invaluable.

2. Critically acclaimed at the time of its publication (the second novel was a Newbery Honor book and the fourth won the award outright) and still quite popular among children and their librarians, The Dark is Rising has generated relatively little serious criticism. Only two scholarly articles published in the mid-1980s focus solely on the series; and while Cooper's work is also a topic in one dissertation and six additional essays, in these she must share the stage with other fantasy writers, among them Ursula LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander, J. C. Powys, and Alan Garner.

3. The Times Literary Supplement's anonymous reviewer noted the parallel (though no subsequent critic has mentioned it); he or she mentions "an emended inscription from the Alfred Jewel" as part of Cooper's "mind-boggling" assortment of source material ("Imaginary" 685).

4. Compare, for example, John Bellairs' Old English quotation in The Lamp from the Warlock's Tomb, which is an ungrammatical translation from Modern English (92).

5. The identification of the Jewel as part of an "æstel" appears on the Jewel's display case in the Ashmolean Museum.

6. These invaders are described as "red-haired," as are three other villains in the sequence: the Black Rider in The Dark is Rising and Silver on the Tree, Caradog Pritchard in The Grey King, and Caradog Lewis in Silver on the Tree. According to Jill Mann, in Chaucer's time "the redhead is a widespread figure of deceit and treachery" (160-62). Cooper's redheaded villains may be another example of the influence of medireview conventions on the author.

7. Cooper places Arthur at the battle of (Badon Hill) Mons Badonicus (Silver 26), as per Nennius in the Historia Brittonum (35-36). In his Ecclesiastical History, the Venerable Bede, an earlier Anglo-Saxon source for the Welsh Nennius, states that the victor at Badon Hill was one Ambrosius Aurelianus, sole survivor of the Roman royalty in Britain and the leader of Britons in their last successful battle against Saxon invaders at Badon Hill in 493 (64). Geoffrey of Monmouth greatly expands upon Nennius' Bede's histories in his History of the Kings of Britain, which was the primary source for Mallory and subsequent Arthurian fiction. In her unpublished dissertation of 1984, Patricia Trautmann does not mention Bede as a source for Nennius' Historia Brittonum or the Arthur legend (18), although Nennius probably knew the Ecclesiastical History and does mention Bede's death. Author Mary Stewart has developed and rationalized the fragmentary historical background from Nennius, Bede, and Geoffrey of Monmouth in her novels The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973), The Last Enchantment (1979), and The Wicked Day (1984). Stewart's reconstructions are used as foundational--even historical--materials by many subsequent writers of Arthurian fiction and may have influenced Cooper's retelling of the Arthur myth.

8. In a process analogous to that of the Victorian appropriation of King Alfred, the construction of Owain Glyndwr as a Welsh national hero is a seventeenth-century appropriation of medireview historical materials (Morgan 81-82) that Cooper borrows uncritically. This uncritical acceptance of past appropriations is, however, justified by the modern construction of Glyndwr. Bran's naming him "the greatest Welshman of all" (Silver 218) is reasonable given the boy's twentieth-century Welsh schooling.

9. A notion, sadly, more conventional in 1977 than today.

10. Cooper's use of deictic markers situates the reader as English. The Old Ones are "as old as this land" (Dark 32, my emphasis).

11. My thanks to Heather Barkley and Carl F. Hostetter for their assistance with these sources.

12. Cooper credits "an anonymous Old English author" among others on her copyright page, but she does not specify which phrases go with which authors. I am grateful to a number of contributors to the ANSAX-NET electronic discussion group for help in matching authors to sources. My special thanks to Heather Barkley, Jim Earl, Roger Fowler, David Gravender, Dorothy Haines, David Hoover, Carl F. Hostetter, Ted Irving, Shirley Laird, and Will Sayers.

13. The question is "what is the shore that fears the sea?" The answer is "the beech tree."

14. Specific education from the Book of Gramarye is useful to Will in the Lost Land. He tells Gwion, "They taught me my trees once, a long while ago" (Silver 185).

15. For instance, Albert Stanburrough Cook, Professor of English at Yale, President of the MLA, and the single most influential American Anglo-Saxonist of the early twentieth century, significantly shaped the formation of general literary study in U.S. universities. Among his 300 published works are papers on Shakespeare and Tennyson (L. Cooper 498-501), both sources for Susan Cooper.

16. Serious scholars of Anglo-Saxon literature and history often point out that there is no proven connection between the Sutton Hoo finds and the descriptions in Beowulf. Such a connection has, however, become traditional in discussions about Beowulf. The display of Sutton Hoo treasures in the British Museum, for instance, clearly suggests some direct relationship between the objects and the poem. Similar links are assumed in the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village at West Stowe, Suffolk.

17. There is significant scholarly debate, based upon manuscript evidence, as to whether or not "Beow" is in fact an individual named "Beowulf" different from the hero of the poem. For a summary and discussion of the debate see James Earl's Thinking About Beowulf 22-26. In addition, scholars differ on the relevance of the names in Alfred's genealogy to Beowulf; some believe the presence of similar names to be mere coincidence and unrelated to the poem.

18. In the Lost Land Gwion tells Will and Bran: "When you are asked questions in this land it is not for our want of the answers" (Silver 135), a clear demonstration of the relationship between power and knowledge in Cooper's world. Gwion possesses both power and knowledge. In Foucaultian terms, his power comes from his ability to compel answers (197-204).

19. The lack of rebellion in novels aimed, if Emrys Evans is correct, at readers ages eight to eleven (96) is worthy of additional study. I first read Cooper in 1977, when I was nine.

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