And so we come to the final book in Susan Cooper’s fantasy adventure series for older children (and adults!), Silver on the Tree, published in 1977. Thank you to all those who have read along with me over the past five months, your company has been much appreciated. You can also catch up with the previous posts here:
When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back.
The final book in the sequence brings all six of the main characters together in the battle to banish the Dark from the world (until next time). The three Drew children, Simon, Jane and Barney, alongside Will Stanton and Bran, whom we met in the last book will reunite with Merriman to play their part in the battle, each having their own tasks to carry out. It also brings us full circle to the end of the year at Midsummer’s Eve. (See Chris’ wonderful post about the role of the quarter days in this sequence of books here).
NB: THERE ARE SPOILERS AHEAD – BUT YOU KNOW THE LIGHT WILL PREVAIL – DON’T YOU?
The majority of the novel is given over to the last quest for Will and Bran to get the crystal sword, for which they will need to travel using the Old Magic to the ‘Lost Land’, where they will be guided by bard Gwion (aka Taliesin) through a series of adventures to find King Gwyddno and achieve their goal, which will destroy the Lost Land in the process, but give them the final tools they need to banish the Dark.
There are other elements of time travel, one of which describes how Merriman and Will take the six signs, the belt of amulets Will had collected back in the second book when coming into his powers, to be kept safe, back in time to the Battle of Badon, which in legend was fought by King Arthur, and here represents another time when the Light fought the Dark, banishing them – for a while.
The six reunite with the six signs at the Midsummer Tree in the Chilterns where Bran must use the sword Eirias to cut the silver flower that appears on the tree, which will combine all the magics, High, Wild and Old to bring an end to the current cycle, and despite the best efforts of the Dark Rider to take Barney as hostage, and an unexpected character is revealed to be
a Traitor and not a Faithful of the Dark, it ends happily ever after with the Wild Hunt led by Herne the Hunter sweeping through. Bran, having discovered his heritage, decides not to be with King Arthur as he has lived his life in the present. The Drews will have little memory of the magical parts of the year’s past adventures except in their dreams – it is sad, but for the best perhaps, that they have to forget.
END OF PLOT SPOILERS
There’s a lot to unpick in this final instalment!
Firstly, I didn’t like the visit to the Lost Land part. It felt too Science Fictional and too exotic a location which jarred with the Welsh countryside and the rolling Chiltern hills in the real world. I suppose it is meant to be dream-like, but I was probably searching in my mind for references which I couldn’t get beyond Gwion and Gwyddno? There’s no doubting Cooper’s descriptive powers, but this was my least favourite part of the whole sequence. Cooper does also fall prey to giving Jane a ‘damsel in distress’ moment when she is terrorised by creatures of the Dark allowing Bran to rescue her, and this does give a hint of what could happen between them in the future
The whole is rich in imagery from the Mabinogion in particular. Gwion is the original name of the bard Taliesin, and Gywddno is the legendary king of a sunken city who becomes Taliesin’s foster-father. There are more Arthurian references, and druidic ones with the Midsummer Tree – with their misteltoe and oak ceremony.
One of my favourite reads published this year has been the absolutely brilliant Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert, who took the legend of Herne the Hunter and The Wild Hunt and ran with it all over South London. Her Herne detoured over from Windsor where we remember Falstaff’s encounter with the legend in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Cooper moves him just slightly west into the Chilterns.
I think that’s enough of me prattling on for now. To summarise – not my favourite – but a triumphant conclusion to this gripping series. But which was my favourite from the sequence? I think it has to be Greenwitch, with all its witchy, wise lore, but Over Sea, Under Stone and The Grey King come close. I have a definite appreciation of Wild magic more than the incantatory nature of the High or Old – that feeling that the Wild magic comes from Nature is always strong for me.
I have loved discovering these books for the first time as a sixty-something-year-old. They do have a timeless quality, and of course there is all that embedded scholarship which the child reader doesn’t need to know, but the adult appreciates hugely for the extra dimensions it adds.
If you have read along with me, do let me know what you think. Thank you!
For those who can get BBC Radio, you will have a treat from Boxing Day, when a new 12 part radio adaptation of the second book, The Dark is Rising comes to Radio 4 / BBC Sounds, adapted by Robert MacFarlane. I’ll be listening!