#TDiRS22 – The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 1: Over Sea, Under Stone

It’s finally time for my write-up of the first novel in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence, and what a perfect summer read Over Sea, Under Stone (OS,US, 1965) made.

In my introductory post to the readalong, I posted a few questions to consider while reading the book, and I’ll reflect on those below, but here they are again …

  1. We’re reading the book in prime holiday season. Does it successfully evoke the sense of adventure of childhood holidays at the seaside for you?
  2. This novel was initially written in response to a competition to honour the memory of E. Nesbit, although it wasn’t actually entered for it. How well do you think Cooper achieves this?
  3. I can’t help comparing the Drew children to Narnia’s Pevensies. Barney would be Lucy, Simon would be Peter – does that make Jane Susan? What other parallels are there if any?
  4. And what about the dog? How does Rufus compare with Tintin’s Snowy/Milou or Timmy in the Blyton’s Famous Five?

Holidays in Cornwall were a mainstay of my childhood. My family favoured the northern coast, Perranporth’s endless sands in the 1960s, shifting up the coast to Trebarwith Strand near Tintagel in the 1970s. Trebarwith beach was surrounded by cliffs, and had rock pools – a proper kind of beach to have an adventure on, as the Drew children do in OS,US. Cooper’s location is on the southern coast of Cornwall though – her fictional Trewissick being based on Mevagissey, which I last visited in 2010 while staying on the south coast at Fowey this time.

Mevagissey, 2010. Photo © A.Gaskell

The Drew family, parents Dick and Ellen, children Simon, Jane and Barney are met at St Austell station by their Great-Uncle Merry to be taken to the house of an absent sea captain that Merry has taken for the holidays. ‘The Grey House’ up the hill from the little harbour town comes with resident dog Rufus, and Mrs Palk will come in to cook and keep house for them. It’s fair to say that the children are often left to their own devices and it’s on one of those rainy days when they are exploring the attic, having pushed aside a wardrobe blocking the door (loved those nods to Lewis in The Magician’s Nephew and TLTW&TW respectively), that they discover an old crumbling map with strange annotations and, having convinced themselves that they should be allowed to find the treasure, they set about trying to decipher the riddles.

Their questions however, are overheard by the wrong people, and soon the children find themselves being pressured on all sides, by rich yacht dwellers who try to entice them onboard, a vicar that isn’t, and the rosy-cheeked Mrs Palk isn’t quite who she first seems either. They have awakened the interest of the Dark Ones, but with Great-Uncle Merry (sometimes known as Gummery – surely a nod to Great-Uncle Matthew aka GUM in Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes) on their side to nudge them in the right direction, and Rufus’ guard-dog abilities they are on their way to find, not pirate treasure, but the Grail!

OS,US is a superb adventure, in the tradition of Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ but much better written. Although there is no physical magic as such there is a magical air and the combination of Celtic and Arthurian myth and legend with a quest and the strong sense of place brings Alan Garner’s wonderful The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath to mind. And big-child that I am, remember I am reading these books for the first time, I didn’t immediately associate G-U Merry with that wizard until it was made crystal clear, although there is a definite air of Gandalf about him – der!

I liked the three children, especially Barney. Yes, Simon is the born leader of the trio a bit bossy, but Jane has good ideas and holds her own, even though she is more cautious than the others. Having wondered if they corresponded with any of Lewis’ Pevensies, I would still say that Barney is a male-Lucy type. Jane is so much more than Blyton’s bland homemaker Anne, but not a tomboy like George either. She is more like Garner’s Susan rather than Lewis’ perhaps!

All this brings me to the question over whether Cooper channels E E Nesbit in this novel, as it was written as a response to a competition to honour Nesbit’s memory. The most obvious comparison for me is with the exploits of the Bastables in The Adventures of the Treasure Seekers over the more magical exploits of the five children in her ‘Psammead’ books. In Year 6 at primary school, back in 1971, I played bossy Oswald Bastable, surely the model for Simon, in a school production of a play derived from that book – and even wrote a final scene for it in which the children found a treasure chest in the attic, full of fizzy pop and sweets – wish fulfilment indeed.

I utterly devoured this book, and can’t wait to read volume two, which gives the sequence its name. Written after a gap of eight years, and with a new cast of characters and new location – will these shifts prove too much, or should we see OS,US as a prequel to the main event? No specific questions this time, but I will return next month on the 24th again.

Meanwhile, if you joined in on the first episode of this readalong, thank you very much – if you’ve written about it, do leave your links below.

See some other thoughts about OS,US at Calmgrove, and Laura T. (who pointed me back to Weirdstone).

Source: Own copy from the TBR, Book 13 of my #20BooksofSummer. Red Fox paperback, 362 pages.

BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link

18 thoughts on “#TDiRS22 – The Dark is Rising Sequence Book 1: Over Sea, Under Stone

  1. Calmgrove says:

    Oh what a lovely post, Annabel, it recaptures everything I associate with this instalment—I’m lucky to have picked up a US edition of the sequence with Cooper’s own introduction to each of the titles, explaining how each came about, but your discussion absolutely suits the holiday feel she evokes in the story itself. As we’re currently in Aberdyfi, where parts of the final two titles are set, OSUS totally captured that seaside feel, so hats off to you for choosing August to kick off TDiRS22!

    Your enumerating of likely literary influences has confirmed and deepened my own impressions – Nesbit, Lewis and Blyton are all there, for sure, though I hadn’t made the wardrobe connection. Not having read any Streatfeild (apart from her introduction to an edition of Nesbit’s childhood memoirs) I didn’t notice the GUM/Gumerry link. Being an early aficionado of the Arthurian legends I did spot the significance of Professor Merriman Lyon’s name of course!

    Rufus? The hints of red in his coat and his name reminded me of spectral hounds in Celtic legends, which (as in the Mabingion) were often white with red ears. His doggy sixth sense meant he played a significant part in the story, and right from the start too! Anyway, I’ve blathered on too much now, but thanks again! 🙂 Off to read Laura’s response…

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thank you Chris. I loved the nostalgia of childhood summer hols this invoked as you saw.
      Reading this first volume in the sequence has already cemented my intention to move on to selected Nesbit highlights next in my monthly children’s classics slot as it’s becoming! Sadly, I haven’t got my Treasure Seekers books any longer as having awoken my memories of being Oswald (I was always a principal boy at that age – I don’t think the boys in our class liked the idea of learning lines) they’re the ones I’d most like to revisit being slightly fuzzy in my mind, then the Psammeads and Railway Children natch.

  2. booksandwinegums says:

    Loved this post. I re-read the second book in the series every winter, and last year I re-read the rest too. This first one sets things up very effectively, even if it feels quite a different sort of book. Looking forward to seeing what you think about The Dark is Rising!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thank you. I know it’s traditional to read TDiR at Christmas, but starting this readalong off as soon as Chris’ Narniathon finished in peak holiday season matched OS,US so well and the rest just has to follow 😀

  3. Lory says:

    Oh, I’m so glad this was a good start to the series for you! I hope you’ll love the others just as much. I’d be very annoyed I think if I had read it when she first wrote it and there was no sequel in sight. Hard to understand how she could seriously end a book on such a cliffhanger, with a big identity reveal, without any intention to write a follow-up! Fortunately, that notion didn’t live long.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It was simply lovely. I’m now halfway through the next and loving it just as much. An even stronger Garner feel with the doors, but I shall save my comments for next month!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Lovely post Annabel! My experience with these books is a re-read, but after a very long time so much is new to me! I thought it certainly captured the feeling of a seaside holiday (and I have had Cornish hols in my time). I’ve not read enough Nesbit to make any comparisons, and although I see what you mean about the Pevensies they didn’t spring to mind particularly for me. As for Rufus, I thought he was a treat, and a bit more use than Snowy or Timmy. I mean I *love* Snowy and Timmy, but have in my mind that Snowy is always getting into trouble or drunk, and Timmy just wants food! But it’s a while since I read any Famous Five…

  5. CLM (@ConMartin) says:

    My family went on a few vacations near lakes or the ocean in New England but not in the same way as British families. My mother is a reader but even she wished our first request wasn’t always to visit the nearest library to see if we could get a temporary card, then try to read all our new books without going outside. Having just visited Cornwall for the first time, I would like to spend a whole week just ambling about and walking on the beach (and also reading with the background of the ocean).

    I do think this first book has a very Nesbit feel – it is very different from later books in the series and may be my favorite but I haven’t reread the others for years so we shall see. I know Cooper was a big reader as a child: she doubtless read Ransome, Geoffrey Trease, and John Masefield but she did not read the Narnia books until she was an adult (she does mention somewhere that while at Oxford she and her friends were eagerly waiting for the third book of The Lord of the Rings to be published).

    The Drew children squabble in a way that is very realistic but pull together when necessary. Somehow I have never read Tintin but I found Timmy tedious. I always preferred Blyton’s Adventure series with Kiki the parrot.

    I reviewed Over Sea, Under Stone not that long ago:
    https://perfectretort.blogspot.com/2019/04/over-sea-under-stone-by-susan-cooper.html

    There’s a great interview with Susan Cooper online: https://www.readingrockets.org/books/interviews/cooper/transcript

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Thank you so much. Your review is fascinating – at 62, I’m new to Cooper, and am finding it all fascinating! Thanks for the interivew link too – a good resource.

  6. Leslie Lambert says:

    I’ve loved discovering this series here, which I had not known of before. The first book really took me back to the adventure and mystery books that I enjoyed as a child in the 1960s USA, like Elizabeth Kinsey’s Seaview Secret, and The Moonspinners film with Hayley Mills. Our library has the whole series and I’ve already started the second book! It’s a nice change from the SFF I usually gravitate toward.

  7. Liz Dexter says:

    How lovely to watch you enjoying this one. It is Nesbitty, you’re right, and I remember very clearly coming to this after reading The Dark is Rising the first time and having the same “Oh!”-ments as I did when reading The Magician’s Nephew!

  8. hcethatsme says:

    Chiming in late – how nice to start a new series here after Chris’ Narniad – thank you, Annabel! I liked but never devoured these books when I was a child, even though I loved fantasy; they scared me a bit. I’m not sure I read them all, but I’m very much looking forward to the others. On to your prompts, another feature I’m glad to continue!

    1. Absolutely childhood summer hols – not so much from first-hand experience, although there’s a bit of that, but more from the many other books in this genre. Everyone is on new territory, but the adults are off in their own world so you have to find your own adventures. But we’re missing the Blytonesque ginger beer and ices, so it’s not quite as hedonistic.

    2. That origin is fascinating. I don’t think this book is Nesbitty at all, because her stuff always has a strong vein of humor and OSUS is more serious, even dark. I love all the Nesbit books – I’ve read most, not all – but I never got any sense of real peril from them, and this is a different story. The Nesbit protagonists can get into being-thought-naughty trouble, sometimes even how-do-we-get-out-of-this-jam trouble, but never battle-between-good-and-evil trouble.

    3. If we’re comparing to the Pevensies, Jane has bits of Lucy as well, and both Jane and Barney have bits of Edmund’s desire to show up the others; but I think mostly it’s that in any group of kids the dynamics will be similar, with the elders a bit bossy and the youngsters more prone to blunders.

    4. Rufus doesn’t have enough personality to rank with Snowy, in my eyes; Timmy is a good comparison. But Rufus doesn’t feel like the kids’ dog/companion, more like a minor character.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      It felt like a natural follow-on! Thank you so much for your insights, esp 2. which is spot on! Look forward to you joining in again next month. Thank you.

  9. Laura says:

    Just back from holiday and coming to this late. I love that you played Oswald Bastable – I adore him! And I missed the Gum link as well, despite having read Ballet Shoes about 1000 times.

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