Monday, 23 May 2016

Darkness and delight

On this day in 1935, Susan Cooper was born in Buckinghamshire. If you have any interest in fantasy, you will know the name and the 'The Dark is Rising' Sequence. Even if you have yet to enjoy all five, you almost certainly will have encountered works influenced by her creations.
The first book 'Over Sea, Under Stone' started off as a possible entry for a contest celebrating E. Nesbit and family adventure stories. Susan Cooper didn't enter the competition in the end - but finished the story as a standalone novel. It was published in 1965 (1968 in UK) and did well both with critics and readers.

The mixture of mystery,  Arthurian legend and contemporary family life appealed to many. She tackled big questions of good and evil in a realistic setting. She also used an unpatronising writing style in time when child-centred adventure was rare and quite often twee. All this made it rather popular (certainly with me!).

So what happened to the Drew family next?

Cover artist unknown
The one original story grew into a much larger, darker mythological sequence  with 'The Dark is Rising' in 1973. Elements of Cornish and Welsh folklore influenced the stories 'Greenwitch' and 'The Grey King'. The settings became even more grounded in real places, whilst the peril became more universal: nothing less than the freedom of mankind.

The characters readers met in the first book re-occurred in others - now older. Others were new. All of them came together in the last - 'Silver on The Tree' in 1977. There were different forms of magic, and symbols and prophecy - all the trappings of high fantasy - but in a world that readers of the time knew. (By the way, don't judge her work by the disastrous 2007 film.)

Like Alan Garner's stories, her work proved influential - bringing old tales to life for a modern audience. They were brave, frightening and multi-layered - and engendered a lifelong love of folklore, legend and mythology in many readers. Have a look at her website if you want to know more.

cover by Michael Heslop 1974

Some suggestions for you

Writing an 'origin' story? 
Susan Cooper used the dynamics of family life to give context to her central characters in 'Over Sea, Under Stone'. The warmth comes from their relationships - and the resolution involves all of them.
Have you got characters we'd love to know more about as they grow?
A variety of complex characters with flaws that are not all addressed at the end leaves the possibilities open.
Put simply - finish the plot but leave the party early. The characters will carry on with their lives until you come back.

Examining Good and Evil?
Great - universal themes are something that every readership loves.
But how to make those readers really care?
As well as the characters (see above) make it real - be now, be grounded in the physical, be somewhere with recognisable weather, creatures, geography...

Want to avoid cliché?
Quite difficult with fantasy - so go back to your sources as Susan Cooper did.
What legends, myths and folklore might be relevant? Especially from the settings you've chosen.
Read the originals or as near as you can.
Allow them to cross-fertilise.
It's like starting a banquet from scratch - without relying on processed food. Harder work perhaps, but far more satisfying - and somewhat addictive.

I't was very dark by the time they left; the sky had not cleared, and no moon nor even a single star glimmered through the black night. The lantern that Robin carried cast a glittering circle of light on the snow ... ' Illustration from the Folio Society's edition of The Dark is Rising by Laura Carlin Photograph: Folio Society




1 comment:

  1. Nice post, I have just recently read 'Over Sea, Under Stone ' and 'The Dark is Rising' for the first time and they do everything you say. 'Over Sea, Under Stone' is a fantastic Summer read and contains one of the best chase scenes I have ever read, so tense!

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