Will Stanton is no ordinary boy. On the night of his 11th birthday strange things start to happen. Birds fly away when he steps outside, his usually friendly dogs won’t come near him. The dark is rising and he’s been chosen to bring the light.
I know. This is a now relatively obscure children’s book and it sounds a little weird. But I loved it as a kid, and it evokes its county so well. They tried to make a film of it – nay, they DID make a film – but it flopped, presumably for its very real similarity to another speccy 11-year-old with magic powers who, at one time or another, is called “the seeker”. But JK Rowling has spoken about this series of novels as one her prime inspirations for Harry Potter, and it’s a dark, sinister and adventure-filled precursor to what became the biggest children’s book of all time. So there: it deserves mention.
As much as this is a story about wizardry, ancient powers and magic, it is also a story about England. Will lives in a sleepy Buckinghamshire village, happy in a large family house and working with his father on the farm. Susan Cooper creates a vivid portrait of a tiny postwar village recovering and making do. The lanes are covered with snow, the pace of life is slow and yet, amongst all this, a boy is chosen to rid the world of darkness. “The sun rose over the valley of the Thames”, she writes, before plunging into the mist and eerie silence of a world frozen in time – all apart from Will.
Will must overcome these forces, but first he must learn how they are steeped in tradition, in times gone by, in forests, birds, nature: in his surrounding geography. His quest is to vanquish these malevolent forces through the collection of six “signs”, which exist in his own time and in the past. He is an “Old One”, the seventh son of a seventh son (like Ginny, but a boy). His guides, a plethora of other Old Ones, take him back in time: “That is where you were,” he’s told, “in the time of the royal forests, that stretched all over the southern part of this land, from Southampton water up to the valley of the Thames here.” Throughout the course of the of the book Will comes to realise much about the area and develops a love for the country he was born in. In darker moments he dreams vividly of “attacks on his island country”.
Cooper is as interested in the magic and the suspense – the story she wishes to tell – as the surrounding countryside. This is a children’s novel, but it is as much for adults because it tells an ancient story, a history that must be revisited: full of kings and rulership, myths and legends. It tells the tale of community of people coming together without realising the common good they’re fighting for. England plays as much a part in this novel as Will Stanton himself.
Huntercombe Lane, often alluded to, is a place just west of Swindon and one which has many deep traditions. Cooper aims to make young readers aware of how England came to be: the lane may be twisted and constantly changing but it is, and always has been, there. “500 years ago,” Will is told, “the kings of England chose deliberately to preserve those forests, swallowing up whole villages and hamlets inside them, so the wild things – the dear and the boars and even the wolves – might breed there for the hunt. The name simply tells you what the road is, as the names of roads and places and old lands very often do, if only men would pay them more attention.”
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