The Longest Night, the Shortest Day

Welcome, Instapunderati, and thanks for stopping by!

The winter solstice has arrived, and the sun has touched its lowest point on the southern horizon for those of us north of the equator.

It took an ice storm for me to understand in my bones why my ancestors back in the Old World so feared and reveled in the end of the longest night. When the sun appeared after two days of night, heavy cloud, breaking trees and cold that crept in as the fires failed, well, I too sang hymns of praise to the sun above. Only sunlight would thin and dissolve the ice, and allow the repairs to begin so that heat and light could return to houses and other buildings. Unlike other, smaller towns, we never lost water, thanks be.

And so the shortest day, the longest night, the lengthening of days and the deepening of the cold have arrived. And I turn once again to the adventures of Will Stanton and Co., and Uncle Merry.

“When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back…”

OK, how many of you finished the verse? 🙂 So you’ve read Susan Cooper’s books, too.

I always come back to them this time of year. Over Sea, Under Stone didn’t do much for me, but then I read The Dark is Rising and got hooked. Eventually I memorized the entire poem set that goes with the books, aside from the Welsh-language bit. As much as I like the others, the first book to feature Will, the seventh son of a seventh son, the last of the Old Ones, is still the best.

For those who have not found the series, the five books chronicle the adventures of five children/ young teens and their uncle/mentor (“three from the temple/three from the track”) as they race to fulfill a prophesy about the final victory of Light over Dark. The stories take place in Cornwall (x2), Wales (X2) and the Thames Valley, and draw heavily on English and Welsh mythology. Cooper did a beautiful job of interweaving the legends into the stories. The books do stand alone (except for the last one, Silver on the Tree), but it makes more sense to read them as a set, I think.

“Tonight shall be wild, and tomorrow beyond imagining.” Farmer Tom to Will in The Dark is Rising

They are, well, I’m not sure what genre they fit. Fantasy yes, very much so, set in modern times but also jumping back to Roman Britain, and outside of time. They are shadowy but not dark in the current sense. There’s no sadism, no blood-n-guts, no “realistically failed” families (unless you count Bran’s family in The Grey King and Silver on the Tree, and even then there’s a great deal of love between parent(s) and child. There are scary scenes, and tension that builds within and between the books, but nothing nightmare-inducing. And there are moments of sheer beauty, both written and described.

Yes, I loved the books and still do. They are probably slow by current standards, and younger readers might need some explanations about the Wild Hunt, the Grey King, and the Lost Land of Ys. The Mari Llawd might also scare sensitive kids, but if they’ve gotten that far, they are probably ready for it.

What’s the rest of the verse? 🙂 I’m glad you asked:

“When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back/ Three from the temple, three from the track./ Wood, bronze, iron, fire, water, stone,/ Five shall return and one go alone.”   From The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.

The books are now available as e-books.

*The poem is much longer, and fun to learn and recite.


39 thoughts on “The Longest Night, the Shortest Day

  1. Something I’ve never before heard of to join the teetering stack.
    Sounds right up my alley, wish I’d been assigned this instead of The Witch of Blackbird Pond. (Which didn’t make enough of an impact for me remember why I didn’t like it. ) But at least I was never forced to read The Bridge to Teribethia.

    • Why, oh why are so many assigned works depressing and sad? Do teachers really think teenagers need more depression and existential angst in their lives?

      Oh, to be in charge. I’d assign a selection from the works of Kipling and Pratchett. A juvenile or two from RAH. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Something Wicked This Way Comes. Animal Farm. Hard Magic.

      • It’s supposed to be “realistic.” Teens only want to read about people just like them who have even worse problems. At least, that’s what the buyers at a certain publisher seem to think *coughScholasticcough*. Which might be why the Reading class (separate from English and just for reading and talking about books) at Day Job does things like _The Lightning Thief_ and _A Wrinkle in Time_ or _The Wizard of Earthsea_.

        • Bloody ‘ell. I did read Animal Farm… after seeing the cartoon on TV. Having lived through the year 1984 and hearing endlessly about it, I want to wall the damn thing unread – even if it doesn’t deserve it. But I can’t wall the enemedia. Damnit.

      • Supposed to be realistic fiction, and the students loathe it. Summer vacation and projects started putting me in touch with some young English teachers. Several, without prompting, began their litany of woe during breaks. Their students, especially boys, want adventure, action, and heroic deeds instead of realism.

        I’ll start with wallet cards for next summer, listing series, nook, and author, to include our hostess and John C. Wright with the others. The main point is that they see Scholastic and little else, unless they know where to look or have an eccentric aunt/uncle as sources for these dangerous books. I’ll give them lists of alternates, one new teacher at a time.

        Let’s not forget Alt-Hero comics for the boys who think reading is bad, but whose attention can be caught by good graphics and excellent story. Something more substantial than Captain Underpants.

        • The Asterix books are on Amazon, affordable, and my five year old boy is catching some of the word-play.

          Even if he DOES insist on saying Asterix fights the “Ramen legions.”

        • “Their students, especially boys, want adventure, action, and heroic deeds instead of realism.”

          Adventure, action and heroic deeds ARE realism. But only when boys grow up to be men instead of emasculated betas. So the last thing that the academic establishment wants is for them to be reading about such.

          • I figure it’s a term of art; when you see a novel praised for realism, you know they’re using it in the terminology sense that means something like “this will knock any childish joy right out of them!”

      • >> Why, oh why are so many assigned works depressing and sad? <> Oh, to be in charge. I’d assign a selection from the works of Kipling and Pratchett. <<

        Seconded. If more people knew and understood "The Ballad of East and West", "If-", "The Gods of the Copybook headings", and "In the Neolithic Age", this would be a far better world.

        There are nine-and-sixty ways of constructing tribal lays
        And every single one of them is right!

      • A fine question!
        And Pratchett is an interesting suggestion, especially as his stories are a good way of smuggling in civics, economics, moral philosophy, and so on, disguised as fun and harmless fantasy.
        Perhaps the world needs more YA authors who are familiar with the works of Adam Smith, G. K. Chesterton, Thomas Sowell, etc.

        Randomly somewhat related: I was rather bothered, a few years ago, to note that a local chain bookstore had a rather large section dedicated to “teen paranormal romance” – by which I assume they meant the output of Crepuscular Cloneworks. But nothing at all for boys – and certainly nothing along the lines of, say, The Radio Boys or Tom Swift (not so much Jr.).
        A minor ponderment from this morning’s amble: seems like the whole fifty-shades-of-twilight genre is conditioning girls to long for domination by a caricature of a super-alpha male; meanwhile, boys (at least, the non-feral ones) are conditioned to be timid epsilons, ranking somewhere below domestic livestock in the social hierarchy. Somehow, I don’t see this ending well.

        • And Pratchett is an interesting suggestion, especially as his stories are a good way of smuggling in civics, economics, moral philosophy, and so on, disguised as fun and harmless fantasy.

          And as he came around to them from the long way about, he’s very hard for those who object to assumed motivations to object to.

        • Somehow, I don’t see this ending well.

          I really wish I could argue against it.

          Heck, the only thing I can add is that being a decent, loyal, moral guy is treated at BEST as something to be overcome. (Talk about a low bar to cross.)

    • Which didn’t make enough of an impact for me remember why I didn’t like it.

      Huh, me neither; I remember it being there, and reading it, but just disappointment.

      Probably another one of those that promised magic and never delivered; contrast with TBtT which promised magic and then slapped you in the face for thinking life has any magic in it at all.

  2. Finished the verse, yes. Read the books, no, but I’d heard the song.
    Rummage around… ah. It’s on one of the Urban Tapestry CDs, currently in storage.
    The books got onto my “read someday” list earlier this year, though now I don’t recall what prompted that.

    • The series pops up a lot at AtH, MGC, and similar places when people are talking about urban fantasy before “urban fantasy,” and good YA books for boys (and girls).

  3. I loved the series when it first came out – but I did find the ending of the last book something of a copout. Even then, I totally objected to the idea of removing memories. Block the ability to speak about experiences, maybe; remove the entire memory of them, no way!

    • I always wondered, looking back, if Cooper spent so much energy on the events leading up to the final confrontation that she ran out of emotional and mental energy. There’s another series (not YA, far more recent) where that happened, but the author apparently got worried and added a “but some people believe that…” codicil that sketched a far more satisfying conclusion.

  4. “Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long;
    Wood from the burning, stone out of song;
    Fire in the candle-ring, water from the thaw;
    Six signs the circle, and the grail gone before.”

    Found my copy, and will enjoy it tonight with a good whiskey or red wine. Uh (observes carp-a-pult turning a bit), yes, and “Stamme” too.

    I have about half a page of alternate, good books for English teachers now, with some of McChuck’s suggestions added to the list. Don’t care if it turns into a full page. It was enough gratification to have one young teacher say “Who? What books” eagerly, with regard to John Wright and a modern telling of the Green Knight’s Tale.

    • Dave Freer’s books, too – the two steampunk ones and _Changling’s Island_. I bought several copies for my classroom bookshelf.

  5. I love those books so much. I first ran into them the winter I turned 11, not too long after my late-December birthday.
    I also love that she gives a realistic portrayal of a large, non-dysfunctional family. I’m the oldest of 7 kids, and Hollywood never gets it right.

  6. I liked the adventure and the brilliant plot work, but the ‘they will forget it all’ ending spoiled it all. If you don’t trust people to keep their memories, what kind of ruler/savior are you? What kind of world do you create by your choices?

  7. Actually, in the copies that I read, it was “Three from the Circle/Three from the Track”. Perhaps the wording is different elsewhere than America?

    • It could well be. I’m not certain if I read the originals, a revised version, or something else. They were library-bound editions (kid resistant, not pet proof, or so I have been told.)

  8. I recall reading another book years ago – with three children having visions of being at locations with Taliesin where he was doing various deeds. I enjoyed it thoroughly and made photocopies of some of the riddles from the story. Of course, years later, I can’t find it to give you a title. Does it sound familiar to anyone?

  9. “Mari Lwyd might also scare some kids”? How about, “still does 30+ years after reading”. Tried to get the kids to read the series, but it didn’t really take, unfortunately.

  10. Julia Ecklar set the whole poem to music. The first minute or so is instrumental, and can be skipped.

  11. shame the movie stunk to the highest heavens
    Perhaps Peter Jackson and his wife could take a stab at making the entire series?

    • Possibly. The trouble would be keeping him from trying to make them modern, rather than leaving them in their original time setting. *sigh* And someone would probably demand that Will Stanton be made Wilhelmina or something like that.

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