The Longest Night of the Year

“Iron for the birthday, bronze carried long,

Wood from the burning/stone out of song,

Fire from the candle-ring/water from the thaw.

Six signs the circle, and the grail gone before.”

The very first time I read the novel The Dark is Rising, I memorized the poem that comes from. I can still see in my mind’s eye the Walker, the rook’s feather that fell in through the roof hatch/skylight, the Dark Rider, and hear oh so faintly the aching sound of a tune played on an antique flute as a door between times opens and closes. Set in the Thames Valley in England, the book, and the others in the series by the same name, taps English, Cornish, and Welsh folklore in ways I’d never encountered before. They are urban fantasy before such a genre existed. Although officially classed as YA today, they are so rich that adults read and enjoy them today.

Today is the Winter Solstice. If Sommerwende is a day for parties and savoring the warmth and bounty of summer, the winter turning is a time of dread and fear. Will the sun return? Will there be enough to get through the hard, lean times ahead? The return of the sun was cause for rejoicing and wild celebration, even as people still looked over their shoulders. The weeks around the solstice held power. The veil between the worlds thinned, and the Wild Hunt rode. Ghosts walked, and the price for denying hospitality might be severe indeed. It was the time to bless the fruit trees and share the joy of the season with them (wassailing the orchards). War was supposed to stop, at least in Christendom. Since only fools, the mad, or Teutonic Knights actually wanted to fight during midwinter, the rule was generally upheld.

I’ll be out after dark, looking at stars, admiring Christmas lights, and watching Orion rise above the trees. Storms are due overnight, bringing hard cold and screaming winds. Winter does not go easily, even as days slowly lengthen.

When light from the lost land shall return, Six Sleepers shall ride, six Signs shall burn,

And where the midsummer tree grows tall, By Pendragon’s sword the Dark shall fall.

16 thoughts on “The Longest Night of the Year

  1. I keep finding more depth in her writing, over the years. So many sorrows, hopes, and joys woven into that wreath, with candles and Signs shining bright against all dark things.

    I was in a farther north area recently. Got light late, got dark too early (about 3:30 pm), and solar zenith was only around 20 deg above the horizon. Those, with the emptiness of streets and shops, make you crave human company and cheer; even in wan daylight, you kept a wary eye open, alert for anything not quite natural. The ancient customs of hospitality and guest-peace have more impact, with first hand use.

  2. Blessing the fruit trees… that reminds me; mine need anointing with dormant spray.

    I still haven’t read The Dark is Rising, but the song kinda sticks in one’s head.

  3. I was introduced to that series bass-ackwards. My teacher read *The Grey King* aloud to our class, and it was only after that I realized it was a series. I was also severely disappointed that *Over Sea, Under Stone* didn’t have Will or Bran in it. It took a while, but I came to appreciate Simon, Jane, and Barney, too – and of course Great-Uncle Merry.

    Even now *mumble* years later, those books linger in me in ways I never would’ve thought at the time – not least of which is a lifelong fascination with the Arthurian mythos – including getting married on the winter solstice 28 years ago. *grin*

    All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.

    • I read them in order, and wasn’t sure about the first one. The first quarter felt slow, then pulled me in. I devoured the rest, and re-read The Dark is Rising and The Grey King over and over. Greenwich seems the most haunting and scary, in some ways. “The hour is come, but not the man!”

  4. The first one seems more “childish” (not in a terrible way) than the others.

    Still a good series.

  5. Thank you for reminding me – I haven’t re-read the cycle yet this year and I’m about to start my long Christmas Break. We’ve just had our Summer Solstice down here in NZ, so the contrast of long lazy summer days and the dark winter magic of The Dark is Rising will be just the thing! Have you also read Alan Garner’s books The Owl Service, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and the Moon of Gomrath? He wrote a late addition to the Weirdstone duology called The Bonelands, featuring the boy Colin as an older man.

        • Two of the Weirdstone trilogy are available in e-format. The third seems to be only available as an Audible Audiobook.

          • E-books are handy, it’s true, but the battery never runs out on a paperback… and it’s a nice change to read a printed page or several after staring at computer screens all day for Day Job. Stay safe up there – I’ve seen the storm warnings and they look grim!

  6. Huh, I missed that series completely… Thanks for yet another series to go hunt down, since my butt is going to be staying home for the next couple of days. I don’t ‘do’ cold well..

    • You’re welcome. I’m hunkering down for the next 36 hours, and assuming that we will have intermittent power outages because of the wind. It’s supposed to hit just after midnight, and the worst will be 0500-1500 tomorrow.

      • The Pac NW seems to be the only part of the country not afflicted by the arctic trough, though any survivor’s guilt is tempered by a) the coldest November since we moved here 19 years ago (from power bill records, 5 degrees colder than the runner up) and b) a week where 0F was the warmest morning. At least it only dropped to the low teens. One winter we got a -28F. It seems that living near the river in a broad valley lets us get all that wonderful slope wind at night.

        Yes, our weather patterns tend to move east or southeast. We’re sharing that way. /wince

        Our snow is melting; it actually rained yesterday and the forecast guess says more of the same. OTOH, yesterday’s puddles are this morning’s mini-ice-rinks. Sigh. Intermountain weather can be entertaining in a Punch and Judy sense.

        I’m hoping for a brown Christmas. Walkable driveways would be nice… (White Thanksgiving was premature, thank you.)

        Everybody: stay safe and as warm as practical!

        • I spoke too soon. Tonight’s Winter Weather Advisory includes freezing rain. West the the Cascades, they have an Ice Storm Warning. I’ll admit to practicing coming up on a (deserted) 4 way stop with my MG going sideways, but that was a long time ago, and my sense of survival says it’s not a good idea to recreate that…

          We have ice strips on the driveway. I either need a really good plow or a Zamboni.

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