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Myth & Magic

Here is my most recent article, published this month in Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader's Quarterly, Issue 52, Winter 2016. Slightly Foxed have allowed me to publish it on this blog, but can I encourage all of you to visit their website and consider subscribing. I get it every quarter and I have also given a subscription to several friends and family members as presents. They also publish wonderful books; and sell notebooks, ex libris plates and various other literary goodies, many of which I own...

The independent-minded quarterly that combines good looks, good writing and a personal approach, Slightly Foxed introduces its readers to books that are no longer new and fashionable but have lasting appeal. Good-humoured, unpretentious and a bit eccentric, it’s more like a well-read friend than a literary magazine. Single issues from £11; annual subscriptions from £40. For more information please visit

Myth and Magic

Sophie Breese

When I was 10 I read Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone for the first time. And I will never forget the moment on p. 218 in my now broken-backed copy of this novel when I experienced what I can only describe as literary magic.

On p. 218, then, something that had begun to take shape in my mind was given body. It turned out that Great-Uncle Merry Lyon – benevolent, wise, all-knowing, ancient – was not simply all those things, but more. I had been excited about the search for the Grail in this story, and I had begun to wonder about Merriman Lyon. And then, in the Epilogue, Cooper reports this conversation between wide-eyed Barney, sensible Jane and older brother Simon:

Barney was gazing into space as if he were coming out of a trance.

‘Wake up,’ Jane said cheerfully.

Barney said slowly, ‘Is that his real name?’

‘Whose name?’

‘Great-Uncle Merry – is he really called Merriman?’

‘Well, of course – that’s what Merry is short for.’

‘I didn’t know,’ Barney said. ‘I always thought Merry was a nickname. Merriman Lyon . . .’

‘Funny name, isn’t it?’ said Simon lightly. ‘Come on, let’s go and have another look at the grail. I want to see what it says about us again.’

He moved round the edge of the crowd with Jane; but Barney stayed where he was. ‘Merriman Lyon,’ he said softly to himself. ‘Merry Lyon . . . Merlion . . . Merlin . . .’

What was so particularly wonderful about this exchange, and the reason it needs to be shown in full, was that Cooper gave me time to work it out for myself before Barney got there. While Barney was coming out of his trance, I was going into one of my own, letting the various pieces fall into place. Great-Uncle Merry Lyon was Merlin. He was Merlin, my hero, who would watch over me and guide me through life, as he had Arthur. And without quite realizing it, I had been reading a novel that he had been inhabiting the entire time.

Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) was the first in what was to become a quintet of novels called ‘The Dark is Rising’. It is written in the style of an adventure story. Three children find themselves in Cornwall staying with their not-uncle Great-Uncle Merry Lyon. They discover a treasure map and go in search of a grail, which is not just a grail, but the Grail. Barney, a reader of the Arthurian legends, gives the reader clues, and I, a reader of the Arthurian legends, was quick to pick them up. But they are fighting a force that has been waiting to rise for centuries: the Dark. And Merriman, who is of the Light, needs their help. The main objective of the quest is achieved and the Grail restored to its rightful place. At the time, Cooper apparently had no intention of writing a sequel; she was simply showing her young readers that while many difficulties in the novel – and in life – can be resolved, some things cannot.

As I was rereading Over Sea, Under Stone, it struck me how different it is to the subsequent four, with its pockets full of unlikely contents (string, candles, matches), picnics and secret caves. Not the simplicity of Enid Blyton, but the edgier Edwardian world of E. Nesbit where people have become poorer than they once were, fathers have been arrested for spying and young children seem to be the sole carers of toddlers with peculiar names. In Cooper’s next novel in the sequence, she actually mentions The Phoenix and the Carpet. When I saw this reference recently, I had another of those literary magic moments: I had guessed that Cooper was thinking of Nesbit as she wrote these novels and I was right. And then, to top it all, this morning when doing some research, I discovered that the first novel was originally submitted as part of an E. Nesbit tribute competition.

In the early 1970s, Cooper returned to the wars between good and evil, introducing a new protagonist, Will Stanton, in the second novel, The Dark is Rising (1973). Will, seventh son of a seventh son, is not mortal like Barney, Jane and Simon Drew, and as a result his adventures are less mappable, less recognizable. This and the subse­quent novels plunge the reader into a much more complicated world where almost nothing is clear. The Dark do shocking things, inevitably; but so do the Light. Humans betray other humans, including their own family; benign domestic pets appear to turn against others and kill. I loved, still love, Narnia, but there was never any doubt who was on the side of good and who was on the side of evil. Cooper’s novels do not allow the reader that kind of security.

What I also loved about these novels were the glimmers of myths and legends I already knew. The Arthur stories dominate, but there are others from different mythologies that permeate Cooper’s world. And every time I caught even the faintest echo, I had a sense of the immense power of literature to pass important, mythic, universal stories on through the generations. As an older reader, I now spot hints of, even direct allusions to, other texts I admire: Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’ (‘For all times co-exist and the future can sometimes affect the past. Even though the past is a road that leads to the future,’ in Silver on the Tree) and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. She is not name-checking to make well-read readers feel pleased with them­selves. She is breathing in and out everything good and meaningful that has existed in literature now and always.

I am not sure why I was so attracted to Arthur in particular, but as a child I read all the Arthur-related literature I could find and at uni­versity I remained obsessed, loving the medieval Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Tennyson, oh Tennyson. But for all my Arthur-related reading, it is Susan Cooper’s strange re-working and complicating of these myths that I remember so powerfully, and now as an adult I can see why. The legends of Arthur do not dominate the narra­tive in any way; they are interwoven with other stories, other myths; they are chopped and changed, so that when you find yourself hearing a recognizable echo of an Arthur story, it slips away as fast as it came. Even Merriman is as flawed and unknowable as the rest of us.

Arthur himself appears in Cooper’s last two novels: by report in The Grey King (1975) and as an actual character in Silver on the Tree (1977). He is not the great hero of legend but a problematic man. His wife Guinevere has had to escape into modern-day Wales with her son, lest Arthur thinks she has betrayed him again with Lancelot and tries to kill the child. And thus we meet the new Pendragon in the shape of the white-haired, tawny-eyed mountain boy Bran Davies who is neither of the Light nor of the Dark.

I now find it strange that I was not more disturbed by Cooper’s writing. It takes us in and out of time and place, makes no promises of any kind of redemption, and introduces us to figures of nightmare: the stag-headed Rider with red eyes and the immortal Greenwitch who drags Jane into a dream-like sea one restless night. And yet I wasn’t disturbed. Her novels made me think, made me imagine.

I remained obsessed with these books. And then, more recently, I was reminded of the quintet by an article by Robert Macfarlane in Intelligent Life in which he writes about Cooper’s brilliant use of the Chilterns as a character in The Dark is Rising. The other four novels feature Cornwall and Wales, contemporary and ancient, together with extraordinary magical landscapes such as the Lost City, where stairs lead nowhere and roofs glitter with gold, in the final and dark­est novel of the five, Silver on the Tree. Cooper brings landscape alive, using a combination of lyrical prose and bare literal language to cap­ture the imagination, but we still have to work to fill in the gaps, even when she is describing a place.

My father was a professional magician. While he was busy changing the colour of scarves from pure white to bloody red or extracting money from behind the ears of the unsuspecting, I was finding magic – real magic, it seems to me – in literature. What made (still makes) reading exciting for me was what I called the ‘secret story’, the undercurrents that lurked in the background, sometimes nudging their way into the foreground. Penelope Lively did this for me; Philippa Pearce, Lucy M. Boston, Penelope Farmer, Alan Garner too; all writ­ers who respected their young readers and let them do the thinking for themselves so they could find their own magic in between the lines of the stories and in the experience of reading. It was, for me, a crucial part of growing up.

Perhaps what marks Susan Cooper’s five novels out as quite so unusual is that, in the end, unlike the children of C. S. Lewis’s The Last Battle, for those of The Dark is Rising there is no promised homeland, no heaven or Aslan country. This, shockingly, is the land­scape not even of the agnostic but of the atheist. Great-Uncle Merry, Merriman, Merlion, Merlin leaves and it is clear he is going forever. He tells the five young people remaining that Arthur is not some­where sleeping and that they ‘may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you’. And he then disappears, leaving Will’s mind intact but wiping the memories of Bran (who has chosen to be mortal), Jane, Barney and Simon. None of it happened to them. And yet it did.

© Sophie Breese, Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly, Issue 52, Winter 2016.

Sophie Breese has just completed a memoir entitled The Magician’s Daughter and, as a result, is now obsessed with all things magical.

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