This fantasy book by Susan Cooper is the second in "The Dark Is Rising Sequence" and is published by Margaret K. McElderry Books, a division of Simon and Schuster Children's Books.
The Dark Is Rising is written for kids ages 9 to 14. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Will Stanton, the youngest of 10 children, will celebrate his 11th birthday on Midwinter's Day. On the day before his birthday, an old man hides and watches him, and a neighbor, Farmer Dawson, warns Will about a man called the Walker and impending danger. He does not offer an explanation but gives Will an iron circle divided equally into four sections by a cross and tells him to keep it with him at all times.
On his birthday, Will wakes up to find that his surroundings are different. Trees have replaced buildings, and roads are now only tracks. Will meets a Rider, but refuses the Rider's food and to sit on his black horse. Will narrowly escapes when the Rider tries to take him. A white horse allows Will to carry him, when Will asks, and Will instinctively knows that he must find someone called the Walker.
The old man from the day before is the Walker. When Will tries to get answers from the Walker, the Rider attacks. The white horse saves him, and the Walker runs away. The white horse takes Will to a hill with a freestanding door that seemingly leads to nowhere.
Will goes through it and enters a great hall. He meets Merriman Lyon and the Lady. They explain that like them, he is an Old One, an immortal being that protects the world from being taken over by the forces of evil called the Dark. Will is the last of the Old Ones and has been tasked with finding six magical signs that will help the Old Ones in the battle between Dark and Light. Farmer Dawson gave Will the first sign, the sign of iron, and he now has to find the other five: the signs of bronze, wood, stone, fire and water.
Merriman explains that they are not in Will's time but hundreds of years in the past, which is why the surroundings look so different. Merriman returns Will to his time and tells him that he will get the second sign from the Walker.
A few days later, on Christmas Eve, Will is returning from shopping when he sees a dead branch in the road and decides to set it on fire, a trick Merriman taught him in the great hall. As the branch is blazing, the Walker accosts Will from behind and demands that he put out the fire because it will attract the Dark. Will asks for the second sign from the Walker, who tells him that he has been forced to carry the sign for a very long time but fears giving it to the wrong person. Will convinces the Walker to give him the sign and as he does, Maggie Barnes, the dairymaid from Dawson's farm, approaches them.
Too late, Will realizes that Maggie is an agent of the Dark. She uses magic to paralyze him and takes both signs, but Merriman appears and uses the magic of the Light to stop Maggie and save Will. Merriman admonishes Will for playing with his power and attracting the Dark. Will promises never to abuse his power again.
On the night before Christmas, the Stanton children go caroling at a large manor owned by Mrs. Greythorne. Will is surprised to see Merriman working as the manor's butler but soon discovers that Mrs. Greythorne is also an Old One. While the children are singing to Mrs. Greythorne, Merriman stops time and takes Will back a few hundred years to a party in the mansion where they observe a ritual to remake the sign of wood. After the ritual, the new sign is hidden in paneling on the wall.
Merriman introduces Will to Hawkin, a man whom he has raised as a son and considers a confidant. When Merriman betrays Hawkin's trust, Hawkin becomes an agent of the Dark. Merriman returns Will to his own time, and Will retrieves the sign of wood from the paneling where it was hidden.
On Christmas morning, Will feels an impending attack of the Dark waiting for him outside the church. He is helped by Old Ones who live close to the church, and together they push back the force of the Dark. He finds the fourth sign, the sign of stone, in the church. Wild birds lead Will to find the Walker collapsed in the churchyard.
Will and Paul take the Walker back to their home where Mrs. Stanton nurses him back to health. As the weather gets increasingly worse, Merriman suggests that all the townspeople gather at Mrs. Greythorne's manor to wait out the storm.
While at the manor, Will travels back in time and sees the Lady who warns him that the Dark is holding the entire country in a grip of cold and snow, and Will must get the sign of fire to break that grip.
Will learns that the Walker is actually Hawkin, who, because of his betrayal to the Light, has been cursed to carry the second sign for hundreds of years until the last Old One, Will, takes it from him. Will uses flames to create the sign of fire, causing rain to fall and the snow and cold to stop.
Once Will returns home, he finds that his sister Mary went out looking for him and is missing. Will suspects that the Rider has kidnapped Mary. He searches for her. An Old One tells Will that he is going to raise the Wild Hunt and that Will must take the white horse to the Hunter. The white horse takes Will to an island in the swollen river Thames where he is confronted by an angry Hawkin and then by the Rider himself.
The Rider threatens to kill Mary if Will does not give him the signs, but Will refuses, and Mary is thrown off the black horse over the river. Merriman and the white horse rescue her. Will is left on the island and finds the sixth sign, the sign of water, to complete the set. Merriman takes Will to the park where he gives the white horse to Herne the Hunter, the leader of the Wild Hunt. Herne begins the hunt. The Rider tries to attack Will but is chased by the Wild Hunt. Merriman tells Will that the Dark is temporarily vanquished as the Hunt will chase the Dark to the ends of the earth.
Will and Merriman go back in time to witness the ritual joining of the signs. The signs are put on a chain that Will wears around his neck. Merriman returns Will to his home where they find both Mary and Mrs. Stanton doing well. Merriman says goodbye to Will's family and walks away, leaving through the door of time.
When Will asks Hawkin if he is an Old One, Hawkin tells him no, that he is just an ordinary, sinful man. The Stanton children sing Christian Christmas carols to their neighbors. While out caroling, the children take a collection box for the community's small and deteriorating church. Will, his mother, Paul, James and Mary go to church on Christmas. James thinks that Mary is only going to church on Christmas Day to avoid chores. The rector thanks God that the Walker is alive after he is found unconscious in the church yard.
The Stanton children perform multiple chores without complaint. When Mr. Stanton refuses to go to Mrs. Greythorne's manor, Max playfully calls him a rotten old snob. Merriman admonishes Will for his impulsiveness and playing with his power. Will remorsefully apologizes and promises to never do those things again.
Other belief systems
While in Mrs. Greythorne's library, Will sees books on witchcraft and demonology. Merriman tells Will that people who are called witches are just ordinary people who very rarely had any dealings with the Dark and nothing to do with the Old Ones. He says the stories are a way of explaining things that people do not understand. After the attack on the church, the rector sees the signs hanging on Will's belt and assumes that the crosses in the circles drove the Dark away. Old George tells the rector that the signs are older than Christ and made long before Christianity. The rector answers that they were not made before God. Will tells the rector that there is no before or after, that everything that matters exists outside of time and can come and go from there. The rector assumes Will is talking about infinity, but Will corrects him and says he is talking about the parts of people, the things they believe that have nothing to do with time because it belongs to different kinds of levels. He adds that all gods and everything they stand for are on that level, too.
The Lord's name is taken in vain four times. A flock of birds attack an old man. A sign is burnt into a boy's arm, but the burn is healed. A mother breaks her leg when the Dark causes her to fall down a flight of stairs. A girl is thrown from a horse but lands safely. An old man is thrown from a horse and is paralyzed. He dies soon after.
Max is romantically involved with a girl at his London art school. She writes to him every day. Will and James tease Max about Maggie Barnes because they know she has a crush on him. Max mentions that he was supposed to stay with his girlfriend but the excessive snow will cause transportation problems.
Newbery Honor Book, 1974; Boston Globe-Horn Book Award, 1973
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- How are the Old Ones different from the Rider and Maggie Barnes?
What makes one group good and the other evil?
- Why does Hawkin feel betrayed by the Old Ones?
Have you ever hurt someone or made that person feel used?
What could you have done differently?
Has someone ever used you?
How did it make you feel?
- How could Hawkin have done things differently?
What other choices could he have made?
- Who does the Bible say is the true Light of the world?
How is Jesus similar to the Light mentioned in this story?
How is He different?
Alcohol: When Will travels back in time to a Christmas Eve party, he drinks a fermented beverage that is akin to Mead.
Lying: When Mary asks Will about the signs on his belt, he tells her they are just decorations and that he made them in metalwork class. Will's brother Paul asks him what is going on, and Will lies to him by telling him that the signs are antique buckles that unscrupulous people are trying to steal from him.
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