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Medieval Reads: Susan Cooper and positioning oneself in relation to the past

By Gillian Polack

Some things just stick in our minds. The author may not mean them to, but they do. One of these things is a sequence in one of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising novels. The Stanton family is hanging out and Gerard’s Herbal is the book they are reading from and mocking a little. This is one of my three favourite sequences in the whole series, even though I never remember which book it’s in and even though the herbal has precious little to do with the plot. The sequence is a diversion, a moment when the reader can see what Will Stanton’s life would have looked like if he hadn’t discovered his magical nature. It sets the reader for a critical moment where Will casts a spell on his favourite brother because the burden of knowing about magic is too great for the older brother to bear. That’s what should have struck me, and would in most cases.

Gerard’s Herbal is, however, special. It’s not from the Middle Ages. It’s from sooner after. It’s an English language version of a certain type of herbal and that type of herbal is very Medieval. The past that the Stanton children were mocking was the past Will’s magic is linked to throughout the novels: a Medieval past.

Gerard is not a direct link to the Middle Ages. A style and framework for listing and describing herbs was copied into the sixteenth century and updated a bit, and translate into English… but the world view depicted in it is solidly from the Middle Ages. The qualities of plants and the nature of remedies described reflect a world that is not ours.

Susan Cooper uses this indirect reflection of the Middle Ages quite a bit during the series. Merriman Lyon’s name sounds as if it could possibly be Merlin, his honorary relatives guess, but there’s no evidence that he is. Folklore in Greenwitch and Welsh lore and legend in other novels are not dated, but they echo the popular ‘feel’ for the Middle Ages that appears in a great deal of children’s and Young Adult fantasy fiction set in Britain.

Each of these reflections Is included to help explain a character or describe a plot point. Gerard’s Herbal is critical for telling readers that Will Stanton is not like his siblings: he is ‘other.’ It’s why Gerard sticks in my memory. The children reading aloud quite alien descriptions of otherwise familiar plants reminds me, every time, that Will Stanton is alien in his own family. The medieval is being used to illuminate the type of alien that Will is becoming.

A great deal of Susan Cooper’s series of children’s novels rely on evoking the past as a memory and as a reflection rather than as historical. Old people contain magic. Old objects are magic. While most of the past is conflated into a stream of timelessness in which the magic thrives, the reading of Gerard’s Herbal is one of the moments when we discover that the world view of that magical time is pretty much a Medieval one.

Will learns magic through a grammar book. He learns it almost instantly and with much trauma – there is no sitting down and studying – but the book is a manuscript and has a Middle English name.

That’s all I really wanted to say about Susan Cooper’s series of works. I could say it at great length. I could talk more about the hint that Professor Lyon may be Merlin, or may not be, which is a very medieval view of Merlin, since Merlin changed shape when he had to in the medieval prose Arthurian tales. I could examine in more depth those snippets of Welsh legend and the sense of Cornwall, even in stories that are much more recent, cast back to an older past where English was not the core language of the region. Hints. It’s often hints.

Novels like The Dark is Rising call upon the Middle Ages in the way someone might hum a bit of a favourite tune as they walk along the street. It enriches the tale and it helps the writer illustrate the nature of events. That was what the reading of Gerard did, at that moment. Every scrap of mention of the Herbal helps underpin what the story is saying.

This is not using the Middle Ages as telling detail. It’s not illustrating a moment. It’s enriching a moment that’s already perfectly well illustrated.

It helps push the story from an everyday reality (Will Stanton as an ordinary child) to a magical one (Will Stanton as an Old One). It says a lot that even echoes of medieval world picture that are not at all well known by the wider community can push a story in this direction and in this way. Like humming that tune while walking along the street, it changes the pace and it brightens the steps.

Gillian Polack is an Australian writer and scholar who focuses on how historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction writers see and use history, especially the medieval period. Among her books is The Middle Ages Unlocked. Learn more about her Gillian’s work on her website, or follow her on Twitter @GillianPolack

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