Over Sea, Under Stone: A Review

Finding copies of books you loved long ago is like reconnecting with an old friend. Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series is no exception. I read these books many times beginning in junior high. Every entry in the series was enjoyable. They were full of adventure, surprise, and plot twists. All five are page turners.

More importantly, the series is an intricate study of good and evil. Maybe there’s something in the water over the pond, but Tolkein, Lewis, and Cooper all present complex studies of the war between good and evil. Tolkein wrote of an earlier earth, one in the middle of time, so far back that we have no records of the dwarves, elves, and hobbits that lived with men. Lewis studied evil from another world in the multiverse, a world of talking beasts where Christ had the form of a lion.

As for Cooper, she writes in our world—with magic. However, that isn’t clear at all in this book. Oh, it is easily seen to be our world with the village of Trewissick in Cornwall, a village based on Mevagissey where Cooper spent many holidays. It’s the magic that remains hidden in this book. The other four books in the series, written several years later, all portray magic in spades. Like the later books, this one draws heavily from the tales of Arthur, but begins as a mystery instead of a fantasy adventure.

Cooper gives us three children who arrive with their parents at a little fishing village in Cornwall. She presents the atmosphere of the town very clearly. The reader can easily see himself walking down the streets and smelling the salty air. Simon, Jane, and Barny Drew immediately fall in love with the place and their holiday home. The invitation came from the favorite Great Uncle Merriman Lyon, called affectionately Gumerry. Professor Lyon is not really a relative but has been with them and their mother so long he feels like family.

Being children, they set out to explore the house, pretending to be jungle explorers. What they find comes not from the jungle but refers to a treasure from the time of Arthur. Taking Merry into their confidence, they begin to seek the treasure, but Gumerry knew the treasure was in Trewessick already. He brought the children here specifically so they could seek a grail from the days of King Arthur together. No, not exactly together. Merry needs them to do most of the searching while he draws off the pursuit. He will help them decipher clues, but the bulk of the work must be their own.

Some of the antagonists are easy to see. The Withers, pretending to be a brother and sister, who keep offering boat rides come across as sinister to the children from the beginning. The adults (except Merry) don’t see their wickedness. The young bully that Jane runs into when they first arrive in the village is easy to pick out as a minor antagonist. Even though I hadn’t read it in years, I remembered immediately who Mr. Hastings was in this book and the name he would use later as the opposite to Uncle Merry. However, I admit that after all these years, I had forgotten a major plot twist regarding Mrs. Palk being a spy in their very midst.

As I said, the magic is so low as to be nonexistent in this volume. Only one place might hint at magic—when the team looks out over the standing stones and Professor Lyon tells them that he is sure the moon will be rising in the right place tomorrow for them to continue following the clues. It’s much more a mystery, adventure, and race than fantasy of any level. However, Cooper drops clues that much more is at stake than a museum exhibit. Upon realizing who Merry is the reader realizes the enemies were also more powerful than they let on. According to Cooper herself, she realized Merry’s identity as Merlin at the same time Barny did and not before and that the first book was intended to stand alone.

The series as a whole is a study in good and evil and their war. The lessons we learn in this book include:

  • Evil tries to make itself attractive. Like Tolkein said regarding Strider, “evil would look fairer but seem fouler.” The evil siblings fall into this. The children (and Gumerry) are the only ones who see how they are off.
  • For, Bill Hoover, the bully who serves as the toady for Team Evil, I appreciate that Cooper gave only a bit of his backstory. Yes, he had a troubled childhood and his father is absent and/or abusive. But the boy makes his own choices. He chooses to join Team Evil.
  • Another lesson in evil comes with Hastings, who lives in the old vicarage. He does not outright lie to Jane, who assumes he is the present vicar because no one told her the present vicar lives in a different house. Hastings deceives her by never telling her otherwise. Evil’s goal is not to lie but to take one from the truth. If that requires a lie, so be it. However, lies can be caught out. It is better to deceive. Deception comes by half truths and letting the target fill in the blanks.
  • Similarly, Mrs. Palk, their housekeeper, turns out to be an agent of the dark. She never shows any supernatural ability and seems quite mundane. However, she serves to remind us that evil puts on a friendly face to hide its intentions. Her reveal comes as a surprise. I recall no clue that she was an accomplice of the Dark until Barny found her sneaking through his room while he slept.
  • Jane’s mistake with Hastins has consequences. She tells Merry about her encounter with “the vicar” which leads Merry to waste time investigating and watching the real vicar instead of finding out that the enemies had brought in one of their biggest guns in Hastings.

I heartily recommend this book and this series for anyone.

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