As I wrote in a previous post this week as well, I seem to be running on my own schedule on book challenges and memes I’m joining in, with work commitments having set my reading plans awry. So I’m only just getting to my review of Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), the first in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series, for #TDiRS22 being hosted by Annabel at Annabookbel. The readalong began in August and while I had read this book in early October, I couldn’t manage to get my thoughts down till now. So here goes.
Over Sea, Under Stone isin many senses, the typical children’s adventure story involving a seaside holiday, cliffs and caves, a hidden treasure, adventure and danger, yet it has elements that make it much more. Our story opens with the Drew family, father, mother and most importantly for us, the three children, Simon, Jane and Barney arriving in Cornwall where they are to spend their holiday with their mother’s uncle, Great Uncle Merry (not a real uncle but a close family friend). They find that Great Uncle Merry has rented an old house, Grey House where they will all be staying. There is a housekeeper, Mrs Palk and a dog Rufus who ‘come with’ the house. Exploring the Grey House and creating their own adventure on a rainy day soon after they arrive, the children find an old manuscript with strange writing and a map. Simon can decipher some of it with the little Latin he has learnt at school but it is with Great Uncle Merry or Gumerry as Barney calls him, that they are able to understand what they’ve really found. A treasure map alright, but not an ordinary one, one that will lead them to an extraordinary treasure (related to King Arthur) and also expose them to great danger, for once again, the eternal battle between Dark and Light is coming to the fore.
In fact, it may have already begun, for a Mr Withers and his sister Polly—living in the neighbourhood—have been to invite the family to come out on their yacht and Jane distinctly feels uncomfortable around them. While Great Uncle Merry does help and support them in searching for the treasure, actually deciphering the map’s clues and finding the treasure is for the three to do. But can they do this on their own? Do the Withers brother and sister catch up with them?
I quite enjoyed this introduction to the Dark is Rising series, which put me in mind of the many Enid Blyton adventure and mystery books that I devoured as a child. A holiday by the sea, a treasure map, rock caves and cliffs were staples in many of her books, particularly the Famous Five stories, and it was fun finding these incorporated in this story. Typically, in these, the parents must be away for the children to be able to really have a full-fledged adventure and be exposed to the kind of danger that they are. Here while Mr and Mrs Drew are present, they are also not—much of the time, they are busy in their own pursuits (fishing/boating and painting, respectively) and believe the children’s excursions to be just a game they’re playing. They do also ‘go away’ for a bit very conveniently when the children need to go out at night to solve part of the puzzle. Blyton isn’t the only author who is an inspiration, though, for the explorations inside Grey House besides the wise professor uncle and a large wardrobe are definitely reminiscent of the Narnia books.
What makes this book a little more that just a children’s adventure, is one the historical/legendary aspects that come in for the mysterious manuscript and treasure are related to Arthur and Arthurian lore, as are the forces of dark that have been unleased. Also with the children being the ones to ‘find’ the map, an element of destiny, even prophecy (even though not specifically mentioned) comes into play for it is clear that it is they who must find the treasure. Great Uncle Merry (we are given an idea as to who he could be, but I won’t spoil the fun) helps and is there to protect them when needed (even distract the ‘villains’), but never takes the lead or tries to takes over the treasure hunt. Again, the danger, that comes from the Withers as well as some other characters representing the ‘dark’ is far more sinister (and indeed, more pronounced) than in an ‘ordinary’ children’s adventure.
And yet, despite these elements, I liked that the book retains the feel of a children’s adventure. The three Drew children, all likeable, are not extraordinary or superheroes in any way, just ordinary children but ones who are on a rather dangerous treasure hunt.
On a side note, while this story is set in a fictional Cornish village, among the events are a carnival and a floral dance (though this was not in spring) which reminded me very much of the spring festival Flora Day in Helston which I recently came across in another book set in Cornwall. I wonder if this was the inspiration?
Overall, I had fun with this first entry in the series, and am hoping to catch up soonish so that I am time for book 4 at the end of this month!