The Walker is Abroad
For the next couple of weeks, I'll be posting about stories that make me think of Christmas. Some of them are actually set at christmas. Some just have a Christmasy feeling. The key to evoking a Christmasy feeling, judging by the stories I've chosen, is liberal use of the following items: snow, warmth, aloneness within togetherness, DANGER, and either a faint or overt sense of the supernatural. Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising has all of these, but what it has the most of is a kind of festive danger.
Unlike some of the other books I've chosen, The Dark is Rising is actually set at Christmas. But it is not necessarily the caroling and the family and the presents and the actual narration of Christmas that brings this book to mind at this time of year. It is danger. It is the rooks.
If I am awake between six and seven in the morning, I can lie in my bed and listen to the cawing of the gazillion crows that settle on the treetops in my neighborhood for just that brief period every day. It is ominous, but enjoyably so, because I am warm indoors, and the crows can't get in. What I always think of is the beginning of The Dark is Rising, when Will keeps noticing that the rooks are behaving strangely.
"Hark at the rooks! Something's disturbed them." The harsh irregular chorus was deafening, and when Will looked up at the treetops he saw the sky dark with wheeling birds. They flapped and difted to and fro; there were no flurries of sudden movement, only this clamorous interweaving throng of rooks.
Will and his brother James are on their way to visit a neighbor, Mr. Dawson, who is of course not what he seems.
"The rooks are making an awful din today," James said. "Will saw a tramp up by the wood."
Mr. Dawson looked at Will sharply. "What was he like?"
"Just a little old man. He dodged away."
"So the Walker is abroad," the farmer said softly to himself. "Ah. He would be."
"Nasty weather for walking," James said cheerfully.
Susan Cooper knows what she is about with tension-building. The crows are the first tip that something is up. Mr. Dawson is the second. The third is cleverer: it is James's insouciance. Will is having a bad day; something's wrong but he doesn't know what, and the crows and Mr. Dawson are actively making him feel worse. He doesn't particularly note his brother's lack of concern, but the reader knows that when the main character feels something is off and no one else does, the main character is right. And there is an additional layer of worry that Will is either going to need to convince his family that something is wrong, or he is going to have to preserve their innocence and take care of it himself.
Things get worse when they see the tramp again.
The noise from the rookery was louder, even though they daylight was beginning to die. They could see the dark birds thronging over the treetops, more agitated than before, flapping and turning to and fro. And Will had been right. There was a stranger in the lane, standing beside the churchyard.
He was a shambling, tattered figure, more like a bundle of old clothes than a man, and at the sight of him, the boys slowed their pace and drew instinctively closer to the cart and to one another. He turned his shaggy head to look at them.
Then suddenly, in a dreadful blur of unreality, a hoarse, shrieking flurry was rushing dark down out of the sky, and two huge rooks swooped at the man. He staggered back, shouting, his hands thrust up to protect his face, and the birds flapped their great wings in a black, vicious whirl, anHd were gone, swooping up past the boys and into the sky.
Why does the scene of rooks attacking an old man just scream joy and good cheer to me? I admit I had to think about it. I came up with two reasons Christmas and danger go together. First, because it is the time of year when the days are shortest. It is dark, it is cold, and the wolves are prowling. One feels a vestigial compulsion to get close to a fire, where it is warm and safe and possibly there might be mince pies.
The second and perhaps more powerful reason has to do with how human brains work - how we are constantly searching for meaning. Creating meaning usually involves creating a narrative, and narratives have certain features, the most basic being a beginning, and middle, and an end. The end, we know, comes with a dramatic climax. Since December is the end of the year, it makes sense that Christmas carries some weight of expectation; some deeply-rooted notion that something ought to happen. Victorians used to tell ghost stories at Christmas (hence A Christmas Carol), and that makes perfect sense to me. It satisfies the narrative structure of the year to end with a triumph over danger.
The Dark is Rising satisfies that narrative need perfectly, which is why I have found myself reading it late on Christmas Eve on several occasions, and also the reason I've woken up bleary-eyed on Christmas morning from too little sleep . . .
Quotes from: The Dark is Rising, by Susan Cooper, first published in 1973. It is part of a five-book series, starting with Over Sea, Under Stone, which is also utterly wonderful.
Image credit: Charles-François Daubigny's 1867 etching L’Arbre aux corbeaux (Tree with Ravens). From the Yale University Art Gallery
Squarespace sometimes stops letting me italicize or link, so here is a horribly ugly link to the image source: http://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/13249