I started reading Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone aloud to my daughters. But as often happens, our pace was so slow that I grew impatient, carried the book off like a lion dragging prey to its den, and tore through it myself. I plan to finish reading it aloud, but at least I know the big picture now, and have experienced the story at the proper pace.
Over Sea, Under Stone is the first book in the Dark Is Rising sequence, a 4-book series that I missed as a child. Somehow or other I stumbled upon it recently and thought I’d try it as a read-aloud. One daughter in particular is partial to fantasy, and I’m not always sure how she’s processing what she reads. I thought it would be a good idea to work through some fantasy together.
This book is actually more mystery than fantasy. It takes place in a fictional village said to be based on Mevagissey, in Cornwall, and the tale is filled with Arthurian associations, evocations of the ancient past, seaside ambience and in general a sense that we are on the edge of mysteries we only partly understand. The central mystery involves an ancient map (or “manuscript”) three children find in a hidden attic of the old house in which they stay with their enigmatic Uncle Merry. In the process of deciphering its clues, Simon, Jane and Barney discover it will lead them to the grail, engage Uncle Merry as an important ally, and lead them into the path of dark and dangerous enemies. I liked the story’s atmosphere, which balances us at all times between the present and the past, the mundane and the mythic, the material and the fantastic.
Unlike Eustace of Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader, who had read “none of the right books” and did not recognize a dragon till he turned into one, the children of Over Sea, Under Stone bring the right kind of knowledge to the task of interpreting the map and grasping its significance. They know about King Arthur. They quickly intuit how the map — which operates through a sequence of clues — works. They understand natural phenomena, like the behavior of the moon and the tides, and they’ve read enough about Cornwall to know a thing or two about its history. They grasp geography and have excellent situational awareness. (I couldn’t help but think of the book I read immediately prior to this one, The Glass Cage, which discusses how the kind of spatial orientation developed through study of paper maps rather than electronic GPS devices actually strengthens the brain. And in thinking of the breadth of these childrens’ general knowledge, I wondered how a modern-day child’s intellectual toolbox, shaped by a very different concept of education, would compare.)
All in all they warrant the trust Uncle Merry places in them when they confide in him about the finding of the manuscript. He has a role to play, but he considers deciphering the map to be their quest and leaves the responsibility in their hands. The stakes are high, but Simon, Jane and Barney are equal to the task — even though they do commit some of the usual mistakes and make some of the usual naive judgments over the course of their adventure. They face real danger, and I can understand why so many readers have found this to be a page turner.
The characterizations of good and evil are vivid and powerful. I wonder if, as a child reader, I would have felt the creepiness of the bad characters’ stalking and spying on the children of the story. I think I would have; I certainly did as a parent. Uncle Merry has a mythic grandeur, all clarity and depth and mystery. And like the best stories, his respect for his young compatriots gives him even more heroic force.
I’d like to read the other books in the sequence, of which several reviewers have said that this first book is the weakest installment. I liked it very much. That bodes well for any future forays into Susan Cooper’s fictional world.