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Silver on the Tree

Silver on the Tree (The dark is rising, #5) - Susan Cooper

Fire on the mountain shall find the harp of gold
Played to wake the Sleepers, oldest of the old;
Power from the green witch, lost beneath the sea;
All shall find the Light at last, silver on the tree.

This was my Harry Potter, you kids.

It is still magic.

September 2013 reread

I still remember the day in fifth grade, many, many years ago, when the school librarian told me that the book I'd been waiting for was in. Silver on the Tree, the fifth and final volume in Susan Cooper's Dark is Rising sequence.

It was this cover:

Silver on the Tree

I had torn through the first four books. (I think I read the first one, Over Sea, Under Stone, out of order the first time, which was okay because it's kind of a prequel to the rest of the series.) With the second one, The Dark is Rising, I was hooked. For some reason I had to wait for the fifth book, though. When the librarian handed it to me, I was thrilled... but also sad. I remember that distinctly. I was sad, because I was about to read the last book and then it would be over.

I remember loving this concluding volume, but also feeling such sadness when I was finished because the series was over.

I haven't felt anything like that since, until a few years ago when I read the entire Harry Potter series in a month. While the feelings were not as strong because I'm older and more jaded, and while I can certainly recognize Rowling's flaws as a writer, the fact that Harry and his friends in their silly boy wizard fantasy world managed to conjure some of the same emotions I once felt as a ten-year-old is the reason why I credit Rowling with having created something truly timeless and special, even if I can point to a dozen fantasy series that are objectively better-written. I don't know what that "special sauce" is in a children's book series that makes it transcend plot and prose and curl literary fingers around your heart, but Rowling had it, and Susan Cooper had it.

Now, I am not much of a rereader. I almost never reread books. I understand a lot of people reread their favorite books often. There are people who boast of reading the entire Harry Potter series a dozen times. (I read them each once. That's it.) It's a habit I just don't get, even if I realize I am the unusual one. To my way of thinking, there are thousands of books I'd like to read and will never get to before I die, so why waste one of the finite "reading slots" allotted to me in my lifetime to a book I've already read?

Still, now and then I do reread something, usually something I read so long ago I've forgotten it. Maybe in twenty or thirty years I will reread Harry Potter.

Over the past year, I cautiously and with some trepidation approached my favorite childhood series once again. Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising. I was afraid the series I loved so much as a child would be a pale, childish shadow when read as an adult who's read thousands of books since. I've read the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings (well, I lie, I have never read the LotR all the way through, I need to do that one of these days) and lots of other fantasy, MG and YA and adult and grimdark. So nothing can be as new and fresh for me as Susan Cooper's books were when I first read them, nor as tragic.

I didn't want to find out that they just weren't that special, though.

To be honest, I enjoyed them on my reread, but yes, I'm an adult now and these books are written for children, so they just didn't enthrall me the way they did when I was ten. A fine series, and great, descriptive, evocative writing — Susan Cooper is so much better than J.K. Rowling when it comes to putting words on the page and imagery in your head.

But until the last book, it was a pleasant nostalgia trip, but as I expected, they have aged perfectly well but they have aged.

Then I got to the last few chapters of Silver on the Tree. And... it wasn't quite the same. Not quite. But I felt it again. That ten-year-old inside me remembers.

Silver on the Tree relates the final battle between the Dark and the Light. It brings together all the characters who have been serving the cause of the Light throughout the first four books, sometimes together and sometimes separately: the Drew children, Jane, Simon, and Barney; Will Stanton, the last of the Old Ones, simultaneously a pre-adolescent boy and an immortal wizard with all the magical knowledge of the ages at his command; Bran, the albino boy taken out of time to fulfill a destiny set for him a thousand years earlier; and Merriman, of course.

The Dark Rider returns too, along with a White Rider, and all the other forces of the Dark. Susan Cooper didn't write a plot so full of crafty easter eggs as Rowling did, but like Rowling, she will make use in the last book of things mentioned in all the preceding ones. Will and Bran have to go on a quest that resounds with Celto-Arthurian mythology, and the Drew children have their own mortal part to play. All that was fun and splendid and rich, that alone would have made this the best book of the series.

But the ending — in which there is love and loss and sacrifice on a scale that probably only J.R.R. Tolkien or CS Lewis have approached in children's literature. Definitely not Rowling. I'm sorry, killing an owl and a Weasley or two is cheap tear-jerking. But the part that John Rowlands plays in the final confrontation, even after learning the truth about his wife, was about as intense as a ten-year-old reader could probably have grasped, when conveying adult feelings of grief and loss. Followed by the arrival of the King, and Bran's decision, and then... Will, left alone with the Drews, and what they lose as well.

It's a happy ending - the good guys win, of course. And Susan Cooper's finale is more bloodless than Rowling's. There's hardly any actual bloodshed throughout the series; for all that the Dark is the manifestation of everything evil and selfish in the human heart, the child protagonists are always protected by "rules" that limit when the forces at war can do direct harm.

But it's a very bittersweet victory. You can see them walking off into the sunset, and know that it's over.

5 stars for the child in everyone's heart.