Silver On The Tree is the last in The Dark Is Rising Sequence, a quintet of child/YA (9 onwards, maybe) books set in a Britain where the past is a more-or-less easily accessible dimension. Cornwall, Wales and the Thames Valley are riddled with signs and symbols and portals, and the spirits of Britain past, Merlin, Arthur Pendragon, and other less well-known – and darker – ones, slip through time and space with ease.
The series is based around the idea that the Dark – a force of chaos, betrayal and hatred, served by warped humans and malignant supernatural underlings, is rising, as it does every few centuries, and must be foiled by those who follow the Light. These include Merlin, or Professor Merriman Lyon, and his Circle of Old Ones who battle the Dark in different times. The youngest Old One is Will, a twelve-year-old human boy of the twentieth century who possesses powers like time-travel and communication in non-human languages, and knowledge beyond that of mortals, which sometimes causes struggles with feelings of alienation from his loving family. Barney, Simon and Jane, normal children, aid him in the quest to find the Things of Power (McGuffins such as the Grail and golden harps and swords, and various Signs, if I remember correctly from all the books in the series). The coterie are also joined by the enigmatic Bran, an albino Welsh boy with a strange and fraught heritage.
Questions of identity are examined, not just that of the mysterious Bran, but those of Britain as a whole, and this I think is one of the best aspects of Silver on the Tree. First published in 1977, and perhaps alluding to the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in its title, the novel, I would suggest, writes against (if faintly and mostly through allegory) exclusionary discourses propagated by figures such as Enoch Powell, racist responses to immigration, and negative reactions to the presence of other cultures, since the breakup of the British Empire. Challenging ideas of “legitimacy,” “home,” “belonging,” and “native” are woven into the tapestry of Silver on the Tree, which is set in a multicultural Britain – both that inhabited by Pakistanis and Indians and other Asians and people from the West Indies and Africa, and that inhabited by Romans and Celts and Picts and Angles and Saxons.
“Only when they reached a mountain path where the land rose very steeply, and Owain motioned them to dismount and to follow him on foot, did Will look openly back – and saw smoke rising from the grey roofs they had left, and flame leaping.
Owain said, bitterly, ‘The Norman rides always on the back of the Dark, as the Saxon did, and the Dane.’
Barney said unhappily, ‘And I’m all those things mixed up, I suppose. Norman and Anglo-Saxon and Dane.’
‘In what century?’ Glyndwr said, pausing to stare ahead up the mountain.
‘The twentieth,’ Barney said.
The Welshman stopped very still for a moment. He looked at Will. Will nodded.
‘Iesu mawr,’ Glyndwr said; then he smiled. ‘If the Circle spreads that far forward, it is not so bad to find failure here, for a time. Until the last summoning of the Circle, outside all Time.’ He looked down at Barney. ‘No worry about your race, boy. Time changes the nature of them all, in the end.” (235)
While Over Sea, Under Stone, the first novel in the series, is a pretty straightforward adventure story with magical overtones (involving Barney, Simon, Jane and Rufus the dog, aided by Professor Lyon), the sequence gradually moves away from the format, invoking different mythologies as well as developing its own (that of the Old Ones), and the finale Silver on the Tree is quite trippy. There are lost cities and time-travels, and shifting landscapes, faces and powers. The quintet is at heart a rollicking set of magical and supernatural adventures, where children get to be instrumental in helping to save the world and be frightened but brave, ignorant but clever. I loved the sequence as a kid, and I enjoyed my rereading very much. It’s not perfect – its Riders (Black and White) owe something to Tolkien, and its High Magic to C.S. Lewis, character is sketched rather than drawn at times, there are occasional silly moments (from an adult perspective) but few moments of levity, and occasional gratuitous gnomic utterances, but there are battles and prophecies and quests, well-developed friendships and family relationships, and a genuine sense of menace in Cooper’s powers of showing how fragile people, especially young people, are when pitted against dark forces, as well as specks lost amid the elements beneath the vast skies of Cornwall and Wales.
Cooper, Susan. Silver On The Tree. London: Puffin, 1977. The Dark Is Rising includes, in order, Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), The Dark is Rising (1973); awarded the Newbery Honor in 1974, Greenwitch (1974), The Grey King (1975); winner of the Newbery Medal in 1976, Silver on the Tree (1977).