Reading this book is like watching The Ring or The Cabin in the Woods: You can't put it down, but you're also scared to keep reading. Why? The tone of Cooper's writing is the equivalent of that slow, dramatic music seeping into the background of a thriller movie; you just know something bad is about to happen. Don't believe us? Consider this passage:
The Walker stared at him like a doomed man, and now in the pointed, lined face Will could see clearly the traces of the small, bright man Hawkin, who had been brought forward out of his time for the retrieving of the Book of Gramarye, and had through the shock of facing death betrayed the Old Ones to the Dark. He remembered the pain that had been in Merriman's eyes as they watched that betrayal begin, and the terrible certainty with which he had contemplated Hawkin's doom. (10.5)
We get chills just thinking about Merriman's eyes or the Walker's doom—these ominous little words and images keep the creep factor up in the book, even when Will isn't directly dealing with the Dark. It's like it's always lurking around the corner. Which of course it basically is. Eek.
This book has quest written all over it. Not only is our main character, Will, on a quest for pretty much the entire story, he is even told outright that he's going on a quest by Merriman:
"It is your quest to find and to guard the six great Signs of the Light, made over the centuries by the Old Ones, to be joined in power only when the circle is complete. The first Sign hangs on your belt already, but to find the rest will not be easy. You are the Sign-Seeker, Will Stanton. That is your destiny, your first quest." (3.59)
In literature, a quest is what happens when a character travels to a far-off destination with the sole purpose of achieving some goal. Will's not just learning about his life as an Old One in The Dark is Rising; he has to fulfill a specific mission in order to help his pals out, traveling through space and time to get the job done. If that's not a quest then our name's not Shmoop. And if all that hurtling through time and space doesn't mean this book's also in the fantasy genre then, well, we'll also surrender our diplomas.
As for the YA component, we have an eleven-year-old as our main character, which is a good clue that the book is oriented toward younger readers. That said, it isn't written for children—the plot is too complicated for anyone not in the young adult reader category to really follow along with.
Usually when a book is part of a series, we try to sort out the significance of the titles for both the series and the particular installment. But in the case of The Dark is Rising, the series is named after the book. So consider this a twofer. As for what the titles means, check out what Will finds himself chanting about the Dark:
"For the Dark, the Dark is rising. The Walker is abroad, the Rider is riding; they have woken, the Dark is rising. And the last of the Circle is come to claim his own, and the circles must now all be joined. The white horse must go to the Hunter, and the river take the valley; there must be fire on the mountain, fire under the stone, fire over the sea. Fire to burn away the Dark, for the Dark, the Dark is rising!" (3.60)
The Dark, it seems, is taking over the world—evil is coming—and it's up to the Old Ones to stop it. The title hints at what's to come if the Old Ones don't take up their quests and defeat the Dark; it will keep rising. Gulp.
After rooting for Will through every high and low on his journey, we get to see him defeat the Dark. Okay, we actually get to see the Hunter do it, but that's just fine with us since Will's only eleven—we think physically fighting off evil is maybe best reserved for someone a little older. After the Hunter is victorious, Will meets up with the other Old Ones for a good, old-fashioned celebration. Sounds awesome, right? But then we get hit with this:
The road was empty; no one was anywhere to be seen among the trees. Will could have wept with the sense of loss; all that warm crowd of friends, the brightness and light and celebration, and the Lady. (13.46)
Oh, poor Will—he's upset about being done with his quest. It was harrowing and taxing and world-upturning, but he enjoyed it nonetheless, and came to really love the Old Ones. At the very end then, Will suddenly realizes that he has nothing else to do except go home, and that bums him out (for more on why, swing by the "Setting" section). He loved working with Merriman and saving the world, one Sign at a time.
If you're feeling bummed, too, though, worry not—Cooper is totally setting us up for the sequel by ending on this note. After so much hard work, Will deserves a happy ending… and since he doesn't quite get it yet, we know this isn't the true ending to his story.
Will and his family live in the middle of nowhere in England. This sets a placid stage, making the adventure that leaps into our main man's life all the more exciting given its contrast to his surroundings. Before Will even has an inkling he's an Old One, we're given the following description of his home:
Will dipped out a pail of pellets from the bin in the farm-smelling barn, which was not really a barn at all, but a long, low building with a tiled roof, once a stable. (1.12)
That's right, Shmoopers: He lives on a freaking farm. If that's not the definition of quiet and serene, then we don't know what is. In getting the details of his day-to-day life before his quest begins, we can compare the two. His home life is stable, rural, and quaint—but traveling through time and discovering hidden Signs is anything but.
Don't get us wrong. The Dark is Rising has a straightforward plot and won't bog you down with a lot of big words or complex sentence structures, but it still packs a hefty punch. Why?
For starters, you have to learn all about a mythical world where characters are referred to by their occupations (a.k.a. the Walker) rather than, say, their first names. Plus there are a bunch of artifacts to learn about that don't really make sense until they're explained to us.
What's more, though, is that the novel asks big, million-dollar questions about the nature of human beings. We're asked to think about whether there are forces of Dark and Light duking it out all around us, and there's also lots to think about in terms of time and space since Merriman and the Old Ones can stop time or travel through it whenever they want (so cool). In the end, we're left with some pretty big concepts for a little novel, making this book a bit more of a trek than you might suspect when you first pick it up.
Will is on a quest to find secret Signs, so it should come as no surprise that a lot of the writing is suspenseful. We're given just enough clues to know something is happening without being able to figure it out. Check out this example:
He looked at Will, and Will looked back in growing alarm into the weathered face, the bright dark eyes creased narrow by decades of peering into sun and rain and wind. He had never noticed before how dark Farmer Dawson's eyes were: strange, in their blue-eyed county. (1.47)
This is super early in the story, and Farmer Dawson is cryptically telling Will about the Walker, but we're not sure what that means or why it will be important. One thing's for sure, though: We know it will matter—the darkness in Dawson's eyes makes it clear this isn't something of fleeting importance, but instead something of gravity (eyes are the window to the soul, after all). We just have to sort out the details, which is exactly what Cooper does throughout the book. She writes the novel in a way that keeps us guessing, while also keeps us hooked with its vivid descriptions.
When you read Cooper's words, you can instantly imagine what everything looks like because she paints a word picture for us. Check out how she writes about Will coming upon a door in the middle of nowhere:
Will thrust his cold hands into his pockets, and stood staring up at the carved panels of the two closed doors towering before him. They told him nothing. He could find no meaning in the zigzag symbols repeated over and over, in endless variation, on every panel. The wood of the doors was like no wood he had ever seen; it was cracked and pitted and yet polished by age, so that you could scarcely tell it was wood at all except by a rounding here and there, where someone had not quite been able to avoid leaving the trace of a knothole. (3.1)
See what we mean? We could draw a picture of that door, there are so many specifics about it. Cooper describes the pattern (zigzag), material (wood), and quality (knotholes) of the door, grounding us in this description before rocking our worlds with what greets Will once he enters. Just as her vivid writing helps us stay engaged amid so much mystery, it also gives us concrete things to hold onto among so much magic.
Symbols are signs (or representations) of other things, so what happens when you have Signs that are symbols? Well, first you get a little dizzy trying to wrap your head around that last sentence, and then you keep reading so we can sort this all out.
When Will goes on his quest to defeat the Dark, he's told to collect six Signs. They all look the same—a circle with a cross in the middle—but each is made from a different material. Will is told the following poem to help him remember what he's supposed to do:
When the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back; Three from the circle, three from the track; Wood, bronze, iron; water, fire, stone; Five will return, and one go alone. (3.61)
Back in the day, the Signs were made of different materials to represent different elements on the earth. Did you notice how these elements make up pretty much everything in the natural world? Because they do. This enables the Old Ones to keep the Signs safe from the Dark by hiding them in different places throughout the world. Cool trick, and a reminder that the stakes are so high that secrecy is in order. That the Signs are made from natural elements is also a subtle shout-out to the fact that the world—where natural elements come from—is in jeopardy.
We can see in the poem that six people (six Old Ones) will have the power to stop the Dark from rising; they "shall turn it back." So as much as the Signs are about defeating the Dark, in Will's quest for them the Signs are also representative of his immersion into the Old Ones community (not to be confused with an old folks' home). As he gathers the Signs, he meets different Old Ones, gaining a sense of who the Old Ones are and his own identity, as well as becoming more invested in his mission to defeat the Dark. Check it out:
He thought: these are my people. This is my family, in the same way as my real family. The Old Ones. Every one of us is linked, for the greatest purpose in the world. (13.33)
By the end, it's clear that the Signs haven't just helped the Old Ones defeat the Dark—they've helped Will really connect with this part of himself. As the Old Ones celebrate their success, Will sees them as "family," which is no small statement given how fond he is of his own blood relations.
Did you notice that whenever time stands still—literally—music isn't too far off? Check out the first time this happens in the book:
He was woken by music. It beckoned him, lilting and insistent; delicate music, played by delicate instruments that he could not identify, with one rippling, bell-like phrase running through it in a gold thread of delight. There was in this music so much of the deepest enchantment of all his dreams and imaginings that he woke smiling in pure happiness at the sound. (2.1)
Let's take a close look at this passage. This music wakes Will up, but it doesn't disturb anyone else in his house—he even calls to Robin, but gets no response. This is because Will is an Old One, though he doesn't know it yet; he is metaphorically waking up to his magic here.
Notice the word "insistent." The music subtly lets us know that what's happening to Will here isn't something he can just avoid by, say, rolling over and falling back asleep; he's been pulled along. Notice also the word "enchantment." While at first glance it might sound like Will is being put under a spell, really it's more like he's stepping into his own enchanting powers—he possesses magic just as much as magic possesses him (you know, since he doesn't decide to become an Old One—it's his destiny). It's also important to note that Will feels "pure happiness at the sound." In other words, this music doesn't herald the arrival of bad news.
The melody encourages Will to leave his house and find the doors, which leads him to Merriman. It seems like any time this Old One's magic is activated, there's music around, and before too long, Will figures this out. He listens for the music and takes it as a comforting sign that Merriman is close by, ready to help if he needs it. That's music to his ears, terrible pun totally intended.
You can't get far in the novel without running into some references to Light and Dark—and yes, in this book they are capitalized. Which is the first clue that something's up. Light and dark often represent good and evil, but since they're capitalized in this book we know we're dealing with Good and Evil. It's like good and evil got called up from the minors.
In The Dark is Rising, Light and Dark represent two opposing forces. One of the first things Will learns about being an Old One is that knowing who's on your team and who you're fighting against is pretty important in world warfare. As Merriman explains:
"If you can accomplish that, you will have brought to life one of the three great forces that the Old Ones must turn soon towards vanquishing the powers of the Dark, which are reaching out now steadily and stealthily over all this world." (3.59)
To be clear, the Old Ones are the Light and the bad guys (like the Rider) are the Dark. Instead of just being motley crews on opposite sides, though, these folks are organized into official categories of Dark and Light, which is good since the entire world is at stake in their fight.
This whole light and dark business is a pretty classic way to represent the struggle between good and evil. It shows up in literature, movies, and visual art all the time. In this book, the capitalization reminds us that this struggle is organized and official, with two powerful teams fighting for the world.
Midwinter's Day isn't just Will's birthday; it's also the winter solstice. This means it's the darkest day of the year, the day when we see the sun the absolute least before the days start growing longer again. It is, if you will, the day darkness most encroaches upon the light. In a book about an ongoing battle between the Light and the Dark, this is pretty significant.
This is also the day that Will starts stepping into his powers. Because this happens on Midwinter's Day, we get a little clue that these powers aren't going to be just any old superpowers—they're going to be connected to pushing back the dark… or the Dark, as the case really is.
For more on the significance of light and dark (and Light and Dark), though, read up on the topic elsewhere in this section.
In The Dark is Rising, we're told the story by someone who knows everything—including characters' thoughts—but never appears. The technical term for this is third person omniscient; the narrator isn't directly involved and they can hop into any character's head they please. Check out this description of Will reading for an example:
Will was never able afterwards to tell how long he spent with the Book of Gramarye. So much went into him from its pages and changed him that the reading might have taken a year; yet so totally did it absorb his mind that when he came to an end he felt that he had only that moment begun. It was indeed not a book like other books. (7.1)
Our narrator is well acquainted with the inner-working of Will's mind and his experience reading this book, right? But s/he isn't Will; there's no I in sight here. It's a good thing, too, that this book isn't told by Will. The kid doesn't know what's going on much of the time, so having a narrator who isn't having his or her mind blown constantly helps us make sense of this strange world of Old Ones and the Dark.
It's Will's eleventh birthday, but instead of celebrating getting closer to official teenagedom, he finds out that he's actually an Old One. Thing is, we're actually not talking about his age—Will has secret powers to defeat the Dark. At first the guy's a little confused, but then he learns as much as he can about his new powers and practices using them, figuring he doesn't really have any other choice. This is the exposition phase because it kicks the whole story off. Without learning he has secret magical powers, Will would have nothing to quest for except cake.
Will was up for the magic, but he isn't so sure he wants to go head-to-head with the Dark (can't say we blame him). Trouble is, Will doesn't have a choice. Before long, the Dark comes knocking at his door—literally. When the Rider shows up at Will's house, Will figures out that it doesn't really matter what he wants, he's going to have to battle the Dark whether he likes it or not. It really puts a dent in his plans to lay low, which is why we're labeling this the complication.
Once Will's sister is kidnapped by the Rider, he doesn't need any more convincing to take up the fight—which in this case means gathering the Signs. Will knows he's the only one who can save his sis from the bad guy, so he makes a deal with the creep. Even though this isn't the best plan, Will risks his own neck to save his sister's life. (Aww.) It's the climax because it's the first time Will and the Rider come face-to-face to duke it out. They've met before, but it's always been in front of Will's family or out on the streets. Now it's time for them to show each other what they're made of, magic-wise.
As soon as Will gives the Hunter, who is one mysterious dude, his carnival mask, we know it's over for the Rider. In fact, it almost seems like the Rider knows it, too, because the battle doesn't last that long. This is our falling action because things are starting to settle down. Merriman makes it clear that the Hunter's power is the direct result of all of Will's work collecting the Signs (so mission accomplished for Will), and there's little left to do but wait for the fight to finish—which is exactly what Will does.
Will has successfully collected all six Signs and defeated the Dark, so all the Old Ones get together for a party. Will's over the moon about his success, but he's also a little bummed that he's done with his quest. While he was reluctant to begin it at first, he came to like the time-traveling hunt for ancient artifacts. We definitely get a resolution to the quest, but Will feels like he wants to go on another mission again soon… when the time is right… which we suspect is in the next book in the series.