Last Boxing Day, in my annual attempt to figure out what Boxing Day is, I embarked on an Internet expedition from the confines of my chilly bedroom in New York City. Before long, I came across this tidbit on Time magazine’s website: “The Irish still refer to the holiday as St. Stephen’s Day, and they have their own tradition called hunting the wren, in which boys fasten a fake wren to a pole and parade it through town.”
Hunting the wren, I thought. I know what that is. I was sure I’d seen the ceremony before, watched a procession of boys in tunics march over a misty hillock on a cold day, one piping a melancholy tune while the others hoisted a platform woven of branches and reeds. The platform supported a delicate bird—until, quite abruptly, the bird turned into a woman…..
Once the Celtic haze had lifted, I recognized, with some disappointment, that I couldn’t possibly have witnessed this scene. I glanced across the room, toward the low bookshelf that houses my favorite childhood paperbacks. And suddenly I felt certain of the vision’s source. It was a series of fantasy books I’d read and reread between eight and eighteen—a series that transported me from New York City to the foggy shores of Wales, that ushered me into King Arthur’s tent on the eve of the Battle of Badon, that both encouraged and capitalized on my mania for British folklore. There they were, all five volumes, from Over Sea, Under Stone right on through Silver on the Tree: Susan Cooper’s masterful The Dark Is Rising series. I hadn’t thought about it in years. I felt a surge of guilt, as though a long-ignored ex-boyfriend were approaching me on the street, smiling fondly.
It was late December, and the winter’s strange severity was setting in. Streets became uninviting tracts of black ice and browning snowbanks. Dark parkas reduced New Yorkers to squishy anonymity. Riding the subway felt damply soothing, like nestling with overfed geese. During the coldest days of winter, my world shrank, more or less to the size of my apartment. My bedroom turned into my office and my bed into my desk. So it was in bed that I reread the Dark is Rising series, as snow fell outside, and as the snow froze, and as more snow fell.
In the titular volume, Will Stanton, a twentieth-century English boy, awakens on his eleventh birthday to find his world made strange by snow, “the roofs of the outbuildings mounded into square towers of snow, and beyond them all the fields and hedges buried.” But when he takes another look out his window, his view of the pastoral Thames Valley has transformed again:
The snow was there as it had been a moment before, but not piled now on roofs or stretching flat over lawns and fields. There were no roofs, there were no fields. There were only trees. Will was looking over a great white forest. . . . The only break in that white world of branches was away over to the south, where the Thames ran; he could see the bend in the river marked like a single stilled wave in this white ocean of forest, and the shape of it looked as though the river were wider than it should have been.
Alarmed, Will tries to awaken his sleeping family and finds that he can’t. So he leaves the house and trudges through the snow, into the Thames Valley of the distant past.
As I read on, I hardly looked out the window at my own whitening world. I hardly looked up at all. Will was in a clearing, eating crusty bread smeared with honey. Then he was passing through the forest on a tall white horse. And then he was in a stone-walled, tapestry-laden hall, meeting his soon-to-be master, Merriman, who reveals to the boy his true identity: Will is an Old One, a member of a circle of immortals dedicated to fighting the forces of darkness; his mission is to travel through time and space in an effort to vanquish evil.
An hour passed, and then another. I didn’t stop for a snack. I didn’t check my email. I was enchanted.
The first time I followed Will into his snowy wood, magic still had a hold on my life. While some second-graders were growing skeptical of the tooth fairy, I remained a believer. I would mutter a secret chant to guarantee myself victories in gym class. And despite the reassurances of my family, I considered it a real and troubling possibility that witches congregated under my bed while I slept.
When you’re a child, anything seems possible because, even at the best of times, nothing really makes sense anyway. How does mail work? What is a country? Who knows? Once, when I was about five, I asked my pediatrician why he was looking in my ear. “To make sure no seeds are in there, growing into plants,” he replied. I believed him—not just because he was a grown-up and a doctor but also because his name was, oddly enough, Dr. Seed.
As I grew up, and the boundary between the real and the imaginary asserted itself, my affection for fantasy only deepened: I loved not only Cooper’s books but also J. K. Rowling’s and Madeleine L’Engle’s and Lois Lowry’s. I had first encountered some of these volumes—A Swiftly Tilting Planet, The Giver—as a child, and during adolescence, they registered as postcards from a homeland recently abandoned.
But rereading Susan Cooper, I realized that fantasy books don’t only return us to the wonder of childhood: more subtly and marvelously still, they alert us to the wonder of adulthood. If the world feels less mysterious now than it did when we were children, it’s only because we’ve grown accustomed to mystery. Yes, we know more, but not nearly enough to explain all this. We acknowledge electricity, for instance; we might even mutter occasionally about ions—but do we really understand how lamps turn on, how water runs, how trains work? Do we understand our tongues? Scientists have decided advantages in these matters. Yet by illuminating the unlikely mechanics of reality, science invites its own sense of amazement, of boundless possibility. The scientists I know are something like the Murrys, a researcher couple in L’Engle’s Time Quintet series whose groundbreaking discoveries made them “more, rather than less, open to the strange, to the mysterious, to the unexplainable.”
The more personal phenomena of everyday life are rich with sorcery, too. In Will’s world, spells control certain characters; in ours, people bewitch each other without saying a word. We can’t literally go back in time, as Will does, yet familiar songs or smells send us skidding into the past—and so do books we first read long ago. We change shape: not into wrens, but from infants into children and from children into adults. Even now, we constantly shift into better and worse versions of ourselves. And when people suddenly disappear—as the Old Ones do, instantaneously traveling to another time and place—we grasp after them, unable to believe they’re gone.
As I reread the Dark is Rising series, I found myself regarding the city with childlike awe. The shock of the cold, the shine of ice under streetlamps, the flight of a subway beneath the frozen streets: mystery laced everything I encountered. The world I could see no longer seemed like the only or the most important world; everything in it appeared capable, in some obscure way, of transformation. I went about my life with a feeling of secret knowledge—of knowledge recovered. I wanted the winter never to end.
December became January, and the snow fell and fell for me and for Will. He battled the Dark with the help of tawny-eyed Herne the Hunter, and then he traveled to Wales and met the albino boy Bran, who possessed a snow-white dog and a great secret; and then, in the final book, Will and Bran visited the mythical Lost Land off the Welsh coast, barely escaping with their lives when the seawall broke and the ocean poured over the woodlands and city, submerging that magical kingdom forever.
I read the end of the series as slowly as I could, in bed on a cold, clear day. It concludes with a gesture that took me by surprise: Will’s companions, those who have helped him fulfill his mission, forget everything they’ve seen and accomplished. “Come now,” says Merriman, their guide, in the last chapter of the last book:
The oldest words have it the best—be of good cheer. . . . None of you will remember more than the things that I have been saying now, because you are mortal and must live in present time, and it is not possible to think in the old ways there. So the last magic will be this—that when you see me for the last time in this place, all that you know of the Old Ones, and of this great task that has been accomplished, will retreat into the hidden places of your minds, and you will never again know any hint of it except in dreams.
Why learn so much, I thought, only to lose it all?
I kept that question in mind as winter wore on and warmth, eventually, returned. New Yorkers shed their downy disguises, the filthy snowbanks melted away, and my enchantment dissolved, as I had known it would. Recently, hoping to call up the charm again, I took The Dark is Rising off my shelf. I eagerly followed Will back into his transformed wood—but this time, my world refused to change along with his. I grew bored by the plot, which I remembered perfectly, and I noticed inconsistencies and flaws that hadn’t bothered me before. (If Will can fly among the stars and travel through time, why is he so bad at pronouncing Welsh? Why must every character be described as “beaming”?) With each quibble, I felt a pang of sorrow. Like C. S. Lewis’s Lucy Pevensie—who hopes to return to Narnia, only to discover a panel of wood at the back of the wardrobe—I’d gotten locked back into my own quotidian reality.
Rereading Cooper, however, had shown me that reality isn’t as quotidian as it appears: the world is filled with mystery and possibility, though we don’t usually perceive it as such. Fortunately, our capacity for wonder never deserts us altogether. We’re like Will’s comrades, whose amnesia, after all, is not complete. Impressions of their experiences survive in their dreams, in the hidden places of their minds. And perhaps that’s where memories of the magical worlds of our childhoods survive, too: in flashes of recollection, in forgotten precincts of ourselves, and in sudden visions—as of boys tramping up a misty hill on a chilly day, long ago.