Silver on the Tree is the fifth and final book in The Dark is Rising series, and if you have never picked up the previous installments, then don’t start here — you won’t have a clue what’s going on. If, however, you have read Over Sea, Under Stone, The Dark is Rising, Greenwitch and The Grey King, then here is the big finale you’ve been waiting for. Finally, all our main characters are reunited for the first and last time — Merriman Lyon, Will Stanton, Bran Davis, the Drew children, the Rowlands and the rest of the Old Ones who have come together for the final battle against the malevolent powers of the Dark.
They have gathered in Wales, following the last lines of the Light’s prophecy, “when the Dark comes rising, six shall turn it back,” in order to find the last talisman of the Light. Whilst Will (the youngest of the Old Ones: guardians of humanity) and Bran (the son of King Arthur who was transported forward in time by his mother) travel across the Lost Land in search of the crystal sword, Merriman and Simon, Jane and Barney Drew face their own challenges when the powers of the Dark catapult them into different time periods. Soon it is a race to the finish line and the Midsummer Tree, but with a traitor in their midst and the forces of the Dark towering around them, it’s hardly going to be easy to finally defeat the Dark.
Cooper again introduces several historical and legendary figures from England’s past, including Owain Glyndwr, Herne the Hunter, Gwion/Talisan and of course King Arthur himself, and she invokes the landscapes and countryside beautifully. By the end of the series, we are met with the inevitable sadness of farewells and life-changing decisions that place The Dark is Rising amongst the best of children’s fantasy literature — this is not simply a hackneyed battle between opposing forces; it involves real betrayal, real heartbreak and real pain — where the climactic moment is not a sword-fight, but a decision that must be made by a human being that has just lost everything he’s loved. Our characters have only half won the battle, for as she points out in the beginning of the novel when a young Pakistani boy is targeted for bullying, the real enemy lies within humankind.
There are a few things that I’m not quite sure on, but before I start pointing them out I have to say that Susan Cooper is an extremely sensitive and subtle writer — if you don’t read carefully you can miss half of what she has to say. As I have only read Silver on the Tree twice (once when I was quite young, and once when I was in a hurry), I’m quite certain that I fall into this category. Her themes are deep, her writing is articulate, and she doesn’t make it easy for insensitive readers. If you want to get the most out of these books, then you have to work for it.
In saying that, some things come across as rather puzzling. The sequence and timing of events is rather patchy, and often things happen that don’t seem to make much sense (although keep in mind, I may be misinterpreting them — I’m sure Cooper knows more about writing than I do). The book is divided into four parts, and although the first provides a promising beginning, and the last an exciting conclusion, the two middle parts are problematic. The situation with the Drews, in which they are transported back in time seems a little unnecessary — they do not seem to learn or gain anything of value that justifies their presence there. Meanwhile, as Bran and Will traverse the Lost Land, they come up against several obstacles that are disposed of rather easily — such as the terrifying specter of a moving horse skeleton: the boys are saved when the petals of a may tree falls upon it. Huh?
Furthermore, the powers of the Dark just didn’t seem that scary this time around. Previously, they were one of Cooper’s strongest inventions, whether they appeared as amiable siblings, sullen, half-crazed painters, sweet-faced farm-girls, haggard tramps, a malevolent mountain-presence or the terrifying visage of a Black-cloaked Rider. But here, rather than appearing as a truly foreboding threat, the bad-guys do little but tail our heroes, mock them, and generally come across as annoying. Cooper drives home the point that the Dark can do the good guys no physical harm so many times that we lose all fear for their safety. I had no doubts that they’d make it through with no causalities — but the emotional scarring that they’ve been exposed to is also negated when all but one of the main characters lose the memory of their adventures.
As mentioned, Cooper’s work is immensely subtle and there is too much to be discovered for me to give it all away. I’ll reveal just one: read the descriptions of the Old Ones in the ships carefully at the story’s end – she does not give names but “a tall burly figure in a smith’s apron, a small man in a green coat and an imperious grey-haired lady, leaning on a stick,” are all characters that we’ve seen before. So read carefully and frequently if you want to get the most out of this particular book, as well of the rest of the installments in this award-winning, immensely rewarding series.