Apr 7, 2009

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper - A Conversation

Silver on the Tree by Susan Cooper

Silver on the Tree, the last book in the Dark is Rising sequence, brings together Jane, Simon and Barney Drew, and Will Stanton and Bran Davies. The story begins when the Drew children meet Will in Wales. He tells them that the time has come: very soon they will have to help with the final confrontation between the forces of Dark and the forces of Light.

Susan and I read this book more or less at the same time, and, as with for The Grey King, we decided to discuss it. Sadly, Kerry wasn't able to join us this time. Below is our conversation. Rather than answer pre-defined interview questions, we decided to exchange several e-mails and see where the conversation would take us. A warning: because this is the last book in the series, it proved impossible for us to discuss it without at least some spoilers. So proceed with caution, especially when it comes to the questions about the ending.

Me: Early in the book, there's a scene in which Will and his brother stop a group of schoolmates who are harassing a Pakistani boy. Why do you think Susan Cooper included this scene? How do you think it relates to the series' themes?

Susan: Ouch! This is a hard one, possibly one of the most difficult scenes in the book. Actually, when I first read it, it was so unlike anything else in the book that I paused and asked myself, why is this here? I wasn't sure I liked it, at first. It seemed out of place, too real, in a book about higher magic and old magic and light versus dark; but then I thought about what the racism did. It was hard to hear the word Paki - which I remember from my childhood, being used to those of Pakistani descent - it was hateful and hard. But that was the point. The evil that Will and the others would have to face at the end, was going to be on a real, daily world level.

The scene also pointed out, like the bad-tempered Caradog in The Grey King, that people have a choice in how they behave, and sometimes in choosing light or dark, they become tools for that side - open up themselves to do greater good or evil. This is a constant theme in the books, from the agent of the evil in Greenwitch, to Caradog, the painter in Over Sea, Under Stone, to Richie Moore, and later one particular character (nameless to preserve some surprises!). They all are human beings, who in hurt, rage, fear, or greed, chose to do bad things. It's that choice that Susan Cooper is interested in, because she carefully shows one of the good characters always pointing out they could stop, choose another approach, and the bad character always says no. In this particular case, the evil of Richie Moore had its beginnings in his father, who turns out to be the worst prejudiced sort or person. This is Will's reaction:
'The mindless ferocity of this man, and all those like him, their real loathing born of nothing more solid than insecurity and fear....it was a channel. Will knew that he had been gazing into the channel down which the powers of the Dark, if they gained their freedom, could ride in an instant to complete control of the earth.'
At the end of the book Merriman says all the characters, all the people, will still have to fight to keep the world good, that though the battle of time has been won, the daily battle to keep the world good goes ever on.

Me: I love how you linked this scene to Caradog in The Grey King. I made that connection as well. My reasons for liking this scene are similar to yours. I have a hard time taking an abstract concept like “The Dark” or even a decontextualized notion of “evil” seriously, but there are many instances in the series in which Susan Cooper concretizes it in everyday things, and that’s what makes the whole thing work for me.

Also, I agree with you that she’s most of all interested in the choice – what makes people act kindly rather than unkindly, what’s behind hostility, what’s behind compassion. The characters you mentioned are all human, and despite the existence of supernatural forces in the story, their actions are justified in human terms. Again, this is what I love about this series.

Susan: What do you think of the fact that some of the characters had their memories of their contact with the forces of Light and Darkness wiped? Why do you think it was done? Do you agree?

I think this goes with what we were talking about in our previous answers: how regardless of all the magic in the books, Susan Cooper keeps things very human. The characters in question forget so that they may continue to be human. Forgetting means that they remain as lost and as uncertain as the rest of us, making what they hope are the right choices as they go along. If they remembered, they would have definite answers, which in real life none of us do.

I especially liked how one of the characters in particular was given a choice about whether they wanted to remember or to forget. Although the Old Ones have the power to do so, they don’t decide for people. They give humankind the autonomy and responsibility of choosing freely.

Susan: I like your answer, although I have to say at first what happened to the characters very much upset me. I was mad when the first character had it done, because I felt it unfair, and I almost yelled at the book when the other characters had it done. I really had to reason with myself, think it out, because I thought it unfair they should have no memory at all. something great like that should be remembered, that's how our myths get told, and legends. Joseph Campbell says we can't have contact with the numinous without being changed, and I think that is part of the richness of myth and the call to the threshold - each character has done something special, and why couldn't they be allowed to be a little changed? I'm not so sure it was a gift to have their memories wiped, because the whole point of re-enacting a myth, is to bring back something for humanity to use and learn from. The burden of all they saw and did was very much, I agree, and they couldn't have had a normal life after, and the point of the battle, was that in the end, control of the world passes to humans, as the scene with the Pakistani boy in the first question showed, the battle between good and evil continues on a human level.

I just think it's unfair that after all their choices, everything they saw and learned, that they weren't allowed to keep some of it - wouldn't Barney have painted some fabulous paintings, then? And who knows what Jane and Simon would have gone on to do. So in a way, I thought this was the easy way out. You can tell I feel passionately about this question, I really spent a fair bit of time thinking it through, when it happened in the book!

Me: I guess that in this case my uber scepticism influenced my reaction. You see, at the end of the book I did feel that they had been changed, even if they didn’t explicitly remember things. I guess it’s strange, and it's hard for me to explain why I think so, since obviously forgetting an experience would keep you from learning from it. But I guess I justify it to myself by seeing these supernatural forces in more symbolic terms. So for me, by forgetting they internalized what I always saw in more interior terms.

My next question: Without giving it away, were you satisfied with the ending? Why or why not? How do you think this book compares to others in the series?

Susan: Even given how upset I was with the loss of memory in the book (see previous question), I'd have to say that on the whole, I was satisfied with the ending. They are allowed to be children. I still think they should remember something, though! The best touch is what happens with the choice a character has to make in the ending - that touch of love humanizes the whole ending, and shows that in the end, it is our connection with one another that matters most. Love will always overcome darkness, is always the right choice. It is a huge choice at the end that is the right one, and that was very good, and ends the series on a powerful up note. The memory loss, not so good! In a funny way, while the book ends overlooking a lake in Wales, and the series begins overlooking the sea in Cornwall, there are other physical similarities too, such as most of the series takes place in the countryside, and that was satisfying as well. It makes good use of the natural surroundings and highlights the Celtic nature of the landscape to go with the myth being reworked. The book itself was one of the least satisfying to me to in the series, and I wondered why: was it the juxtaposition of the Barney children with Will? This time, no, I think it wasn't that. It was how the items of light were found, and the tone of the book - there was tone of coldness, distance, in this book, that made the book the least likeable for me. It was too remote.

The books are uneven, with
Over Sea, Under Stone being universally the hardest one to get into and like (at least I've found, and with other comments sent to me). I did like Greenwitch, I found it very haunting. I loved The Dark is Rising. And I enjoyed The Grey King very much. Those are my favourites in the series.

Me: I was satisfied with the ending, yes. It reminded me of the ending of some other fantasy series, namely The Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Prydain, which makes sense, as they draw from some of the same myths. That whole theme of an era ending and humankind being left with the responsibility for the world they inhabit is there in them all, and I like that a lot.

Silver on the Tree is probably also my least favourite after Over Sea, Under Stone, but I still enjoyed it a lot. My favourites are The Grey King and The Dark is Rising, with Greenwitch in the middle.

Susan: My next question to you is: Did you find a difference in how the Barney children were written versus Will and Bran?

Susan: I've already thought out my answer, so I'll give it here I'm not sure if Susan Cooper liked the Barney children. It is very difficult to warm up to them, although I wanted to, and I liked them. As Over Sea, Under Stone, and Greenwitch went on, I liked the children more and more in each book. I really liked Jane. But Susan Cooper uses a different tone for the characters, and the love she feels for Will spills over whenever he appears. I'm not sure how she does this, but he was such a fully realized character that I wanted the series to be about him, with him as the central character. Which it was! By the fifth book, the children were more familiar with one another, so it wasn't so awkward, except for meeting Bran, and I thought that was well done. And of course Bran was very interesting. I know that she was trying to show that the mythic battle for good and evil must be played out at the personal level, and she needed characters who were ordinary as well. It was always awkward though, I felt, in the series, when the two worlds collided. I'm not sure if that was on purpose, or by accident. I really think I would have liked to know a little more about the Barney children, because they did play an important part, and one of the pivotal scenes in the whole series involves Simon and Barney at the caravan, in Greenwitch. There, they had no help but what was in themselves, to guide them forward. That was very well done and was when I thought all three Barney children had a right to be in the series, if that makes sense! Jane already had because she was involved with the Greenwitch.

Me: I guess we disagree on this one. I didn’t see all that many differences, other than the fact that Bran and Will were more than what they seemed, whereas the Barney children were “just” children. But they all played an important role in the final outcome of the whole thing. But I had no trouble at all warming up to them. I liked Jane best, though, and I like the fact that she was give a more central role as the series advanced, especially in Greenwitch. I fully agree with you on why ordinary characters were necessary, though. That’s really what makes this series work so well for me.

Susan: I think the only question I have left is, would you recommend this series to children to read?

Susan: I know it's kind of a silly question, but we're adults reading this series, and it's written for children especially. Myself, I know I'm going to read it out loud to my kids, and hope one day they read my copies! I really enjoyed this overall, and would have no problems giving this to any child who reads fantasy, or who enjoys reading. I think Will and the Barney kids and Bran are great kids to grow up with, along with the Narnia kids. (My daughter loves Lucy, the one closest in age to her right now).

Me: I'm probably the least indicated person there could be to answer this question, as age appropriateness almost never crosses my mind when I'm reading. I don't have any children myself, and I grew up with unsupervised access to any book in the house. This resulted in my reading The Lady of the Camellias by Alexandre Dumas, which is about a prostitute dying of tuberculosis, when I was in my pre-teens. And you know what happened? I didn't understand what was going on for the most part, and I was bored by it.

Anyway...my default answer to these questions is almost always yes. I enjoyed the series as an adult, and would have enjoyed it as a kid too. And I'm sure plenty of other kids will as well. I love the fact that you plan to share it with your children!

Once again, my thanks to Susan. I had a lot of fun doing this. And I hope you enjoyed reading it. Apologies again for the spoilers, but it was very very hard to say anything at all without them.

A few bits I liked:
And the emptiness of the mountain, up there on top of the world, was all at once so oppressive that every smallest sound seemed to take on immense significance. The rustle of heather as Barney shifted his feet; the deep distant call of a sheep; the persistent tuneless chirruping of some small unseen bird. Jane and Simon and Barney stood very still; surprised, uncertain.

'For Drake is no longer in his hammock, children, nor is Arthur somewhere sleeping, and you may not lie idly expecting the second coming of anybody now, because the world is yours and it is up to you.'
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  1. Totally OT: thank you for your comment about the earthquake Nymeth, I live in Northern Italy so our zone wasn't touched. We're all very shaken by the news, though.

  2. Thank you for stopping by, Alessandra. I couldn't remember for sure where in Italy you were, so I was concerned. I'm glad you're okay, but yeah, I can imagine how shaken everyone there must be :(

  3. Happy news for you, Nymeth. You won my tiger bookmarks (thanks to my kid, she picked the name from the hat). Send your postal address to jeanenevarez (at) gmail (dot) com and I'll put them in the mailbox!

  4. I read this series as a kid, maybe 12 or 13 years old? Interestingly, though I didn't have the background or the in-depth understanding that both of you have, my gut feelings were similar -- The Dark is Rising and Greenwitch were my favourites, followed by The Grey King. I didn't mind Over Sea, Under Stone (though I barely remember it) and I do remember being both bewildered and frustrated by Silver on the Tree. The memory loss thing both infuriated and saddened me, as Jane was my favourite character and I felt that the memory loss was a betrayal -- after all she'd been through, to take any vestiges of that away from her seemed so unfair. And that was just the gut reaction of a tween.

  5. I tried not to read this post because I didn't want to spoil it for myself, but I couldn't help myself...I loved your conversation about the last one too much to pass this up. But I'm actually glad I did read this post, because I thoroughly enjoyed it as well. And I don't think it will in any way "ruin" my reading experience with these. That is IF I ever get to them. It makes me so sad that I didn't discover literature like this at a young age...I feel like I have so much catching up to do! And it makes me wonder about the difference in experience about when you first read a book. Though labeling one experience better or worse maybe doesn't even work...they're just different. And maybe it's not all about age even, but more about experiences. As beloved as these books and the Narnia books are to most children, they just didn't capture Annie's heart. That's not to say she didn't enjoy them, she certainly did. But they don't come close to the heartfelt love and passion she has for His Dark Materials and LOTR. And she's been lucky enough to read them all as a child. Anyway, just sort of babbling here.
    Thank you, Nymeth and Susan! This has been a delight to read!

  6. Another great review, Nymeth! Loved it!

    I hate to be off topic, but I'm limited in how I can contact you from my office network, apparently. Did you get an email I tried to send you regarding the icon to replace the Blogger B that you asked me about? After I submitted it I got our stupid firewall filter's message and am not sure the message actually went through.

    Just in case, here's the short version:

    For instructions on adding the favicon: http://www.freefavicon.com/blog/how-to-add-your-favicon-to-blogger/

    For hosting your favicon:

    Sorry to hijack your comments page, I'm giving it back now. :-)

  7. Excellent review. I loved this series with The Dark is Rising being far and away my favourite. Your completely right that her love of Will is evident whenever he appears and he was always my favourite character.

    I agree with Susan about not liking how the items of light were found. It didn't feel to me like Bran and Will had enough to do, it was like they were on a predestined path.

    Overall though I love the series and will definitely give it to my children.

  8. Jeane: yay :D tigers + bookmarks = win combination :D I'll e-mail you my addy.

    Kiirstin: To be honest I hadn't see things from that perspective until Susan brought it up, but that's part of why discussing books is so fun. I can see why in a way it was a betrayal. But I just remembered a detail: she mentions towards the very end that they'd dream about Merriman sometimes, which goes with my feeling that it wasn't completely gone, that in some ways they were changed by the experience anyway.

    Debi: You know, I felt that way about Narnia, but not at all about this series, though I'm sure the experience would have been different if I had been younger. But I can see why Annie doesn't like them as much as HDM, though, as those are the BEST BOOKS EVER :P Pullman has actually cited Cooper as an influence, if I'm not mistaken. About the spoilers, I really don't think they will ruin the reading experience for you, but since I'm extremely paranoid about spoilers myself I thought a warning would be fair :P

    Melissa: Wheeeee, I have a FavIcon :D Thank you so much! I didn't get your e-mail, so I appreciate your comment. Nothing to apologize for! It was awesome of you to help me :D

    Alexa: Another thing I hadn't thought of until Susan brought it up! I loved Will, though. And Jane. And Bran. You and Susan also have a good point about things being a bit too easy for Bran and Will sometimes, though.

  9. Hey, my earlier comment was just a quickie to mention the win. Now I've got to say, it's been so long since I read the series, I totally forgot about that early scene in the book. I'm sure it's going to jump out at me this time, and I'm curious what I'll think of it. Your reviews are excellent and really inspiring me to read all of them again- as soon as I can!

  10. Great review as always Nymeth. I love how you get into a book so well and then make me want to read it. I haven't read any by Susan Cooper but I keep seeing them in the library, so I will definitely pick one up this time.

  11. Great discussion, Nymeth and Susan! I was reading and nodding and saying "oh yes, that's just how I felt" - I wish I'd had time to read along in the background, but your comments make me want to read it again anyway. I love The Dark is Rising best, but I think Greenwitch is wonderfully atmospheric. I'm with Susan on memory wiping though.

  12. What a fantastic way to review a book! I recently finished this series, too. I was amazed at its timeless appeal and application. I totally feel the same away about your insight, "despite the existence of supernatural forces in the story, their actions are justified in human terms."

    I think it is a wonderful thing for kids, and adults, to remember that we have a choice, and the responsibility to make tough choices.

  13. I've loved reading all the comments here!! I still have to put up the post - I'm just in from work - but it's good to see some comments already! Yaay!

    As always, thank you Nymeth, this was fun, and it's kind of neat that we had differing points of view - it broadens the perspective of what the books have to offer.

    Off to go put it up on my blog now! :-D

  14. I want to let you know that I really enjoyed reading the interview, Nymeth! I'm not sure if this series are for me but you made them sound so good! :)

  15. I have such a terrible memory! I'm sure I must have read other reviews of these books but I just don't remember. :( I enjoyed reading your and Susan's exchange--you certainly put most book clubs to shame with such enlightened topics!!

  16. Jeane, I hope you enjoy the books just as much on a second read!

    Scrap Girl: I think they're really worth reading. I hope you'll agree :)

    GeraniumCat: Though I didn't feel as strongly about it as Susan, I can see how it's frustrating in a oh-it-was-all-a-dream kind of way. Only Alice in Wonderland manages to pull that off :P

    Fuzzycricket: I couldn't agree more :)

    Susan: Exactly! Discussing books with you is possibly even more fun when we disagree.

    Melody: I think you might enjoy them - and your girls too in a few years :)

    Trish: I've never belonged to a book club, so I really really love how the blogging community gives me the chance to do these things.

    Joanna, glad you liked it :)

  17. Love Puffin books! Great discussion, it seems like you guys should start your own book club online or something.

  18. Your previous posts already convinced me to read this series, so with that said I didn't read the rest of the post because of the "spoilers." Rest assured though that after catching up with you, I will come back to this!!

  19. Like I said on Susan's blog, I really need to try and finish this series this year! I have only read the first book at this point...

  20. Ladytink: I'm starting to realize I love them too :D A book club online is such a fun idea! I think Becky had one..I should look into that.

    Staci: I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on the series :)

    Kailana: Yes you do! All of the others are much, much better than the first.

  21. You guys have really sold me on this series. I have a copy and will try and get around to it for the next Arthurian Challenge. I like the style of interview questions to each other.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.