The year’s midnight.
“Always winter and never Christmas.” C S Lewis’ ultimate baddie, the White Witch, keeps Narnia frozen in a time when the natural cycle of death and birth cannot continue. Will Stanton in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising has his midwinter birthday interrupted, threatened, brought into its rightful place by the crises in the book. Kay Harker’s dream (or not-a-dream) sees the Christmas of Merrie England restored when the dark powers of sorcery threaten to destroy it. I feel I also have to note en passant the most terrifying version of this for me, Michelle Paver’s adult work Dark Matter, where the narrator faces months of night time and solitude – and something far worse out on the Arctic ice. The time in late December is reenacted in these stories as a time of crisis, and the subtext seems to me to be a worry that as the days darken, the sun will not return, no hope for love “At the next world, that is, at the next spring.” A fear that This is It.
As Catherine Butler in Four British Fantasists suggests of the interplay between magic and humanity in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence
The Light is opposed in turn by the Dark, and most of the activity of the other mythical and historical figures involved in the sequence is related in some way or another to their struggle. Given Cooper’s insistence (as in the description of Herne) on the wildness of some of these figures, this moral alignment of their magical power might be problematic.
Problematic indeed. The complexity of this vision is one of the things that Masefield is beginning to explore, and that Lewis more or less avoids, but which Cooper meets head-on in The Dark is Rising – and in more meditative and lyrical form in a poem she first published in 1974.
The publication of Susan Cooper and Carson Ellis’ The Shortest Day , which re-presents Cooper’s 1970s contribution to a larger work, has prompted renewed interest (it never really goes away) in the interplay between UK fantasy writers and the folklore they draw on. There are some lovely reviews already out (e.g. Kirkus, Brainpickings (who [of course] beat me to the Dillard reference, although that doesn’t often stop me) praising the text and artwork, and this is not a review but some thoughts at a tangent. Again, I am not alone in this tack: Calmgrove’s Christmas Delights (which already sounds like a box of candied fruits) has a wonderful post exploring a selection of writers from Nesbit to Masefield, and then Lewis, and so to Cooper herself. By celebrating Solstice (check out Solstice here) she sets up not a Pagan in the sense of antiChristian but an unChristian, a preChristian festivity, gloriously underlined by the images Ellis gives us, as wanderers move through a land that they increasingly mark as their own.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day…
In Ellis’s paintings we see the “precarious business” as the palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer puts it, of early humanity’s existence in our inhospitable winter, and we see our efforts – the our, I think, underwires the charm and power of this book – at keeping the dangers and demons at bay across the centuries. It is a similar nostalgia (thank you again, Chris Lovegrove, for this insight into Masefield ) to the gathering of the ancestral (ghostly) Oldknows in Tolly’s first Christmas in Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe, that we celebrated on our visit. All those long echoes in the stones of Hemingford Grey.
It sends me back to Ronald Hutton and his Stations of the Sun. In the opening chapters he carefully dissects Christmas customs with judiciously chosen details (I was intrigued by the mummers who menaced people having been “drinking, playing at cards and fiddling all day in disguised habits”) and drops in details that have resonances elsewhere, such as the apotropaic torch rituals in the Staffordshire moorlands town of Stanton. It has to be remembered that Hutton, although with strong ties to various aspects of Paganism, is suitably cautious in his methodology: Hutton looks at the Roman feasts of midwinter, Saturnalia and Kalendae, and then states
The new Christian feast of the Nativity extinguished or absorbed both of them, and a string of other holy days sprang up in its wake…
before going on to explain the rise of the Twelve days and the Epiphany/Theophany in the Western and Eastern Churches.
In most of northern and central Europe, where the cold and darkness were much greater…it would have run into local patterns of pre-Christian seasonal celebrations….
But Hutton warns us that
Literary sources do not tell us anything conclusive about the midwinter festival practices of the ancient British Isles…
He find the early English sources more enlightening than many others, and his trail leads him to the conflation (as he suggests) of a Modranicht, or Mother Night, a middum wintra, with the Nativity. The festivities may predate Christian Christmas or draw on earlier practices*… And then he turns his gaze on Yule (jol, jul, juul), the jolly time of Norse festivities.
Stations of the Sun is not a pagan handbook but a scholarly exploration, suggesting that seasonal rituals were fluid, open to change, to diminishing and reinterpretation. It is right, therefore, that in his conclusion some 400 pages and a ring-round year of celebrations later he writes:
It is one of the arguments of this book that the rhythms of the British year are timeless and impose certain perpetual patterns upon calendar customs: a yearning for light, greenery and warmth and joy in midwinter, a propensity to celebrate the spring with symbols of rebirth…
[However] What is also plain is that the last couple of centuries, in this as in every other aspect of British life, have produced a completely unprecedented amount of change… No amount of nostalgia or anxiety for a rapidly diminishing or deteriorating natural environment can alter the essential irrelevance which it now possesses for the daily lives and seasonal habits of most of the British; however, this very fact may cause it to play an ever greater part in religious symbolism.
And not only there, I think. Children’s literature – the work written “for children” and the work written meditating on childhood – seems to me often drawn to these natural cycles, and most of all to the changes of dark and light, for which the stores of story and ritual and symbol stand ready for writers and artists to draw on. I do wonder about the place of folklore and a kind of vision of archaic beliefs in the writings of fantasy – and marvel at the power of this time of year to bring out our need to explore these themes…
Oh, I see you haven’t spelled Station right – and what is that about anyway?
I have, and this is my final point. To return to another of Hutton’s delightful side-comments, he suggests that Yule is connected not only to the world “jolly” but perhaps to the word we know as wheel; I can’t help thinking of the Sun Cross, the sign of the Old Ones in Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and the ‘ring with the longways cross” the Oak Lady wears in The Box of Delights, but the symbol of the sun as wheeling around might suggest that while we think of Solstice as when the sun stands still, another version might be that it is that tipping point before a wheel starts to turn again. Nature holds its breath, much as St Bernard suggests we all do when the Angel presents Mary with her choice at the Annunciation (Nota Bene: this impassioned, dramatic passage from Bernard is set in Roman Rite breviaries as the non-scriptural reading for 20th December). The holding of our breath: can we get out of this darkest time? The site Spirituality and Practice has a brief extract on Statio as the sacred pause. The moment, maybe, before the liturgy starts, where everyone is standing ready, not awkwardly waiting but attentive. Birdwatching for the moment of grace. This is not to say that the Solstice is now simply that for Christian practice or post-Christian jollity – but that the winter Solstice in particular invites us to pause, to listen as the new world turns and does it all again.
*Bede is his source here. Hutton is, in case you are wondering, suitably cautious when we get to Easter and its original.
PS: The photo, by the way, is not an Old Way or my own Old Road outside my front door, but unexpected snow before Christmas a few years ago, taken on the feast of St Lucy, the old “Shortest Day” that John Donne celebrates (and I cited at the start of this post) and the birthday (not the feast) of Bl Lucy of Narnia. Well, sort of.