In the mid-2000s, I had read parts of Robert Macfarlane’s book Mountains of the Mind for a Masters Degree assignment on Percy Shelley’s ‘Mont Blanc’. I must admit, until he appeared on my Twitter feed with his ‘Words of the Day’ tweets having been retweeted by someone else, I’d almost forgotten how knowledgeable he is.
How does this all link to a book by a completely different author? Well, Macfarlane and writer Julia Bird decided that, over the festive period, they would run a Twitter-based, read-along reading group based around Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising.
The story, despite being written for a younger audience, is full of rich descriptions of landscapes and nature. Furthermore, Cooper seems particularly adept at recreating the otherworldliness of the snow-bound countryside:
“The strange white world lay stroked by silence. No birds sang. The garden was no longer there, in this forested land. Nor were the out-buildings nor the old crumbling walls. There lay only a narrow clearing round the house now, hummocked with unbroken snowdrifts, before the trees began, with a narrow path leading away.”
Beginning on Midwinter’s Eve, the story follows the character of Will Stanton who starts experiencing strange goings on in the run up to his birthday. Unbeknownst to him, he is an Old One – one of those selected to defend the Light against the forces of the Dark. He is sent on a quest in a parallel world in order to recover the six circular signs that when united become a Thing of Power.
Along the way he encounters characters who guide him and those who attempt to deceive him, learns the magic of the Old Ones and encounters the somewhat haunting folkloric figure of Herne the Hunter as the story reaches its climax on Twelfth Night.
Although the plot is, in many ways, quite simple, the way in which it is written is the key to what makes it captivating. If you read it as a bildungsroman, it is the tale of a boy who at once is a child in the eyes of his family, yet is ageless; someone who is still immature to his parents, yet who learns how to save the world. Perhaps it is a perfect analogy for all those times we underestimate the capabilities and talents of the children we know when we view a situation through our adult eyes.
Overall, perhaps the best thing about the whole experience of reading the novel, was the sense of community that emerged over social media. With people reading in many different languages and responding to the Bird and Macfarlane’s prompts in such divergent ways, meant that for those dark nights over the midwinter and festive periods, many new friends were made and, indeed, artwork inspired.
A few days after the online reading group finished, the author sent a heartfelt email to Macfarlane saying: “writer, reader: when our imaginations speak the same language, we can change each other’s lives.”
With that in mind, here's to hoping that we repeat the process later this year.