When I was 10 I read Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone for the first time. And I will never forget the moment on p. 218 in my now broken-backed copy of this novel when I experienced what I can only describe as literary magic; a magic so powerful that I still remember the shiver that ran through me.
On p. 218, then, something that had begun to take shape in my mind was given body. It turned out that Great-Uncle Merry Lyon – benevolent, wise, all-knowing, ancient – was not simply all those things, but more. I had been excited about the search for the Grail in this story and the presence of Dark and Light, and I had begun to wonder about Merriman Lyon. And then, in the Epilogue, Cooper reports this conversation between wide-eyed Barney, sensible Jane and older brother Simon:
Barney was gazing into space as if he were coming out of a trance.
‘Wake up,’ Jane said cheerfully.
Barney said slowly, ‘Is that his real name?’
‘Great-Uncle Merry – is he really called Merriman?’
‘Well, of course – that’s what Merry is short for.’
‘I didn’t know,’ Barney said. ‘I always thought Merry was a nickname. Merriman Lyon . . .’
‘Funny name, isn’t it?’ said Simon lightly. ‘Come on, let’s go and have another look at the grail. I want to see what it says about us again.’
He moved round the edge of the crowd with Jane; but Barney stayed where he was. ‘Merriman Lyon,’ he said softly to himself. ‘Merry Lyon . . . Merlion . . . Merlin . . .’
What was so particularly wonderful about this exchange, and the reason it needs to be shown in full, is that Cooper gave me time to work it out for myself before Barney got there. While Barney was coming out of his trance, I was going into one of my own, letting the various pieces fall into place. Great-Uncle Merry Lyon was Merlin. He was Merlin, my hero, who would watch over me and guide me through life, as he had Arthur. Merlin was my composite of Obi Wan Kenobi, Gandalf, Aslan. All those literary and cinematic figures of wisdom and truth. And without quite realizing it, I had been reading a novel that he had been inhabiting the entire time.
Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) was the first in what was to become a quintet of novels called ‘The Dark Is Rising’. It is written in the style of an adventure story. Three children f
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