Midwinter and the quietest time of the year. The sunlight only just reaches the house, nothing more than a few faint streaks patterning the carpet through the window as I plot the mark upon the mountains where the sun rises furthest West before turning back to the Easterlies of Midsummer. I make a notch on the wall alongside all the other notches from all the other mid winters I have spent in this house. That is the way I mark the seasons round here.
I am reading the Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper and although I had no recollection of many details, things are now flooding back to me; the fascination I had with crows and ravens of all kinds, the obsession with dark symbolism and the real connection to nature that this book introduced to me. I would spend hours out in the countryside trying to hear messages on the wind, trying to feel the Otherworld, trying to find omens in the landscape. I spent an inordinate amount of time searching for owl pellets under old oaks, carrying significant stones in my pocket, trying to allay my fear of the dark.
This book made midwinter a special, magical time for me. I started to study the old religions; shamanism, witchcraft, Druidry and marked each turning year with something ancient, be it a special altar erected in the woods or a solitary ceremony in my bedroom. The full moon became something sacred; animals and birds were portents and carriers of messages from the Otherworld; I visited there frequently.
I do not think even now, I could live without this extra dimension to life, I do not think I could exist without the magic of other worlds, other times, other dimensions. Whatever it is I am into, it is the sacred and hidden side of it that interests me the most.
And I have read up to the part where Will is ushered onto the white horse by John Smith the Blacksmith, after he is nearly dragged away by the Rider on his black steed – it’s so shamanic, so reminiscent of Siberian Journeys on windhorses initiated by drumming and rhythmical dancing. Will only just escapes from being carried off by the dark forces and then has a chance to taste the light on the back of the white horse, although he is unsure of the power he welds in doing this.
It is a classic coming of age tale, choosing between the light and the dark. He fights against the Rider but he is not completely convinced by the light of the White Horse either. He knows the light is right but the dark side is also tantalising. He needs to find out more. The rooks; the tricksters of the tale, call to him playfully and he feels compelled to follow.
I believe in the power of coming-of-age ceremonies. I believe that every child should go through a trial like the one Will is about to experience. It is absolutely necessary in order to enter adulthood with maturity and balance. We need to see something of the dark side yet nowadays, this is not always possible, not in the real world anyway. In fact, it is completely missing from most of modern society, with its ever increasing addiction to the light. We desperately need to allow more of the dark back in and we need role models to show us the way. Our parents cannot do it, seeing that they are so wound up in their daily lives of work and responsibilities, so we turn to books and films instead. In the seventies, we had Will and the Dark is Rising; in the late nineties there was Harry Potter, with countless others in between.
We read these books like maps. They are of course, fantasy but they fulfil the very real need in us to experience the dark side of life as Vision Quest. They compel us forward, they ask us to ride with them; the Bilbos, Wills, Harrys, Lyras, Hermoines – not just when we are children but as adults too. Without them we cannot live fully in this life; we cannot experience the light that conquers the dark, the turning point, the return to the village from lands afar. And just as exposure to the elements alone, without aid, is one part of the trial, so too is spending time in our own inner world, away from our family and friends in the midst of a gripping tale. It is a solitary endeavour; a shutting away of oneself; a shamanic journey to the other side, under the spell of the magic of the written word.
I walked out into the woods today, a few hours before the turning point of the year, I went amongst the trees, to the places that are so familiar to me; places that have held me as I sat so often and pondered over the meaning of it all. As always, everything was fresh, clear and crystalline, even more with the new snowfall of the past few days. The darkness seemed far, far away. I thought about my childhood and my fascination with midwinter, with questing, with omens and ancient ceremonies and I silently thanked Will Stanton, for setting out on his quest for me, so that he could show me how it was done. I learned a lot.