Susan Cooper's five-book series The Dark Is Rising were among the most prominent works of young-adult fantasy in the latter 20th century. Cooper's mythic tales paid distinct homage to the legends that inspired them — particularly those of King Arthur, and the Mabinogion — and Cooper's reverence for this lore suffuses these engrossing adventures without weighing them down with self-importance.
Over Sea, Under Stone is a prequel to the series proper. The Drew siblings — Simon, Jane, and Barney — are vacationing with their parents in the coastal village of Trewissick in Cornwall. Exploring the musty attic of the Grey House, the imposing ancient home the family has rented for their holiday, the kids discover a crackled and enigmatic map. Their "Great-Uncle Merry," Merriman Lyon, a traveling "professor" of some sort who neatly fills in the role of wise old sage, translates the obsure Latin and Old English text on the map. They learn that it does indeed hint at a lost treasure: a grail. Not the Holy Grail, but a grail dating back a thousand years to the days of the original King Arthur, who fought nobly against the forces of evil which eventually overcame him. An ancient prophecy attached to the shrivelled map foretells that a new Arthur will one day locate the grail, and he will take up the original king's battle against the forces of darkness.
Of course, there are baddies seeking the map, and the grail, as well. As the children follow the cryptic clues on the map, they are harried by a mysterious yachtsman, his creepy "sister," a thuggish local boy, even the town's vicar! Could there be more people allied with the dark, right under their very noses?
The simplicity and unpretentiousness of Cooper's exciting story are its best virtues. This is just terrific entertainment for young and old alike. Breathless chase scenes keep the tension ramped up. Moonlit nights under enormous standing stones bestow an atmosphere upon the novel that most fantasy novelists would give their eyeteeth for. The children are very appealing and believable characters, not the least bit cloying nor advanced beyond their years. (I've read kid's stories where the author has had first-graders talking like grad students. Come on.) American readers will smile at how very British everyone is, but this story wins you over in the way it recalls what we all like to think of (realistically or not) as a simpler time. If you have (or if you are) a kid who's just discovered the delights of reading and of fantasy through Rowling and Tolkien, Susan Cooper's venture into the mist-enshrouded realms of Arthurian myth won't disappoint. And if, like me, you enjoy the idea of digging up the occasional childhood favorite to relive a bit of the magic of those years, these novels may be just what you need. There's treasure in that old attic, indeed.