After the Drew family arrives in Cornwall for a vacation, Jane, Barney, and Simon explore the village of Trewissick and the Grey House, where the family is staying with Great-Uncle Merry. The children soon discover a hidden door that leads to an attic, where they find a crumbling map. Soon after they are wrenched from their ordinary world into a strange and perilous world that exists parallel to the ordinary world, where the struggle between good and evil is more clearly evident. This map supplies the clues necessary for their quest to find the grail, an Arthurian relic that is a powerful weapon in the fight between the forces of good and evil, the Light and the Dark. Their quest is hazardous; the characters fighting for the Dark also want the grail, and the children mistake some of these characters for friends. Great-Uncle Merry, a friend of the Drew family, a famous scholar of antiquities, and a fighter for the Light helps them succeed in their quest.
Over Sea, Under Stone, which introduces The Dark Is Rising series, is primarily a fantasy based on the legends of King Arthur. The writing is impeccable, from words and sentences to the general structure of the book. Cooper's prose is specific, detailed, clear, and exact. It is simple, but never condescending. For her, "the rain fell with grey insistence," Great-Uncle Merry returns to "the dusty peace of the university where he taught," and after the children explore the attic, little could be done "about Barney's hair, now khaki." One of her favorite stylistic patterns is to combine an adjective with an abstract noun, as in "grey insistence." Cooper relies most frequently on sight in her novel, but she at times uses other senses. Her ear for dialect is good, as when Bill Hoover speaks, and she relies on hearing and touch when Barney is kidnapped: "The car swayed and growled as if it were alive. Barney lay wrapped up like a parcel in the robe which Mr. Withers had slipped from his own shoulders as he dropped him in the car. He decided that it must be a sheet; the smell of it under the nose was like clean laundry on the beds at home."
The numerous repetitions, foreshadowings, and parallel scenes make for a rich and complex reading experience. Mrs. Palk sings hymns and Mr. Hastings lives in the vicarage. Both seem religious, yet both are evil. This theme of the difference between appearance and reality occurs frequently in the novel. Mr. Hastings makes a "strange, archaic gesture that reminded Jane of Mr. Withers," and she later discovers they are both people of the Dark. Even the exploration of the attic parallels the childrens' later exploration of the cave.
Cooper returns to actions, characters, and ideas from Over Sea, Under Stone in the later books. She has said that Over Sea, Under Stone "turned out to be the first movement in a symphonic pattern of five books." The series becomes unified, like the movements of a symphony, through repetition of and variations on the actions, characters, and ideas; these aspects of the novels serve as motifs.
Over Sea, Under Stone has many elements of good adventure and detective stories. The plot is based on action, the characters decipher and follow a strange map to find the grail, and, as in most detective stories, they must struggle to identify the villains. But the novel is fantasy, and is firmly rooted in a particular fantasy tradition. Events occur in it that do not occur in real life; some of the laws of physical reality do not apply. In the novel different periods of time exist simultaneously, and King Arthur's magician, Merlin, lives in the twentieth century. By following their lead, Cooper places Over Sea, Under Stone and the entire The Dark Is Rising series into a rich tradition that includes such writers as Malory, Tennyson, and T. H. White. This helps to make reading Over Sea, Under Stone a rich experience for readers who know these other works, though young adults will find the novel perfectly clear without seeing it in this broader context.
(The entire section is 1,215 words.)