The Return of the Light

[openbook booknumber=”1569246173″][rating:3/5]

In The Return of the Light Carolyn McVickar Edwards assembles twelve legends, folktales and fairy tales told about the “return of light” that occurs at the winter solstice. I should have read this in December but when I came across it earlier this month I couldn’t help checking it out from the library. I wanted to know more about the roots of the older traditions surrounding the Winter Solstice before it was taken over by the Church. I didn’t really find that, but I did find several different takes from around the world on just what happens during the solstice, the shortest day of the year, and their explanations for why the sun goes away, and more importantly why it comes back after.


In that distant beginning season, Sun Man’s warm magic flowed over all the land. Whenever he raised his arms, it was day. whenever he lowered them, it was night. The Bee People and the Elephant People and the Tic People loved the rhythm of Sun Man’s light. Their faces crinkled with pleasure in his heat.
       But inside the dreamtime, Sun Man grew old. His back grew stiff and his knee joints ached. He rose later and later each morning. He napped soon after breakfast and went to bed in the afternoon.
       “What’s going on here?” complained Grandfather Mantis. “I’m not getting heat anymore.” Grandfather Mantis sent the Bird People to find out. The Bird People returned, rumpled and solemn. Darkness was everywhere, even though it was supposed to be daytime. “Sun Man is getting old,” they explained. “This shining all the time is getting too much for him.”
       “Well, I’m old,” snapped Grandfather Mantis. “Doesn’t stop me.”
       His wife raised her eyebrows but said nothing.

The book is divided into three parts, each part containing four stories of a particular way in which the sun is lost at the solstice: the first through theft, the second through surrender and the third by grace. Each part is preceded with a short discussion about the method of reacquiring the sun, and each story is additionally given an introduction explaining the society it came from and where the story originated.

I thought that the introductions to the book and the sections in particular were by turns overly analytical, and then bizarrely whimsical. They could have perhaps been written in a more user friendly way. I am used to reading sociological and historical texts with a lot of technical terms in them and even I found myself lost and re-reading passages trying to get the gist of the great deal of knowledge the author attempted to cram into very little space. This also resulted in a bit of reader’s whiplash when you switched to reading the story.

The stories were simplified and written in a very easy to understand and casual manner, particularly the dialogue which was written in a very believable modern day cadence and made the stories easy to read aloud and easy for listeners of any age to relate to. With the skill exhibited here, the stories were very much the book’s strong point. I wish the introductions were similarly written, it would have made for a powerful book.

The ending includes several songs and games to be done on the winter solstice. To me these seemed like very much an after thought. The publisher might have insisted they add them, or an editor tacked them on. They were not well thought out, they were sometimes cheesy, even for families with children, and didn’t add anything to the book at all.

The stories though were well written, and powerful, reminders of the other cultures that make up this world and of thee people of the past and their varying reactions to the, probably at that time terrifying, sight of the sun showing up less and less each day. These stories explained for them what was happening and reassured them that the sun would come back and light would return once again.

I was thinking when I picked it up about making this book a permanent addition to my library. Now I’ve decided to pass. I already have several of these stories (their full versions, not just the parts concerning the loss and return of the sun) in my Illustrated Book of Myths. I think I will stick with that.

If you are thinking of reading these stories to your children please read all of them in advance and decide which ones you want your children to see/hear. Some of them have older morals about society and one in particular, for example, features a raven that decides to infiltrate a family by becoming a baby in it and so turns himself into a feather and lands in a drinking gourd and then gets swallowed by the daughter in the family, she falls pregnant and then gives birth to him. Might be a little hard to explain that one, depending on how old the child is, as far as “the talk” is concerned.

One Response to The Return of the Light

  1. carol
    9:05 am on March 4th, 2010

    This sounds like a book we would really enjoy. I’ll have to keep it in mind for next winter.

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