It’s a Wednesday, and therefore Hillforts Wednesday, a tag on Twitter that brings together archeologists and others to explore and share photos. Maggie and I finished a read-together of Sun Horse Moon Horse last night, and so today I spent time trying to get into a now rather defunct web resource of hill forts (the Online Hillforts Atlas: I have a link here, in case it comes back from the dead – but this description may whet your appetite) and it struck me that the ephemeral nature of web resources of this kind mirrors the project itself: we are left with tantalising bits of invitations to thinking, to work and belief not unlike the White Horse or (as we passed it last week) Cadbury, or the messy leavings of the end of empire in Sword at Sunset or the great poem of Frances Horowitz (mentioned here; and see below). As Kipling’s Puck puts it
Trackway and Camp and City lostRudyard Kipling: Puck’s Song
Horovitz’ marvellous poem about loss as seen through the information in the Chesters museum on Hadrian’s Wall starts from the confidence of a dedication that sounds firmly part of the Roman colony:
To Jove, best and greatest
and to the other immortal gods;
to Augustus , happy and unconquered
and it ends in fragment and uncertainty
dedication partly obliterated
with human figure in rude relief
text of doubtful meaning
stone of…Frances Horovitz: Poem found at Chesters Museum, Hadrian’s Wall. Collected Poems pp 92-3
(there used to be an audio of her reading it, which I had expected here: another loss, although I see the CD is on sale…)
We are left with a tantalisingly incomplete story in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sun Horse Moon Horse too. In this world in which ‘believable characters meet believable crises,’ Lubrin can hope, his sister Teleri might predict, but we cannot be sure (even with Sutcliff’s introduction) that Lubrin’s sister Teleri and his Heart-Brother Dara and the clan will fulfil
the dream of the distant grazing lands between the mountains and the sea.
Her work is pitch-perfect in creating this hope and uncertainty. No matter how vivid Sutciff’s storytelling, how much of a visceral tug there is in Dara and Lubrin’s parting (and, I think, the most wonderful, sad and passionate hug of friends in young people’s literature) the young men will not meet again except in an afterlife in the Land of Apple Trees; just as we cannot know that meeting, we also do not have the harpsong praising the exodus of the people to the horse-runs of the north which shall also be the song of Lubrin Dhu – and one of the believable parts of her telling of the exodus of Lubrin’s people is precisely this unknown future. If there is a song of this liberation (and I suspect Sutcliff knows it) it is the book she has written: Sun Horse Moon Horse is a deeply poignant exploration of the passionate commitment of the artist, as well as a beautiful exploration of place, of close friendship, of loyalty – and of the creation of one of the greatest symbols in the country. At a time when such things are again debated and bitterly argued over, it is interesting that the earliest meaning(s) of the actual White Horse are beyond us, only reachable as story. As David Miles puts it, this is
…a landscape imbued with humanity…
but he recognises that
[t]he memories do not have to be accurate: people will create new stories.David Miles, Land of the White Horse, pp 254, 265.
Sutcliff is careful and deliberate in her archaeology, no matter that even within my lifetime work has taken our understanding somewhere different, but she admits that her link between the Horse People of Argyll and her Iceni of the Thames is tenuous. The future is unknowable to Dara and Teleri as they leave for the freedom Lubrin has bought them, and the confident hill-marking of the conquering Attribates is almost as hard to discern as the inscriptions in which Horovitz finds her poem. Any historical counterparts of Lubrin, or Dara and Teleri, or Cradoc are lost in time, the uncertainty of their successes just marks that show and fade like shadows on hills and pathways. Although there is no song for him, with a great storyteller at my shoulder I am back on the ramparts with Lubrin even though we cannot see the dustcloud of their departing any more.