A Too-Brief Celebration of Rosemary Sutcliff
I am no Sutcliff expert, just a fan in his sixties starting out. There is a rich resource to be found here, which I will draw on but cannot hope to contribute to: part of me wants simply to say “go and read the material here, read her books yourself, fall for her patterns of description, her emotional landscapes, her stories.” She repays the time.
A brief visit to her world – notably with The Shield Ring (mentioned briefly here) – convinced me of her power when I was in what was then called Top Juniors, but a move of schools meant I lost her to travel books and high fantasy. I now see that was a shame in so many ways, but it does make me wonder what other reading disruptions happen to young people when Top Juniors are forced to reinvent themselves as the lowest of the low in Secondary education. This isn’t really more than a quick look at her stories I have discovered or rediscovered over the past few years, to say “thank you,” in her Centenary Year to someone whose writing has come to mean a great deal to me.
For brevity – apologising because the books and the writer deserve a lot more attention – I’m going to pick at three strands and hope they intertwine (if that metaphor works): the power and detail of her topography; her bold expression of close male friendships; her call for hope in dark times.
I have already quoted a brilliant, lengthy passage from Warrior Scarlet, which I won’t repeat: it’s here. The interplay of wolf and human in the book is a key element, and the fights with wolves half-way through and towards the end are equally of note:
All that morning while the sun rose high into a sky of drifting cloud and storm-washed blue, and the broken tumble of light and shadow sailed lazily across the High Chalk, Drem and his companions followed the trail of the big dog wolf through the deep mazes of the forest; very occasionally by a pad mark, more often by a single brindled hair on a low-hanging thorn branch, by a few side-brushed blades of grass, by the distant alarm call of a jay…Warrior Scarlet, ch 9 The Black Pebble
This is the same landscape – and almost the same subject – as the story of the coming of metal Kipling tells in The Knife and the Naked Chalk in Rewards and Fairies; it exerts a powerful influence on both of them as they write back into the eras before written history. Maybe the windy, pastoral tameness of the South Downs awakes them to a wilder and more perilous time, so that even looking for a lost ewe is a vivid opener for the confrontation with the wolves:
…the chalk dropped away so sharply as to be clear of snow save where the whiteness clung about the roots of the bushes that grew here and there on the sheer surface of the drop. The darkness of more bushes gathered thick at the foot; and among them something moved and bleated…Warrior Scarlet, ch 13, The Grey Leader
But it is not just a reimagining of Southern England that allows her to exercise her vivid landscape writing skills. I have recorded here her tour de force from Red Phaedrus and his marriage chase in Mark of the Horse Lord. Gripping: she is able to make the drama and the landscape speak to each other in astonishing ways. In the same way it is Sutcliff’s command of topography that makes her battles so vivid – even when she restrains her view to the anxious waiting for news and the approaching enemy in Sun Horse Moon Horse:
And standing on the rampart where it flanked the great gateway, Lubrin saw inside his head how the little knots of chariots and horsemen would be coming in to join them as they went, by tracks and drove-ways from lowland settlements and steadings in side-valleys of the Chalk. Saw them strung across the broad pass that was the way through for any war host from the south. Would the fighting come this evening?Sun Horse, Moon Horse, ch 5, Menace from the South
and when battle is joined in the full view of the reader, it engages the full attention.
They were within bowshot now, and there came a sudden flicker of movement among the knot of archers behind the British spearmen, and a flight of arrows leapt out over the spears to plunge into the advancing battle-mass of the Saxons. For a few moments the enemy ranks had the look of a barley field hit by a sudden squall, as men staggered and dropped in their tracks; but the rest closed their torn ranks and pressed on, yelling… And in the midst of the killing hail, the two hosts rolled together, seeming at the last instant to gather themselves like two great animals, then spring for each other’s throats.The Lantern Bearers, ch 19, Victory Like a Trumpet Blast
And here we see how marvellous a companion illustrator Charles Keeping makes to Sutcliff’s text, bolding breaking convention for his battle-angry warriors to spill onto a second page.
Close Male Friendships – and loss
Heart-brother, Dara said, wait for me in the Land of Apple Trees.Sun Horse, Moon Horse, ch 12, Song of the Northward Droving
It seems to me that Sutcliff uses these deep expressions of emotion to show with a heart-stopping clarity the desperate situations of her characters. In emphasising the love her protagonists feel for their friends, she shows us the real shocks of the crises they face: separation is deeply felt, longing for one’s friend is an enormous distress that her characters must endure. Abandonment and the cruel twist of circumstance mark these out, and when Artos and Bedwyn are finally reconciled in Sword at Sunset – too late to save either of them years of loss – Sutcliff shows us how deep this love can be.
I could have cried out to him, as Jonathan to David, by the forbidden love names that are not used between men; I could have flung my arms about his shoulders…Sword at Sunset, ch 36, The Last Camp
Sutcliff has a view of the possibility of tenderness between men that she is able to show with detail and passion and yet without overstatement. In doing so she is able to side-step questions of sexuality in past times, and yet leaves room for readers to construe what they might see at the heart of the close male friendships she depicts. When I say it was a shame I lost her when I went to Secondary school, part of this is that I now read of Dara and Lubrin, of Drem and Vortrix, and realise how much they would have meant to me as an adolescent: and how much they mean to me now.
It is separation that seems to me at the heart of these, and in some ways at the heart of much of the tragedy I have gleaned from her writing, and while I concentrate on those painful relationships I feel most keenly, it is worth noting that this strand is not all male-male partings: I would cite Aquila’s terrible, painful leave-taking from his sister Flavia in The Lantern Bearers. This pain at parting is, for me, her best trick in setting historical fiction: a running theme that leave-takings are uncertain, friendships sundered (I wrote more on these partings in the medieval world here) are not the ebb and flow of children’s relationships in the playground or of post or (for us) more modern communication: goodbyes are potentially forever, and only some shadowy hope for the future sustains some of her characters…
Hope in Bleak Times
And this brings me to my final theme. Given the troubles we are facing I almost wish it didn’t – but here we see a member of the minstrelsy (Rosemary Sutcliff’s own words) taking her poetic vision up another notch: to a role not unlike a prophetess, someone able to speak to generations of timeless things. The world of her fiction is often fraught with danger: cold; marsh and forest; the cunning and predatory wolves and their brothers the raiding Saxons… so that when the war-chief Wiermund in The Lantern Bearers says to leave him to the wolves…let the wolves avenge their kin, it is ironically this very act of cruelty that saves Aquila for the rest of the narrative. Hope comes in unexpected places: Sutcliff maintains her pace.
Battles can be successes for the protagonists or defeats. It is part of her skill that both are told with respect – and that there is often no clear-cut resolution. Writing as she did after seeing the second World War and then the growing, fragile peace, she has an understanding that history writing of any genre cannot use a kind of smug teleology, a hubris that “we made it. ” The stories of hers that I treasure – and again I stress I am no expert – end with a look out at an uncertain future: Lubrin Dhu, in Sun Horse, Moon Horse, looking out from the ramparts at his departing friends just before his own death:
He wondered how many would be born on the way, how many would die. How long would it take them to get to the place where they were going? A year? Two years? Half a lifetime? He wondered if they would ever get there at all.Sun Horse Moon Horse ch 12, Song of the Northward Droving
Aquila and Eugenus in The Lantern Bearers recognise the peace they have bought is temporary, only:
in the starlight and the faint and far-most fringe of the lantern glow it was as though the damson tree had burst into blossom; fragile triumphant blossom all along the boughs.The Lantern Bearers, ch 22 the Blossoming Tree
and in Sword at Sunset:
“Do you remember saying once that every year we gained would mean that just so much more of Britain would survive when the flood overwhelms us at last?”Sword at Sunset, Ch 36, The Last Camp
Bedwyr is in despair at the fall of his world, but the last words are for Artos:
There will be more songs – more songs tomorrow, though it is not we who shall sing them.”