23 June 2005

The Dark Age Novels of Rosemary Sutcliff by Charles W Evans-Gunther - Part III

The final Dark Age book is The Shining Company and is, as far as I can see, completely divorced from the previous books. Rosemary Sutcliff has returned to the first person for this book, with Prosper telling his own story. It begins with Prosper, the son of a Welsh lord, being given an Irish slave - Conn - and we swiftly meet Luned, who makes up the youthful threesome. Their lives were soon to change when Prosper becomes second shield bearer to Prince Gorthyn ap Urfai of Rhyfunnog who is riding out to join Mynyddog's warband at Din Eidin. Rhyfunnog was a district of North Wales in Gwynedd Is Conwy, and in an area that is now called Clwyd.

They join the year-long preparation for a battle against the Angles of Bernicia. As the months pass by Conn, who is with Prosper, becomes interested in smithying and eventually is freed to become a smith. There we come across one of Miss Sutcliff's trademarks - an object that links up parts of the story. At the beginning of the novel Conn becomes fascinated by the stories told by Phanes of Syracuse, a merchant, and his Archangel Dagger, which has been brought from Constantinople. This, and Phanes, appear later in the story and have a profound effect on both Prosper and Conn. After the preparations, comes the campaign. Though the Britons cause the Angles great losses, the enemy eventually triumphs. The wounded Gorthyn is saved by Prosper and returns to Din Eidin. The novel ends with Gorthyn and Prosper making their way with the Archangel Dagger to Constantinople, and Conn returning to Luned in North Wales.

Rosemary Sutcliff's novels are well worth reading, even though they are in the main juvenile publications. Like all novelists, she puts her own peculiar stamp on them. In the Dark Age novels and the Roman series, we see some of her trademarks - in the passage of a youth to adulthood, her love of dogs and horses, healers and strange objects that lend continuity. Though she follows some of the traditional events, characters and so on, she always adds greater reality to the story.

Taking into account the information that was available in the period of writing of the earlier books, I feel that Rosemary Sutcliff's representation of the Dark Age may be near to the mark. You may not agree with how she put the character in a particular position; for example - Arthur being Ambrosius Aurelianus's nephew - but the over all feel seems right. Also, the way she depicts the everyday life of the various people is hard to fault. I do feel that her way of showing the growth of change from Roman, Romano-British to modern British is correct. Few people can claim purity of bood - no English person is pure English, and the same is true for Welsh, Irish or Scottish people. There are certain people in the British Isles that can trace their ancestors back to Normans who came over with the Conqueror, but they are not Norman now. The Light of the earlier novels did not go out - it changed into a different sort of illumination.


Fisher, Margery, 1986, Bright Face of Danger

Thompson, Raymond H, 1987, 'An Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff' Avalon to Camelot Volume II, No 3 (See a version of this at: The Camelot Project, Rochester University )

Townsend, John Rowe, 1971, A Sense of Story: Essay on Contemporary Writers for Children

Wintle, Justin & Fisher, Emma, 1974, The Pied Pipers


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