Showing posts with label Flavian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Flavian. Show all posts

11 June 2005

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

All of Rosemary Sutcliff's novels are worth reading; they are not only good stories but believable. One of the signs of a good novelist is that when you read their works you think you are reading about real people and real happenings. Also, you become drawn into the story and feel for the characters. This is very true of Miss Sutcliff's works. She was especially good at creating a reality from so few facts - you almost get the impression that she knows more about the subject than the experts. Interestingly, she had Roman army units at Exeter in The Eagle of the Ninth when archaeologists said there were not any. However, since the 1950s considerable evidence has been found at Exeter to prove otherwise. It is known that Rosemary Sutcliff did the necessary painstaking research to get herself into the feel of the period, but there still seems to be something almost uncanny about her work, almost as if she had lived in the time she was writing about. She did hint on a number of occasions that she may have some belief in reincarnation, but certainly she felt more at home in the pre-medieval period. It is without doubt that her best books are about this far-away time.

The first of Rosemary Sutcliff's Dark Age novels is The Lantern Bearers, the tale of Aquila, son of Flavian, how he survives the Saxon slavery, escapes and joins Ambrosius Aurelianus to defend Britannia against the growing threat of Anglo-Saxon domination. Originally, Aquila is a Roman soldier, but when the last of the legions leave (no actual date is given) he deserts and stays with his family. Unfortunately, his father and most of the servants are killed in a Saxon pirate raid, his sister Flavia is kidnapped and he is left to die. However, a separate band of pirates takes Aquila as a slave and return to their homeland. The young man grows up with the Saxons, learns their language and finds out that they are people just like his own kind.

When in back in Britannia, Aquila makes his way west and north to join Ambrosius Aurelianus. In the mountains of Arfon, he meets for the first time a young boy called Artorius - Artos the Bear - Arthur:

"He headed for the winding cleft in the hillside ... More than half way up ... he found a small boy and a hound puppy very intent on a hole under a brown tumble of last year's fern. He would have passed by without speaking and left them to it, but the small boy sat up and grinned at him, thrusting back a shock of hair the warm silvery-mouse colour of a hayfield in June, and the puppy thumped his tail; there was something irresistibly friendly about both of them that he stopped, without meaning to ..."

Aquila eventually marries Ness, has a boy child, and names him after his father - Flavian. Through his stay with the Saxons, his real name was forgotten and he became known as Dolphin because of the tattoo he had on his arm. When Flavian is born, Aquila's friends call the boy Minnow, son of Dolphin. The battles with the Saxons increase and the novel ends with impending war and the young Arthur grown in strength is now ready to lead a band of companions into battle.

In the first chapter of Sword At Sunset we are introduced to another object that has a similar significance to the Aquila family's dolphin ring:

" ... I saw that set in the pommel was a great square amethyst. It was so dark in colour as to be almost of the Imperial Purple ... clear on the pale surface-sheen of the gem, I saw an Imperial eagle, intaglio cut, grasping in its claws a double M; and spelled out backward around the edge, turning the sword to catch the light on the letters, the single word 'Imperator' ... It is Maximus' Seal.

I remember I stood for a long time looking at the Great seal ... oddly moved by the link across the years with my great-grandsire, the proud Spanish general who married a princess of Arfon ..."

We are told that Arthur was the bastard son of Utha, Ambrosius' brother, and grandson of Constantine son of Magnus Maximus. This is a very interesting point worthy of discussion, and I would suggest it has its origins in the controversial ideas of Welsh scholar Arthur Wade-Evans.

In this version of the story of Arthur, Miss Sutcliff depicts Arthur as a cavalry leader under the command of Ambrosisus Aurelianus. He is depicted as a human being - not a superman or medieval king - a caring man, a clever man, but with flaws which eventually lead to problems. Rosemary Sutcliff obviously used many sources - including Geoffrey of Monmouth - and though far from the traditional romantic version of the tale, it does contain some elements of these later stories.

Amongst the characters in Sword At Sunset are some traditional Welsh ones such as Cai, Bedwyr and Gwalchmai - and, of course, Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) but using Geoffrey of Monmouth's version of her name, Guenhumara. In this novel, Bedwyr takes the part of Lancelot in the famous love triangle which develops. Sword At Sunset tells the story of Arthur in his own words - from the buying of horses in France, to the terrible winter in Scotland, his wars, his loves, his friendships and his failures. It continues the tale begun in The Lantern Bearers leading to the death of Ambrosius in a hunting accident, the victory at Badon, Arthur being proclaimed Caesar, the break-up of the companions by Medraut (Arthur's son) and the end at Camlan. This is a marvellous story, well written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, and though it includes many of the traditional elements in Arthur's life, it also includes something of Miss Sutcliff's own ideas - such as Gwalchmai as a healer, the Little Dark People, and the continuation of the story of the Aquila family (Aquila dies at Badon, Flavian is Arthur's shield-bearer, and Flavian's son, called Minnow by Arthur, becomes a soldier like his forefathers).

Dawn Wind, the third of the Dark Age books, continues with the Aquila family and Rosemary's juvenile novels. It concerns Owain, who is trying to find a place in the ruins of his world. The Anglo-Saxons have come to dominate the land that is to become England, and the Britons have recently been defeated in a great battle. Owain and a hound, whom he calls simply Dog, have survived. Miss Sutcliff is very good when talking about dogs and horses, and both play important parts in this novel. In the early part of the story, Owain is living with an old famer and his wife and one Sunday attends Mass at which the priest lays out the situation:

"Brethren, the Light goes out and the Dark flows in. It is for us to keep some lamps burning until the time we can give it back to the light the world once more ..."

The world seems to be crumbling around the Britons and literally when Owain enters Wroxeter hoping to find it still occupied. Ruins are everywhere, and the only living soul he finds is Regina, a young girl who has survived on her wits. Together, they leave the ruins in hope of finding a better life. However, Regina falls ill and Owain sells himself into Saxon thralldom to save her. Now a slave of the hated enemy, the view point is swiftly rotated to show what life for these Germanic people is like and we learn that they are not so much different. Owain settles in and becomes a part of Saxon society. One excellent character in the story is old Uncle Widreth, who tells the children stories and philosophises:

""When you are my age'" the old man was saying, "When you are my age, you'll have learned how little all things matter. Life is fierce with the young and maybe more gentle with the old. Only, while one is young, there is always the hope that one day something will happen; that one day a little wind will rise ...""

And it is the dawn wind that changes Owain's life and brings his freedom - freedom eventually to meet up again with Regina and the hope of returning to those old friends made in the hills of Wales.

With the re-union of Owain and Regina, the Dark Age series concerning the Aquila family ends. However, the dolphin ring is passed from father to son until the male line comes to an end. According to The Shield Ring, a female member of the Aquila family becomes part of a Norse family and after her the ring passed from father to son, but is not longer purely British. It is certain that Miss Sutcliff wanted to show that the British of later time were not simply Celtic or Saxon or Norse, but a mixture of these and more. From Clustunium in Etruria to Calleva in Britannia, and from the hill to Wales to the crags of Cumbria, the Aquila family changed from Roman to British.


4 June 2005

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

This article by Charles W Evans-Gunther was first published in Dragon Vol 4, No. 5, Winter 1993, pages 4-10. It is reproduced here by kind permission of the author

When I began to work on this article, I thought it would means reading four books. However, I ended up going through eight novels. I found that they were linked, and it seemed correct to read them in a particular sequence. Interestingly, the first is The Eagle of the Ninth and the last The Shield Ring. Chronologically, the books run:

The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) - 129 AD
The Silver Branch (1957) - 284 AD
Frontier Wolf (1980) - 343 AD
The Lantern Bearers (1959) - 410+ AD
Sword At Sunset (1963) - 5th century
Dawn Wind (1961) - mid-late 6th century
The Shield Ring (1956) - 11th century

All of the above are linked. The Shining Company (1990) set in the late 6th or early 7th century, is not connected with the others. All will become clear.

" ... Rome is hollow at the heart and one day she will come crashing down. A hundred years ago, it must have seemed that all this was forever; a hundred years hence - only the gods will know ... If I can make this one province strong - strong enough to stand alone when Rome goes down, then something may have been saved from the darkness. If not, the Dubris light and Limanis light and Rutupiae light will go out. The lights will go out everywhere. "

Taken from a scene in The Silver Branch where cousins Justin and Flavius meet Emperor Carausius, the above statement lays the basis for most of the books to come. Throughout these novels, there is a strong sense of light being smothered by an on-coming darkness. Again and again the analogy is used.

In the first of the series, The Eagle of the Ninth, we are introduced to Marcus Flavius Aquila and told that he had been initiated into the raven level of Mithraism, and this gives one 'clue' to the reference of light and darkness. The religion of Mithras, once rivalling Christianity for top place in the hit parade of religions in the Roman Empire, was dualist, derived from the much earlier Persian Zoroastianism. Here we have a constant war between Good - the Light - and Evil - the Darkness. Also, the analogy related to the more actual extinguishing of the light of Roman civilisation. The Roman Empire was becoming surrounded on all sides by 'barbarians' and it would be, in the eyes of the 'civilised' Romans (citziens of the Empire), the end if these savages took over. Rosemary Sutcliff shows the fears, but then turns the camera around and gives you the 'barbarians'' point of view. Often, the hero of the story begins with great hatred of his enemy, but grows to understand the reality of the situation.

This must have been what the Late Romans and Romano-Britons felt where they saw the destruction brought about by the Anglo-Saxon raids. To them, the light of Roman civlisation was going out, and their whole way of life, and thinking, was changing. However the Anglo-Saxons in Britain, Franks, Visigoths and other Germanic tribes in Europe, would not extinguish the light, but transform it into a different light - a different civilisation. There can be little doubt that there were raids on Roman Britain by the Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Scots, without settlement, but when these tribes eventually set up home, it became a different picture. They did not bring the darkness with them - their gods were gods of light and darkness - but they certainly did not consider themselves the bringers of darkness. Possibly they saw the Romans as the evil dominators, but it may not have been a fight of good against evil, rather a struggle for land. However, there is no need to go so deeply into this, Miss Sutcliff's novels have another link - the dolphin ring.

More than anything in these seven books, the characters are bonded together by actual relationship - all being part of the Aquila family. We are introduced to the family in The Eagle of the Ninth, and meet it throughout all the novels, though in Sword At Sunset they take a minor part to the dominant figure of Arthur, and in The Shield Ring the character is only a very distant relative.

The Aquila family originated in Etruria, Italy, and came to Britannia with the father of Marcus Flavius Aquila. He had been in the 9th Hispana Legion which was defeated in the north and disappeared. Marcus finds out the truth and we are introduced for the first time to the concrete link. Marcus, disguised as a healer, is amongst the Epidii tribe in northern Britain when he is showed an object by their chieftain:

"Marcus took it from him and bent to examine it. It was a heavy signet-ring; and on the flawed emerald which formed the bezel was engraved the dolphin badge of his own family ... suddenly across twelve years or more, he was looking up at a dark, laughing man who seemed to tower over him. There were pigeons wheeling around the man's bent head, and when he put up his hand to rub his forehead, the sunlight that surrounded the pigeon's wings with fire caught the flawed emerald of the signet-ring he wore."

It is eventually returned to Marcus by Liathan of the Epidii.

The ring appears for the first time in The Eagle of the Ninth, but it continues ... In The Silver Branch we meet descendants of Marcus - Marcelus Flavius Aquila - and his cousin Tiberius Lucius Justinianus. Flavius shows Justin the ring:

"It was a heavy and very battered signet ring. The flawed emerald which formed the bezel was darkly cool ..."

Alexios Flavius Aquila, in Frontier Wolf is sent to Scotland, and as he approaches Castellum:

"He found that he had dropped his gaze from the distant fort, and was staring down at his bridle hand: at the flawed emerald ring with its intaglio-cut dolphin on his signet finger. An old and battered ring that had come down to him through a long proud line of soldiers ..."

In The Lantern Bearers, the ring belongs to the father of the main characters. Aquila's father, Flavian:

" ... was fondling [the dog] Margarita's ears, drawing them again and again through his fingers, and the freckled sunlight under the leaves made small, shifting sparks of green fire in the flawed emerald of his great signet ring with its engraved dolphin."

Flavian is killed in a Saxon raid, and the ring is taken by a pirate whose son later marries Flavia, Aquila's sisters, who had been kidnapped by the Saxons. The ring was given to her as a wedding gift and then later in the story given by Flavia to Aquila.

Rosemary Sutcliff wrote an adult novel about Arthur - Sword At Sunset - but kept some of the characters from her juvenile novels. Aquila, who married Ness and had a child whome he called Flavian, is seen with Arthur in Arfon:

"Save for his horses, the only thing of value that he possessed was the flawed engraved signet ring engraved with its dolphin badge, which had come from his father and would one day go to his son ..."

Aquila is killed in the Battle of Badon and the ring is passed by Arthur to Flavian. A few generations go by and in Dawn Wind we find Owain wounded, but alive, on a battlefield. Searching through the dead, he finds his father and his brother Ossian. As he is about to leave the scene:

" ... something on his father's hand gave off a spark of greenish light under the moon. He bent forward with a gasp. The great ring with its dolphin device cut in the flawed emerald of the bezel was one of the first things he could remember. It had been his father's and his father's before him, away back to the days when the Legions first marched through Britain."

The ring finally appears, strangely enough, in The Shield Ring, a book about Norse people holding out against the dominance of the Normas, published in the 1956 before most of the other books mentioned above. In this, Bjorn is given by his foster-father Haethcyn

" ... a small thing that caught the green fire from the lantern ... It was a ring: a massive gold ring of ancient workmanship, much scarred and battered with a bezel of dark green translucent stone, on which was engraved a device of some sort ..."

- a dolphin. Haethcyn tells him it was made:

"... by the people of Romeburg."

that it was Bjorn's father's and:

" ... his father's before him, and his father's before that. It came out of Wales with that British foremother of yours that I once told you of, and was old even then, and had come down to her - for she was the last of an ancient line - from the high far-off days from the people of the Legions whence her line was sprung. So the story has passed down with the ring from father to son; ..."

It would seem that Miss Sutcliff had thought well ahead from Marcus Flavius Aquila, especially since The Eagle of the Ninth was published in 1954 and The Shield Ring, with Bjorn, over a thousand years later, being published in 1956. This was before The Silver Branch, the next in the Roman series of stories. In many ways, this shows the kind of writer Rosemary Sutcliff was, and that she devoted a lot of herself to the creation of a background beyond the next book she was writing. I don't know how much of this she did, but going from one book to the other indicates very good continuity. Certain characters can be linked very easily, while others are a bit harder, and yet the connections are so well produced that a virtual family tree can be constructed from Marcus Flavius Aquila to Owain in Dawn Wind. Without any doubt, The Lantern Bearers and Sword At Sunset are inseperably linked. In the interview by Raymond H Thompson for Avalon to Camelot, Rosemary Sutcliff states:

"The Lantern Bearers is offfically a children's book, but I would claim that my books are for children of all ages, from nine to ninety. Sword at Sunset is officially an adult book. But the two are really part of the same story. The Lantern Bearers finishes exactly three days before Sword At Sunset starts ..."


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