Showing posts with label Ness. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ness. 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.


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