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The item also makes a link to the Historical Novel Society's appreciation of the author
THE SHINING COMPANY, By Rosemary Sutcliff, The Bodley Head, Pounds 7.95
Y GODODDIN is not a species of baby-talk, but a tale of bloody strife, said to have been written around the end of the 7th century by the Welsh bard Aneirin. It tells how the High Chief of the Gododdin, Mynyddog Mwynfawr, called a hosting of the Celtic tribes at Edinburgh. There, for the space of a year, he trained a war-band of 300 princes and then unleashed them on the invading Saxons at the Battle of Catterick. Everything went wrong, and only one hero returned from the fray. But his exploits and those of his companions were celebrated by Aneirin in ``the Great Song that others will sing for a thousand years".
BRITAIN has never had its own Ben Hur. However, hot on the heels of the success of Gladiator, this may change.Duncan Kenworthy (the co-producer of comedy films such as Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill) has just bought an option on Rosemary Sutcliff's classic children's book The Eagle of the Ninth. Based on the true story of the lost Ninth Hispana Legion, which disappeared somewhere north of Hadrian's Wall in the second century AD, it is a romping tale about a young legionary, Marcus, who ventures into Scotland to look for the missing soldiers, including his father, and their standard.
Rosemary Sutcliff has never tried to ingratiate herself with young readers by making her prose bland and easily digestible. The complexities ofher style are not gratuitous, but reflect the depth and complexity of her subject-matter. Those without an innate historical sense or taste need to be encouraged to read her, because they discover that she not only makes bare facts ``come alive" but attempts to make sense of them, and to illuminate legend, in human terms. She is also an extraordinarily rich, exciting and poetic writer. To those of my generation who thrilled to The Eagle of the Ninth, it is a pleasure to read her latest book, The Shining Company (Bodley Head Pounds 7.99), and find her still at the height of her powers.The inspiration for it comes from an early northern British epic poem such sources are often the triggers for her fiction about 300 young, keen warriors belonging to the tribe of King Mynyddog in 600 AD who were brought together and trained for a year, as a fighting brotherhood, before being sent out against the invading Saxons. The hero is Prosper, son of Gerontius, a shieldbearer to one of them, and the story concerns him, his close friends and confederates, and his bond-slave. It is a remote time, and values and customs are completely alien to those of our own, particularly the concept of fealty and loyalty to a king, an individual lord, a blood brother. Rosemary Sutcliff gets under the skin of adventurous young men in trying to reveal what made them follow a leader and give their lives gladly in his service. It is as inspiring, and tragic, as any similar war story involving a ``shining company" of golden boys, and this intricate, compellingly imagined and beautifully told story makes period and people sympathetic and comprehensibl in our own time.
THE PROBLEM with the past is that it just won't stay put: it's always shifting to accommodate our needs, our assumptions about the sorts of people we are. Not long ago, I re-read Rosemary Sutcliff's children's story, The Silver Branch, which is set in Britain towards the end of Roman rule. When I first read it, 25 years ago, I took it as a fairly faithful recreation of the period; second time around, what was striking was how obviously it was the product of the time it was written, the 1950s. The story has two young Romano- British patriots on a spying mission in Saxon-occupied Britain - sleeping in haylofts, evading the brutal Germanic invaders with the help of friendly locals: it's basically a Second World War resistance yarn transposed to the fourth century.By contrast, Sunday's opening episode of A History of Britain by Simon Schama (BBC2) presented a much gentler picture of the same period. Schama disdained talk of "apocalypse" in favour of gentle change - Roman Britannia "morphed" into the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; the process was "an adaptation, not an annihilation".