I was almost giddy with delight this week when I learned that the novels of the late Rosemary Sutcliff are being republished, and in e-book form, too. She acquired worldwide fame for her children’s, young adult and adult historical fiction, winning many awards in the process. She published more than 50 books during the course of her life.
Her personal tragedy was also, I think, the wellspring for her creativity. She suffered from juvenile idiopathic arthritis from an early age, which confined her to a wheelchair. She lived with her mother for most of her life, and never married. However, her very inactivity and confinement to her home gave her mind free rein to wander, and she developed a fertile imagination. Without those tragic circumstances, one wonders whether she’d have achieved the greatness that she did.
Most of her books can be classified as young adult, but they’re so well written that they’ve always appealed to adults as well. I grew up with them, and decades later I still re-read them with enormous pleasure. She was able to “get into the skull” of cultures, myths and legends, and portray the people of ancient and historical times in a way that captures the imagination and makes one feel a part of their lives. Very few authors have that knack.
To introduce her work to those who don’t know her, I’ve chosen the opening chapter of her novel “The Shield Ring“.
It’s set in the Lake Country of England, shortly after the Norman invasion of 1066, and illustrates the conflict between the conquerors and the natives of the land. The blurb reads:
Bjorn and Frytha share a bond, both orphans and survivors of Norman attacks on their homes in the Lake country. Growing up together in Jarl Buthar’s Norse stronghold, they become fast friends, with Bjorn dreaming of becoming a harper like his father.
As they come of age within this secret fortress, they hear word of the Norman attacks beyond their walls, drawing ever closer to the safety of their home.
Can they help protect their adoptive home and family, or will they lose everything all over again?
It’s one of my favorite Sutcliff novels. Here’s the opening chapter.
The thing happened with the appalling swiftness of a hawk swooping out of a quiet sky, on a day in late spring, when Frytha was not quite five.
She had been out about the sheep with Grim, who had been her father’s shepherd in the old days before Norman William laid waste the North in payment for the massacre of his York garrison, and was now hind, ploughman and everything else as well; and they had made a wide cast through Garside Wood on the way home, to visit a flycatcher’s nest that Grim had found for her. Five speckled eggs the nest had in it, faintly and wonderfully blue. Now they were on their way home in earnest; little black hairy Grim and Frytha with her kirtle kilted to her bare briar-scratched knees and her honey-brown hair full of twigs, hand in hand, in companionable silence, for Grim discouraged chatter in the woods; it drove things away, he said. And just ahead of them, Vigi the big black sheep-dog, looking round every few moments to make sure that they were following. Vigi was as silent in the woods as his master, and never chased squirrels or ran yelping on the scent of the fallow deer, as more foolish dogs did.
They were late, for there had not really been time for such a roundabout way home. The last sunlight had flickered out among the tree-tops long since and as they came up the long slope toward the crest of the ridge, the day was fading fast and the woods growing shadowy about them. ‘I shall ketch it from thy mother, bringing thee home at owl-hoot,’ Grim said, grinning down at Frytha through the tangle of black hair that almost covered his face.
Frytha gave something between a gasp and a giggle by way of reply, for the slope was steep just there and full of pitfalls. She had an uneasy feeling on the edge of her mind that she also would ketch it from her mother, but most of her was still taken up with the flycatcher’s nest, and in her heart she knew that a possible smacking was no more than a fair price to pay for the round perfection of the moss-lined nest and the magic of those five eggs; so tiny, and so blue under the darkness of the ivy leaves.
They were almost at the top of the ridge now, and the white tip of Vigi’s tail waving plume-wise just in front of her was beginning to take on a faint shine of its own, as white flowers shine in the twilight. She climbed on, and on, her legs growing tired under her—and then all at once she knew that something, somewhere, was wrong.
All about her, the wood was uneasy. The little rustlings and flutterings of the woodland creatures had died away as though there were a storm coming. Vigi seemed to catch the strange unease at the same moment. He stopped in his tracks, his muzzle raised, the white star of his tail tip quivering downward. And when Frytha reached out to touch his back, she felt his coat rise under her palm, and snatched her hand away as though something had stung her.
‘Grim!’ She was suddenly frightened, too, as Vigi began to stalk forward on stiff legs. ‘Grim, I don’t like it!’
Grim said nothing, but his hand tightened over hers until it hurt her, and she had the feeling that his hairs were rising in the same way as Vigi’s.
A distant confused sound of shouting came dipping toward them over the crest of the wooded ridge.
And then they were on the crest, among the crack-willow and whitethorn of the woodshore, staring down the long curve of ploughland and summer fallow toward the home steading.
There were many men down there, a dark flicker of men all round the house-place and among the byres, and a saffron flicker of torches, and in the instant that they checked there on the woodshore, something like a flower—a rose—of flame sprang out on the house-place roof, and spread and blurred, sending out wriggling threads of brightness through the dark thatch.
Next instant Grim had a hand on Vigi’s collar, and the other round Frytha, scooping her up, sweeping both of them back into the shelter of the trees. ‘Bide you here,’ he said, setting her down among arching brambles between the roots of an ancient may tree, ‘and bide you still, until I come again.’ And to Vigi he said ‘Keep!’ as he did when he wanted him to hold a clump of sheep together. Then he was gone, slipping along the woodshore like a shadow, toward the place where the curving wind-break ran down toward the rick-garth.
Vigi lay down in front of Frytha, nose on paws, watching her with an unwinking gaze, as he would have watched a clump of sheep left in his charge, unmoving so long as they did not move. Frytha made no attempt to move. She sat where Grim had set her down, like a young hare frozen in the grass when a hawk hovers over, staring down through the brambles and tall-growing things of the woodshore. She saw the torches jigging to and fro; she saw the threads of fire spread and run together, until suddenly a sheet of flame leapt into the dusk, roaring up from the dry thatch. She heard cattle lowing and the frightened neighing of a horse, and saw the dark shapes of her father’s kine against the fire, as men drove them past toward the Lancaster road; and the shouting seemed to rise higher with the flames. The flames were pale and bright in the dusk. That was the thing that Frytha remembered ever afterward: the pale bright flame of burning thatch.
Behind her, Garside Wood began uneasily to make its night-time noises; bats flittered needle-squeaking overhead among the branches of the may tree, and the owls were crying, answering each other from tree to tree, and still Frytha sat frozen, waiting for Grim to come back. She was not afraid; she seemed to have gone through fear and come out the other side in a place where it was black and very cold. It seemed a long, long time that she waited, a whole night—many nights. And yet the dusk had not deepened to full dark when there was the faintest rustle among last year’s leaves, and the ghost of a whine from Vigi, and Grim was crouching beside her breathing hard as though he had been running.
It seemed to Frytha that the shouting was coming nearer, but she could not see what was happening, because now Grim was between her and the open land. But she saw the sheet of flame leap higher yet, rimming the bramble leaves with fire behind the dark bulk of his head and shoulders as he looked back. ‘That is thy home burning,’ he said in a grating voice that did not sound like Grim at all. ‘That is the Normans’ work, and never thee forget it!’
Then he caught her up, and began to run again, deeper and deeper into the wood. Once or twice he checked to listen, craning his chin over one shoulder or the other, and Frytha, clinging to him without quite knowing why, could feel the life-thing in his chest, where he was holding her tight against it, thud-thud-thud, very fast, like the hoofbeats of a stampeding horse, somehow more frightening than the torchlight and the shouting behind them. And then at last there was no more torchlight and no more shouting; only the night sounds of the woodland, when Grim stopped to listen. Only the bark of a dog fox in the distance, and the little night wind among the trees.
After that there was a time that always seemed to Frytha, looking back on it, to be a kind of cloud in which things came and went half seen and no more real than the things one dreams just before waking up. She thought that they went a long way, she and Grim and Vigi. There were days and nights in the cloud, and sometimes she walked until her legs gave out, but most often Grim carried her on his back or on his shoulder. Grim was very kind to her in this way, and spread his ragged cloak over her in the night time, when she lay curled against Vigi for warmth. But there did not seem to be any warmth in Vigi, no warmth anywhere. Sometimes there were things to eat—once Vigi caught a hare, and Grim cooked it in a fire that he lit from the little fire-stones he always carried with him; and once they robbed a hen’s nest that they found in a ruined garth, and sucked the warm eggs. And Frytha ate whatever Grim gave her to eat, and lay down and got up, and walked or climbed on to his back to be carried, just as he told her; and never thought to ask, or even wonder, where they were going, because she never really understood that they were going anywhere, only that the world had fallen to pieces and that it was very cold among the ruins.
Then there began to be mountains: grey and dun and purple mountains with mist hanging among their high corries, that towered above the tangle of forest and marsh and great sky-reflecting lakes; mountains so high that the upward rush of them made her want to crawl under something and hide. There were men, too, though which came first, the men or the mountains, she never knew; but clearly they belonged to each other. And after the men came there was more food—flat cakes of barley bread that looked as hard as millstones; but when Grim broke a piece off one and gave it to her, it was soft and sweet under the hard crust as bread newly baked. Once there was a steading at the foot of a great sweep of moor, and warm milk in a little birchwood bowl, and a woman who was kind. Frytha thought that the woman would have had them stay, but Grim would not; and they pressed on again, and the men with them—but whether they were the same men she did not know.
The mountains began to come down all around them; either that or they were climbing up into the mountains, further and further up until the world of men was left behind and they came into another world that belonged to the great singing wind of the emptiness. And then they came down out of the emptiness, down and down and down, and there was a grey lake shore in the twilight, and little wavelets lapping on it.
And at last, when she had fallen half-asleep in Grim’s arms, bursting on her unawares out of the gathering dusk, there was a great hall full of firelight and torchlight and hounds and men and a roar of voices.
With Vigi at his heel, Grim carried her straight in, thrusting through the thronging men and hounds, toward a golden giant who turned in the High Seat, midway up the hall, to watch them coming; and bent and set her down on the giant’s knee.
The giant put out an arm on which there were great golden rings twisted like serpents above the elbow, and crooked it about her lest she roll straight off again; and his eyes under their thick golden brows went thrusting from her to Grim and back. ‘God’s greeting to you, Stranger,’ he said, in a voice that matched his huge size. ‘What wind is it blows you and the bairn up here into Butharsdale?’
‘A wind from Normandy, Jarl Buthar,’ Grim said harshly.
‘So. What roused the wind this time? Deer-stealing?’
‘Some hungry fool robbed and slew a knight on the Lancaster road, half a moon since, and for that the whole countryside must pay wyrgeld in blood and burning. It is in my heart that my master knew who the robber was, and would not give him up. For that also there must be payment.’
A ragged muttering rose from the men along the walls, who had fallen silent to listen.
‘The North has paid over much wyrgeld in blood and burning for Duke William’s York garrison twenty summers ago,’ said Jarl Buthar, as though half to himself. ‘And so you fled up here into the mountains.’
‘Aye, as many a one has done before.’
The Jarl nodded, pulling with his free hand at his golden beard. ‘Aye, many and many a one; and none that was not heartily welcome.’ He looked down at Frytha. ‘Is the bairn yours?’
‘Nay, I was her father’s man, and his father’s before him, in the days when the farm was rich before the wasting of the North, with as many serfs on the land as there are fingers on my two hands. Of late years there’s been none but me.’
Frytha heard their voices going to and fro above her, but the words had no meaning. Just for a moment, as the light and the roar of voices broke over her, she had thought that she was going to wake up, and find herself in her own corner behind the bolster in the great box bed at home. But she had not woken up, and she was not in her own corner; she was in a place such as she had never seen before: a long firelit hall that must surely be greater than the great church at Lancaster where her father had taken her last Christmas-tide. Roof-trees rose out of the firelight into the dark beyond the drifting peat-reek overhead, like trees in the aisles of a forest, and everywhere there were men, crowding the benches along the shadowy walls, lounging with their legs outstretched among the hounds on the fern-deep floor, with the firelight flickering on their weapons and in their eyes. Her gaze scurried to and fro among them, searching frantically for faces that she knew, but they were all strange to her save Grim standing with a hand on Vigi’s collar; and Grim and Vigi were part of the bad dream in which she was trapped, so that they could not help her now.
And then her darting, terrified gaze found another giant, sitting close at the golden giant’s feet; a grey giant, this one, with nothing golden about him save the firelight on the strings of the harp he held on his knee. His mane of hair was striped and brindled grey and dark, with a great white wing in it so that it seemed to grin like a badger’s striped mask in the firelight; and long yellow teeth showed in the grey tangle of his beard as he smiled up at her, so that his face might have been the most frightening of all the faces there, but it made Frytha think of Bran, her father’s old brindled wolfhound, who she had loved, and somehow that made it a thing to cling to.
‘… I crept in under their noses for a closer look,’ Grim was saying, ‘but there wasn’t naught to do but bring the bairn away.’
And suddenly the faces were closing in on Frytha, all eyes and teeth, and terrible because they were strange. She sat rigidly upright on the Jarl’s knee, like a small proud figure carved in stone; but her wide terrified eyes were fixed on the grey giant’s face like a cry for help. The grey giant laid down his harp and rose to his feet with a harsh exclamation. She did not hear what he said, nor what the golden giant answered, but strong arms caught her and swung her up, up and away out of the confusion and the terrible crowding faces.
Food was being brought for Grim and the mountain men who had come with him, and room and welcome made for them on the benches, as the grey giant carried Frytha high against his shoulder up the Jarl’s Hearth Hall, and thrusting open a door at the end of it, into a place beyond.
Here there was softer, clearer light from a lamp, and women were gathered round the central hearth, combing and braiding their hair as Frytha’s mother had used to do when she made ready for bed; and one of them, who was tall like a spear, with a cloud of pale hair round her head, rose from a cushioned bench as they entered, and came quickly through the rest, saying, ‘Why, what is this that you bring us, Haethcyn?’
‘A girl-bairn,’ said the grey giant, ‘a small, very spent girl-bairn, with a long road and a burned home behind her, my Lady Tordis. A shepherd has just brought her in from beyond Lancaster.’
‘Nay, you must ask of the Normans concerning her father, and all her kin,’ the grey giant said meaningly.
The other women were exclaiming softly and bitterly as they crowded round. The one who was like a spear said: ‘Give her to me,’ and held out her arms. ‘Signy, do you bring milk and warm it. … Ah, poor bairn, she’s as light as a half-fledged tit.’ She asked no more questions. She had seen many fugitives from the outer world here in this Norse settlement of the Cumberland Fells, but she sat down again beside the hearth, and held Frytha close on her lap, and called her by the soft cradle names that Frytha’s mother had used.
Frytha sat as still and straight on the woman’s knee as she had done on the Jarl’s, not hearing the cradle names, and looked about her. The light of the low-set lamp scarcely reached to the walls, and the gloom seemed to move and deepen among the great carved kists and the furry animal darkness of bear and wolf skins piled upon the low benches; and there was something tall and skeleton-gaunt against the gable wall that might be a loom in the daytime, but was not quite a loom now, and a thing that glimmered pale behind the half open door of the huge box bed as though something were crouching there.
The women had gathered about the fire again, and Frytha’s gaze scurried to and fro among them, searching as she had searched among the faces in the hall. They looked back at her kindly, but they were not her mother; and the grey giant had gone, and taken safety with him; and she had lost even Grim now. A very old woman sat by the fire spinning; her hair was like rough silver in the lamplight, but her brows were black as feathers from a raven’s wing, and under them she peered at Frytha, half smiling, through the faint fronds of the peat smoke.
‘That is Unna. She will be very kind to you,’ said the woman like a spear, seeing whom Frytha was looking at. ‘She was my nurse when I was smaller than you are now, and she was very kind to me.’
The girl called Signy had come back from somewhere, with a pipkin of milk, and as she stooped to set it over the fire, her shadow leapt up and swallowed half the chamber, as though she had spread dark wings. Panic began to whimper up in Frytha, tightening in her chest so that it was hard to breathe; but the woman held her closer, and whispered, ‘Na Na, you must not be afraid, Tita, there is nothing here to be afraid of. Soon you shall have some warm milk, and then you will sleep. You shall have a little straw pillow, and a dappled deerskin to keep you warm; and in the morning when you wake, the shadows will be gone—all gone, you will see.’
But she could not reach Frytha through the nightmare.
And then there was a faint rustling somewhere in the far shadows, like an animal gathering itself to spring; and with a little gasp, Frytha wrenched herself round to face it. Something was humping and upheaving in the darkness of a closet that yawned blackly in the far wall. One of the women laughed half in exasperation, but Frytha never heard her. She was watching the humping and upheaving in a fascinated horror that left no room for anything else.
But the thing that shook itself clear of the shadows and the dark piled skins was neither wolf nor ghost, but a boy. He stood in the closet doorway, shaking the black hair from his face, and stared at her. Frytha stared back. He was a year or two older than she was, a very dark boy—as dark as Grim—with a long cleft chin, and eyes as tawny-pale as peat water and as bright as a wild animal’s. And something in his ruthlessly interested stare came piercing through the nightmare, and reached Frytha in the cold place where she was, so that all at once she drew a long breath, and let it go out softly, like a sigh.
‘I heard things happening,’ said the boy. ‘What does the girl-bairn here?’
‘You should be asleep,’ one of the women began. ‘The wolf out of the North Star will come and eat you if——’
But the woman like a spear said very quietly: ‘No, Margrit, wait,’ and her hold on Frytha grew lighter.
The boy completely ignored the interruption. ‘Why does she look like that?’ he demanded. ‘Has somebody hurt her?’
‘Somebody has hurt her, yes,’ said the woman like a spear, and her touch on Frytha grew as light as a leaf.
Without knowing it, Frytha slid off her lap, and stood wavering a little with sheer weariness, then moved forward. At the same instant, the boy moved forward also. They squatted down in the rushes, and stared at each other, tense and wary, like two small wild things, each unsure whether the other is friend or enemy, or perhaps both; while the women watched, and from the great hall beyond the door came the sound of voices and harp music to fill the silence.
The girl Signy was making a soft nest of rugs on one of the sleeping-benches; and when that was done, she brought a little bowl of blue earthenware, and poured the warm milk into it, and brought a piece of bannock thick with butter, and gave them to Frytha.
For the first time the boy’s eyes moved. He looked at the bannock, and put both hands over his stomach. ‘I am hungry, too,’ he said.
The old woman Unna gave a cackle of laughter. ‘Never think to feed one puppy and fast another in the same basket!’
So Signy laughed too, and brought more buttered bannock and gave it to the boy, who took it without again turning his gaze from Frytha’s face, and began to chew.
Frytha tried to eat her own bannock, but she was not hungry; and now that she was no longer afraid, she was growing desperately sleepy. Someone was coaxing her at least to drink the milk, and she managed to obey. Everything was turning hazy, and the warm milk seemed to make it hazier still; but even through the waves of sleep, she saw the pale bright eyes of the boy staring at her; and she stared back over the tilting rim of the bowl.
Then the voices were saying something about going to sleep, and somebody stooped over her as though to pick her up. But the boy swallowed his last mouthful of bannock with a gulp, and reaching out, caught hold of the tattered hem of her kirtle. ‘Na Na,’ he said. ‘She must come in-by with me’; and then, speaking to Frytha herself for the first time, ‘Come you.’
And wavering to her feet, unquestioningly, Frytha came, followed by the cackling laughter of the old woman by the fire. ‘He is the Lordly One! The Lordly One! “Come you,” says he, like as it might be the King of Norway!’
It was warm and dark under the skins in the closet, and Frytha and the boy burrowed together like a pair of puppies. She was too far gone in sleep to hear the women moving in the Bower, or the sea-surge of voices in the great hall where the men still sat; but she felt and heard when the boy rolled over against her shoulder, and whispered ‘What is your name?’
‘My name is Bjorn the Bear, and my father’s name was Bjorn the Bear, but mostly people call me “Bear-cub” yet awhile,’ said the boy, and flung an arm over her neck. ‘I shall call you Fryth, but nobody else must. And nobody shall hurt you again, excepting me.’
And then the quiet and kindly waves of sleep broke over her.
Evocative, isn’t it? You’re drawn right into the heart and soul and mind of her protagonist. Very, very few authors can do that well. Rosemary Sutcliff was a master of the art. I can’t recommend her books too highly.
If you want a good place to start, her series on Roman and immediately post-Roman Britain is magnificent. In order, they are:
The protagonist of “The Lantern Bearers” is encountered again in her retelling of the Arthurian legend, “Sword at Sunset“, although not as the protagonist. “The Shield Ring” is the last of her books to mention the dolphin ring that was worn by the protagonists of all the above books, although it’s set several centuries later.
As I said, I’m over the moon to see Rosemary Sutcliff’s books being republished. I have many in paper editions, dating back to my own youth. I’ve already found several in e-book format that I didn’t know, and I’m going to binge-read my way through them. She’s worth it. Highly, highly recommended to all lovers of historical fiction, no matter what their age.