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 ..."



Anonymous said...

Thank you for this, Sandra. You are gathering an important compendium here, and I appreciate it and look forward to the next installment.

steveng said...

I would like to offer an addendum to Mr. Evans-Gunther’s commentary about the novels chronicling the history of the signet ring with the dolphin-engraved emerald. At this late date it will be old news to long-time Rosemary Sutcliff fans, but it may prove useful to newer readers.

Near the end of Evans-Gunther’s text, he mentions the last book in the chronological series, The Shield Ring, and quotes a text from within it: “[The ring] came out of Wales with that British foremother of yours that I once told you of . . .”

The British foremother and her ring are also mentioned in Sutcliff’s final work, the posthumous 1997 Sword Song. This work appeared only after Evans-Gunther’s 1993 article was written. In this novel, the hero, Bjarni Sigurdson, encounters a young Welsh woman named Angharad who wore around her neck a “heavy golden ring, much battered and set with some dark green stone.” Bjarni soon finds there is “something engraved on it, a fish of some kind . . . he bent closer and saw that it was not a fish but a dolphin.”

The events of Sword Song take place after those of Dawn Wind (mid-to-late 6th century) and before The Shield Ring (11th century). As best I can determine, Sword Song presents a narrative from the early 10th century. In it, Bjarni finds himself on the island of Iona “more than three hundred years” after St. Columba arrrived there (in 563), and his relics were said to have been taken to Ireland (in 849) “more than lifetime ago.” So a date during the first quarter or first half of the 10th century seems reasonable. The above list can therefore be amended in this way:

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
Sword Song (1991) - early 10th century
The Shield Ring (1956) - 11th century

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