27 July 2005

When I waited for Rosemary Sutcliff

Robin Rowland, who wrote the review of King Arthur as linked in this blog a while back, has written a short piece about why he likes Rosemary Sutcliff in his blog.

10 July 2005

The Mark of the Horse Lord

Some Random Thoughts after Reading The Mark of the Horse Lord

I was delighted to hear that you've set up a Rosemary Sutcliff weblog. Reading through the posts and links, I was inspired to drop everything and re-read for perhaps the seventh or eighth time my favourite of her novels for children – The Mark of the Horse Lord. I am, incidentally, the proud possessor of a first edition, courtesy of my husband who received it as a fourteenth birthday present, long before I knew him.

Opening the book reminded me of the thrill of my first reading – this was a copy borrowed from the school library. I remember how quickly Sutcliff drew me into the world of her characters and caught me fast in the web of her storytelling, so that I was no mere looker-on, but in turn one of those belonging to Phaedrus's gladiator family, then a tribesman dancing to the rhythm of the wolfskin drum, warming himself at the house-place fire, or taking up his weapons for battle.

And as I read, the web was spun again, as strongly as the first time. I was enthralled and moved. And at the ending, I felt the same sharp pang of shock I had felt at that first reading, when I didn't want it to end the way it did, though something in me knew that this was the only fitting end; a more comfortable one would have been a betrayal of the story and the people who lived it. And it in its way, though tragic, the ending left me with a feeling of exhilaration, as I’m sure it was meant to.

So – The Mark of the Horse Lord has for me lost none of its magic. But what is that magic? I don't want to kill the dream with over-analysis but I do want to explore a few thoughts about Sutcliff’s writing that came to me as I read.

Sutcliff’s thrilling and thought-provoking storytelling is woven out of strong threads that draw the reader into the world of The Mark of The Horse Lord, and indeed into all of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels:

The characters who, in all their quirky individuality, spring fully-formed from the pages and take possession of the reader’s heart.

The themes that drive the characters: friendship and love, belonging and not-belonging, the struggle with some crippling handicap of mind or body, or both – and, perhaps above all, sacrifice: the willing sacrifice of the chieftain or king for his people. All these are themes that Sutcliff comes back to again and again, but of all her novels for children it’s perhaps in The Mark of the Horse Lord that they’re played out most fully. And these are demanding themes, whose darkness and complexity make the novel as rewarding for adults as it is for children.

The world the characters live in which becomes as real to readers as their own world. In Sutcliff’s hands, the natural world of weather and landscape, of fauna and flora, is more than a backcloth; it’s a character in its own right, vivid and three-dimensional. Thanks, I’m sure, to her early training as an artist and keen observer of nature, she paints with a few deft strokes everything from the broad sweep of heather moors to the wistfulness of a winter twilight, from the green, fragrant canopy of a forest down to the detail in a falling leaf or a flower petal. This is a world that we readers can touch and smell and feel, that we can, in effect, inhabit. And the imagery Sutcliff uses to bring her world alive is entirely right and fitting for its purpose. It strikes me that there’s no self-conscious artifice in its making. It’s natural and unforced, hewn simply out of the fabric of the world her people live in.

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