Book Review: “Warrior Scarlet” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Book Review: “Warrior Scarlet” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Warrior Scarlet titleTitle: Warrior Scarlet
Series: No.
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Pages: 207
Published: 1958
Spoiler-free Synopsis: One-armed Drem desires to win acceptance and respect as a hunter in his tribe, but for that to happen he must prove his passage into manhood by killing a wild wolf on his own, and no one is allowed to help him even if it results in his death.
Reason for Beginning: Sutcliff.
Reason for Finishing: An enthralling character study of a boy who happens to have a disability, and a beautiful series of word-paintings of an ancient, beautiful British landscape.
Story Re-readability: Warrior Scarlet is the kind of book you may return to often throughout your life and be well-rewarded each time, but you’ll probably want to space those readings out to give yourself time to contemplate it more fully. It has a slower pace than many of Sutcliff’s other novels, but is no less worthwhile. Also, as Sutcliff herself was in a wheelchair for life, this may be one of her most personal novels.
Author Re-readability: Sutcliff.
Recommendation: Very much so, although it asks for some patience from the reader. I never found it to be boring in the least, but it has less action and overt tension than any of Sutcliff’s other novels that I have read.

Key Thoughts

Warrior Scarlet 1The wild landscape of Britain is more a character in Warrior Scarlet than in any other book I have read of Rosemary Sutcliff, and this for an author already famed for her lush and precise vocabulary of the natural world. Here more than ever she becomes a word-painter of every sort of tree and thicket, every spring flower and snow-covered moor, every sleeping valley and heather-banked brook, and all the other myriad wonders that God in His creative joy has adorned the earth. Bronze Age Britain is even less populated than Roman and post-Roman Britain, the eras of which she most frequently writes, and the connection between the native tribespeople and the land is stronger than ever. These are the Golden People, who have conquered the Dark Hill People on the island, and their way of life is the hunt, the bounding over earth in search of blood and food, and for this livelihood they learn all the sights, smells, touches, and even the tastes of nature.

Into this world is born Drem, a boy whose withered arm is the only thing that separates him from his ambition to become a great hunter. But this is a great divide, for if this one-armed boy cannot pass the test of manhood by slaying a wild wolf on his own, then he is driven from his tribe and forced to live as a shepherd among the servile Dark People of the hills. Despite the doubts of his family and tribe, Drem resolutely believes that he will slay the wolf and take his place as a man among men.

The forest is terrifying after dark.
The forest is terrifying after dark.

The plot is short, but full. It’s very satisfying if you are able to accept the novel’s slow pace; just don’t go in expecting rousing adventure of the sort Sutcliff offers in The Shining Company or Tristan and Iseult. There are many patient scenes of hunting and time spent among nature, where the story is not about accomplishing goals so much as realizing truths about oneself and finding one’s place in a vast, dangerous, and beautiful world. As ever, she avoids hysterics and forcibly shortened time spans, preferring to let her tale unfold naturally over many years. Dramatic crises are few for a novel of this length, but what unfold between them are clearly-seen moments of Drem’s life that reveal him as a proud and private boy, unworried by his disability except when his Grandfather refuses to believe he can overcome it, his mother tries to pamper him because of it, or his peers mock him for it. His family hut is also inhabited by his healthy big brother Drustic, who can be kind but does not quite understand him, the quiet, odd girl Blai, who was taken in by the family after being abandoned in the village by her traveling father, and the good dog Whitethroat, whom Drem wins by his own hunting prowess and raises from a pup.

Blood brothers.
Blood brothers.

Sutcliff herself suffered from Still’s Disease, which confined her to a wheelchair from early childhood to the end of her days, and she seems to write Drem with instinctive empathy. Warrior Scarlet is not about a disabled boy at all – it is a coming-of-age story and a tender study of a boy who happens to have but one arm. It is painful to him sometimes, and it is a big part of his life, but it does not define him, nor the book. When he makes friends, as with the venerable one-handed hunter Talore and the chieftain’s son Vortrix, it is because they realize this and do not address his lacking arm except when it is relevant, and even then they try not to give it more attention than Drem himself does. Part of the delight in this book comes from the emotional maturity and honorable friendship that Talore and Vortix offer Drem, and the true Manliness displayed therein. Drem himself struggles with the sort of gentleness his two friends display, as his instinctive reaction to fear is prideful anger. But he fights it, and begins to see that there is someone else in his life who needs the kindness and respect he himself desires. His realization carries through up until the very last page.

Shield or spear -- a one-armed boy must choose one or the other!
Shield or spear — a one-armed boy cannot carry both!

It is not all slow character-building and hunting scenes. There are some thrilling fights, some among prideful and cruel young boys, some between prideful and honor-bound young men, and some with animals. One such fight with a hungry wolf pack attacking in the middle of a blizzard is really harrowing stuff, as though the fierce brutality of Jack London’s stories were filtered through the lyricism of Robert Frost.

I admire Sutcliff’s willingness to take narrative risks and her ability to then handle them gracefully. We think we know what to expect from a plot like this, which we assume must be about overcoming a physical disability, preferably in a triumphantly public way. But in the final third of the book Sutcliff follows the road less taken, and allows a kind of failure where we expect victory. The key is that she doesn’t stop her story there, but explores the consequences of what happened and how Drem must deal with it. Life does not end merely because we do not accomplish our dreams and goals the way we expect. Disappointments are a part of life, and this book is the more powerful for showing how one may deal with them without succumbing to despair. The story, I think, reflects some Christian values relating to this, though not explicitly and perhaps unintentionally; the idea that the timing we desire for our lives is not the same as God’s timing. Our lives have more anticlimaxes than dramatic this-is-it-once-and-for-all climaxes and do not follow easy formulas. But hope persists, and the good may come slowly but it will come, and the faithful are rewarded in the end. Drem’s reward, when it comes, is swift, and almost too sudden, filled with unexpected joy, and perfectly fitting.

Book Review: “Tristan & Iseult” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Title: Tristan & Iseult
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Pages: 150
Published: 1971
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the days of King Arthur, Tristan defeats Ireland’s champion and gains the friendship of his uncle, King Marc of Cornwall, who entrusts him with a mission: to sail the seas in search of a flame-haired queen. But a troublesome fate descends when Tristan and Iseult fall in love, and their passion for each other wars with their love and respect for Marc.
Reason for Beginning: Sutcliff. Arthurian historical fiction. Retelling of a medieval legend. BAM, said the lady.
Reason for Finishing: Sutcliff. Arthurian historical fiction. Retelling of a medieval legend. You get the picture.
Story Re-readability: Fairly high, I should think. It’s very short for a novel, and moves quickly. The story, legend that it is, has more inherent drama than is usual for Sutcliff’s laid-back novels, so every chapter you read will tell you something interesting and important that is happening. And you’ll like these characters enough to revisit them.
Author Re-readability: It’s no secret that I love Sutcliff and find her the most endlessly re-readable author in my library. For me to reread her novels is like reminiscing about the good times with an old friend. Maybe not everyone will feel as strongly as I do, but if you read a book of hers once and like it, I highly recommend you reread it again after a year or so. She always rewards her readers with more subtle depth in her stories than we initially expect. After two, three, four, or even five rereads, many of her characters will be counted among your dear friends.
Recommendation: Most certainly, for everyone. In fact, this is probably a good introduction: 1) to Sutcliff, if you’re wary of committing the time of a longer, slower novel for an author you’ve never read, or 2) to Arthurian romance, if you’re intimidated by the medieval tellings themselves but want to get some of their feel and texture through a modern lens. Established fans of Sutcliff or this subject matter will be completely satisfied with her treatment.

Key Thoughts

In most of her novels, Sutcliff’s prose evokes deep, earthy textures that seep into you as you read; sometimes you have to slow down a bit and breathe a bit slower as her sentences curl their roots around your imagination, intending to stay and grow there. In Tristan & Iseult, her prose is quicker, livelier, but still uniquely hers, like a thickly woven tapestry which is not as immersive as, say, a sculpture, but is not as two-dimensional as a painting. At least, that is how I think of it. It’s the perfect style for this story, hovering as it does between historical fiction and legend. We watch it unfold in a fairly accurately-described Wales, Ireland, and Brittany, but on the edges of the tale are King Arthur and a dragon, and at its center is the tragic love triangle that gave birth to the intrigues of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot.

What makes it especially tragic is that there is no villain. We love all three of them, and they all love each other: Tristan, Iseult, and King Marc. They are all good people, who desire justice and admire it in others. When Marc discovers the affair, neither of the lovers can blame him for his anger and pain, because they know in their hearts they have wronged him. But they are too weak to the temptations of the flesh to stop themselves, and King Marc too hurt by the betrayal of his two dearest companions, that we feel the threads of a black fate tightening around them all, bringing inevitable doom and heartbreak to the end.

And when he made no reply, she said, ‘Shall I tell you the true reason that I did not kill you when I found the splinter lacking from your sword blade?’

‘I am thinking,’ said Tristan, ‘that it is best you do not tell me.’

‘It was because I loved you,’ said the Princess. ‘I was not knowing it then. I was not knowing why it was like a sword turning in my heart when you stood before my father and claimed me for the King of Cornwall when I had thought to hear you claim me for yourself. I was not knowing until you lifted me in your arms to carry me ashore in this place. Tristan, whoever takes me for his wife, whether you will or no, and God help me, you are my Lord as long as I live.’

And Tristan bent his head into his hands and groaned.

Although these are the characters and landscape of legend, Sutcliff writes them with tender dignity and a sort of restrained realism, the kind that takes note that the trees overhanging the lovers’ hideout are not just any trees, but hazel and hawthorn and thick-set oak. They are flesh and blood and tears; whereas some medieval versions of the story invoked a love potion to force Tristan and Iseult into adultery, here it is just their passion and their loneliness. There is some room for epic heroism, though. Tristan’s worries and passions are recognizably human, but his feats are just larger enough than life to inject the somber tale with some good, old-fashioned thrill and excitement.

The gulls wove their white curves of flight across the face of the cliffs below him; the jump would have been death to any other man, but Tristan had learned well from his masters in his Lothian boyhood, and had not forgotten how to make the Hero Leap. He filled himself with air until he felt as light as the wheeling sea-birds, and drew himself together and sprang out and down.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is that Sutcliff makes Tristan so good, honest, and self-controlled that I can hardly believe he would actually betray his uncle and best friend with Iseult. Both he and Iseult know it is wrong, and Tristan at least is very principled. I didn’t quite believe that they would give into their passions, when Marc himself is so good and worthy a friend to them both. But this is legend, and their fates are sealed. I think I can detect, from Sutcliff’s telling, a loneliness to both Tristan and Iseult. They each are greatly loved by many people and have many friends, but no true spiritual companions except each other. Maybe that’s why Sutcliff thinks they fell into each others’ arms so desperately, so often, despite the harm they knew they were doing to a good man.

Book Review: “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff

Title: The Eagle of the Ninth
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Series: No, though it forms a thematic trilogy with The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers.
Published: 1954
Pages: 255
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Around A.D. 117, the Ninth Legion marched north of Agricola’s Wall to deal with an uprising of Scottish tribesmen and was never seen again. Years later, the commander’s son, Marcus Aquila, decides to venture north to find the lost Eagle standard of his father, taking with him only Esca, the former British slave who has become his friend. The Eagle means Rome, honor, and good faith kept – but in the hands of Rome’s enemies, it could become a powerful weapon.
Reason for Rereading: The release of the film adaptation The Eagle prompted me to return to the book, some of which I’d forgot.
Reason for Finishing: It’s simply a really good story, exceptionally well told.
Story Re-readability: There are reasons this is considered a legitimate classic of both young adult literature and historical fiction in general; reasons I hope to expound below. This was my third read, and I can’t wait until I have a good excuse to return to it again.
Author Re-readability: Sutcliff is one of the very few authors whose books I will buy just on her name alone, as long as I have enough money available and it’s a book I don’t own. Her prose style is so consistently graceful, warm, and personal, that rereading her books feels like reminiscing about shared halcyon days with a fond old friend, and reading a new book by her feels like catching up on the life of a good friend whom you haven’t seen in a long time.
Recommended For: Surely everyone could get something from Sutcliff’s writing, but those who might especially appreciate The Eagle of the Ninth are: history buffs, particularly of Roman and “Dark Age” history, those who love adventure stories, and writers (because anyone who loves words and the good use of words should appreciate Sutcliff’s work)

More information on this title: Continue reading “Book Review: “The Eagle of the Ninth” by Rosemary Sutcliff”

Author Pantheon: Rosemary Sutcliff, A Summary of Her Greatness

My favorite of the different covers for this book.

Anthony Lawton, of the Rosemary Sutcliff blog, asked his readers to write in about why they like her books so much, which is their favorite book, which is their favorite character, and why. This is my response. It is also the first in what might be a “series” of posts for me, called the “Author Pantheon.” These posts will be my thoughts on the writers that I, personally, think are the greatest. Mostly fantasy authors, though in the case of Sutcliff this includes historical fiction. The posts differ from my “Features” in that they are all my thoughts and ideas, whereas “Features” are mostly the works of others that I find inspiring and relevant.

Now, can I summarize why I love Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing so much? Ah, that is hard. To figure out the nuances of why her writing style seems to affect me more than almost any other. Hm. I have used the phrase “textured grace” to describe it before, though that is more a poetic phrase that only scrapes the surface.

She is able to paint beautiful pictures in my mind without over-reaching into “purple” prose. Her settings and characters feel real, down-to-earth, even when they become mysterious (as in the Little Dark People and the distant Scottish hills they live in), magnificently epic (Ambrosius, particularly in Sword at Sunset), deeply dramatic (Aquila’s meeting of his sister at Hengest’s camp in The Lantern Bearers, or the end scenes of the same book), or rousingly adventurous (as in the chase scenes of Eagle of the Ninth or the intrigue of The Silver Branch).

But other authors of the highest caliber have managed that kind of beautiful balance as well. I haven’t found the words yet to communicate what is truly so unique about Sutcliff’s writing in comparison to the other greats of English literature. She writes strong male characters with solid moral centers, in a believable and complex fashion — that’s part of it. Many excellent writers fail at at least one aspect of that (usually with the solid moral sense or the complexity). But others manage such characters too. About Sutcliff, I can only attest to the affect she has on me. Beginning a book of hers, whether a new one or an old one, is something like returning to a dear friend after a journey. Reading a new book of Sutcliff’s is like catching up on your friend’s life, while rereading one is like reminiscing about good old times.

I guess that says one more specific thing about her: she’s invested in her stories. Some authors, even great ones, feel slightly distant from their stories. Not her — she’s telling them directly to you, the reader, and she wants you to listen. I like that.

My favorite book of hers is The Lantern Bearers, and the character that moved me the most is Aquila. It was amazing how clearly she saw how Aquila saw himself and how others saw him. To see him struggle for so much of his life against himself, against the bitterness that he held and the hardness he built up in himself, and to finally find peace so late in his life…well, it’s just beautiful. His relationship with Ness is also fascinating, since they both have to learn, gradually, to forgive and love each other. It’s not quite a romance, I don’t think (and part of me wishes it was), but I do think it becomes love. I don’t know if I’ve read another novel so tender and mature at the same time.

That this all comes in the midst of great adventure and intrigue helps too!