Title: Warrior Scarlet
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
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.
The 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 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.
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.
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.