My Books of 2018: “Frontier Wolf” by Rosemary Sutcliff


“If we break faith with thee, may the green earth gape and swallow us, may the grey seas break in and overwhelm us, may the sky of stars fall and crush us out of life for ever.”

“Frontier Wolf” by Rosemary Sutcliff

This historical adventure novel is pure Sutcliff: a young Roman commander making up for a disaster early in his career, a lonely British frontier fort, and a first half of thoughtful character drama followed by a second half of a long, thrilling chase through wet Scottish hills and valleys. These elements make Frontier Wolf feel like a companion piece to The Eagle of the Ninth, and fortunately the core narrative is different enough to make the similarities complementary rather than repetitive.

Alexios and his band of “half-wild” auxiliaries called the Frontier Wolves are an engaging group, with Romans, Greeks, Germans, Celts,pagans, Christians, veterans, and green recruits all mixing, clashing, and bonding in the tense atmosphere and rain-soaked landscape. There’s a coming-of-age strand to the plot, as young Alexios tries to overcome his past of privilege and failure to be a worthy leader of the rowdiest, roughest bunch of soldiers in the empire. There’s also a political strand, as the conflicts between Rome and the various Celtic tribes prove rather tricky to navigate, especially when the Roman fort itself is split by various ethnic, cultural, and philosophical divisions. The disaster that kicks the climax into gear is scarily realistic in how an impossible-to-predict event ignites very predictable tensions, and creates a scenario where even doing what you know is right won’t avoid deadly conflict. There’s also a lesson in changing one’s view of victory and defeat, as sometimes it’s simply more important to save the lives of the soldiers under one’s command rather than to maintain a certain flag over a particular spot of dirt.

A great illustration of the supporting character Hilarion, with one of the kittens adopted by the soldiers at the fort. Art by Leyna. 2012. https://archiveofourown.org/works/471830

Frontier Wolf was my “comfort” read for 2018, in the sense that I always come to a Sutcliff historical novel with a sense of delighted familiarity, even on a first reading, knowing that I will be able to immerse myself in a satisfying,richly-written tale. I will definitely revisit this one.

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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 Meme 2012: Theme Song

Seeing as The Egotist’s Club and Jubilare have settled on a variety of choices for this topic, I shall take the same liberty. After all, it’s not an easy task. It’s true I do often hear some kind of soundtrack when I’m reading a book, but it’s usually one my mind makes up on the spot. And when listening to songs I often see in my mind’s eye a story to fit it. But finding a single song that encapsulates the heart of an entire existing story or character becomes surprisingly difficult.

Here are a few I was able to come up with.

1. Mannheim Steamroller’s “Red Wine” has always struck me as an extraordinarily dignified song that nonetheless exudes warmth and beauty. It’s reminiscent of “Greensleeves” in that regard; in ¾ time, its harpsichord melody gives it the stateliness of a waltz. But the emotional cries of the flute give it a quality that is also earthy and natural. This isn’t a song for a cathedral of stone, but a cathedral of trees, which we visit in our dreams.

And so it is that I match “Red Wine” with George MacDonald’s Phantastes. This book is almost beyond description; to know what it feels like, you simply must read it yourself. In it, a young man named Anodos finds himself transported to the Fairy World, perhaps through dream or perhaps through magic. He travels through a vast and bewildering forest filled with various fairies, trolls, knights, princesses, and other creatures, some of which embody holiness, and others which embody various evils.

It’s a dreamlike story, one you can imagine watching through the flickering flames in a campfire. There is a stateliness to it; MacDonald’s Victorian prose is dignified and eloquent, his themes involve the journey of man to become holy, and the climax takes place in what might well be called a woodland cathedral. Yet it is full of emotional and spiritual yearnings. Joy, terror, and melancholy all meet in this story, and while Mannheim Steamroller’s “Red Wine” may not have much terror to it, I hear in it much of the other two.

2. In researching this topic, I came across another interesting match. One of the most soulful, heartwrenching songs I have heard in recent years has been “The Hill” by Marketa Irglova, from the movie Once. The song is directed to her absent husband, whom she desperately wants to please but hasn’t apparently been able to. Their marriage is troubled, and they have temporarily separated, but in one powerful scene, Marketa’s character (called only The Girl) walks home at night singing this song to herself, pouring her heart out to the dark streets and expressing all her sorrow, her longing for love, and her accusations: namely, that he never seems to acknowledge her feelings, her struggles, or her thoughts.

And this reminded me of Ness in The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. There are some key differences: The Girl clearly loves her husband and desires his affection, whereas Ness hasn’t yet found herself able to love Aquila for most of the book. Yet Ness has some of the same accusations against Aquila that The Girl has against her husband. Aquila isn’t cruel, not intentionally; he just doesn’t spare hardly any thoughts for Ness’ own struggles and emotions until it’s too late, and when he does realize them he doesn’t know what to do, so he does nothing. I could imagine Ness singing this song, especially later in the book when she and Aquila do become a little closer together, but still don’t quite understand each other and still hurt each other emotionally. And, gladly, both women find reconciliation and love by the end.

3. When I listened to Celtic Woman’s cover of Nightwish’s “Walking in the Air” recently, I suddenly remembered one of my favorite children’s books. Moonhorse by Mary Pope Osborne is an absolutely magical poem with gentle, cool illustrations about a girl who is taken on a beautiful, cosmic journey by a flying horse…a moonhorse. Technically, she’s riding in the air instead of walking, but the song’s soaring poetry and mysticism fits well a journey that takes the girl and her Pegasus past living constellations, across the hunting paths of sky wolves, to where they lasso the moon and pull it across the sky.

We’re walking in the air
We’re dancing in the midnight sky
And everyone who sees us greets us as we fly.

And indeed, as they fly gracefully past planets, stars, and comets, all the creatures of space greet them as they go.

Lastly, David “Fathead” Newman’s “The Thirteenth Floor” is a song I am waiting to find the story for. It’s filled with great jazz flute riffs, jingling cymbal beats and drum rhythms, and it makes me think of an acrobatic duel in a city alley involving hip urban elves. That mix of breathy flutes and cool jazz is just infectious! But I don’t know of any existing book that it fits, so I’ll probably have to write that one myself.

Unfortunately this YouTube video is only part of the song. The full song, which can be found on iTunes under David Newman’s CD “Bigger & Better,” includes a short gap of silence after the YouTube video ends, and then it builds slowly to an exciting, action-packed conclusion.

Another Glorious Library Book Sale

They have three every year, the local library does, and I go to every one. It doesn’t matter how many unread books I have at home. A new favorite might be waiting patiently for me on the overfilled folding tables, or underneath them in the ragged cardboard boxes, holding its frayed corners as still as possible to keep them from getting torn or bent by some careless browser, so that it might look as sharp as it may when I find it and take it home.

There are certain books I know I am looking for. Anything with Rosemary Sutcliff or George MacDonald or G.K. Chesterton on the spine or cover page. One of the titles that has been most highly recommended to me by multiple friends. A nonfiction book on history or mythology that promises to be uniquely useful.

And then there are the happy surprises and the experiments. The “Oh, cool! That’ll be great to have” and the “Well, it’s only a buck, let’s give it a try.” Both important in their own ways. The happy surprises feel like little bonuses, rewards for patronizing the library. But in some ways, the experiments are probably the most exciting and valuable, even if they fail to reach the greatest heights of literature. These are the books where you’re venturing outside your comfort zone; where you hold off exploring no more, but turn your helm and open your sails to receive the wind and wherever it may lead you. The experiments are more likely to make you a larger person.

Reflecting on this most recent book sale, I am satisfied that I have some from each category.

Books I knew I wanted

MacDonald is one of those authors whose books I will buy just on his name alone, so long as I can spare the money and I don’t already own the book. I’ve been curious about At the Back of the North Wind for many years, mostly because of it’s beautiful title. The only other thing I know is that it’s about a boy named Diamond. Who, presumably, gets to ride on the back of the North Wind. There isn’t much more I need to know about it.

Again, Sutcliff’s name alone will get me to buy a book, even when it looks like something completely different from what I expect of her and not something I would normally give a second look. I wondered for a few moments if this wasn’t perhaps some other Sutcliff. But no, it’s her. And it’s a beautiful little story.

In fact, I just read it now, in under half an hour, and it charmed my poor soul and warmed it to no end. This is even more impressive because the story—and it really is just a short story published with its own hardcover—is about a Chihuahua, and I generally dislike Chihuahuas. But it’s as much a Sutcliff story, in its own way, as is The Eagle of the Ninth. Her prose is tender, sprinkled with yellow daffodils, and describes thoughtful people yearning for companionship and love. A children’s story, to be read aloud, but also to be savored comfortably by adults. After reading it, you will want to hug your pet—if you have one—and generally share smiles with those you love.

Happy Surprises

In recent years, I’ve grown to appreciate short stories and seek them out. Last year I bought a huge collection of Rudyard Kipling stories that I still have barely scraped, but that didn’t stop me from snatching up Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy. The cover design is appealing, and it promises excellent stories by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Orson Scott Card, Patricia McKillip, Larry Niven, and many other names more or less well known in modern fantasy and science fiction circles. I was never more than average at statistics, but I think the odds are high that, for roughly a buck and a half, I just bought some really neat stories.

I’m still reluctant to whole-heartedly recommend Guy Gavriel Kay after my experience with Tigana. I love his prose, the historical reality of his worlds, and the integral, though subtle, nature of magic in his stories. I also liked his characters, his twisty-but-sensible-plot, and his many dramatic flourishes. But his indulgence in sexual deviancy in that book really turned me off. However, I promised someone I would give him another chance, and The Lions of Al-Rassan is one of his most highly regarded novels. It also is inspired by medieval Spain and the Cid, a time and person that have also inspired me recently.

The Experiments

Science Fiction. I love it in the movies. I love it in computer games. I love it in webcomics and artwork. I’ve never read any serious, sci-fi novel. Time to change that.

I picked up Ringworld first. The title is famous and the concept so outrageous as to be irresistible. I’ve also heard that Niven regularly marries profound ideas and realistic science with really engaging adventure.

Then I started chatting with a bearded older gentlemen, who was also browsing the sci-fi section. He started mentioning the sci-fi greats and pulled out Glory Road as his favorite Robert Heinlein novel. It seems to be an unusual one for Heinlein, being as much medieval fantasy as it is sci-fi, but it promises rousing adventure by an acknowledged master, so I’m excited to begin my exploration.

So, folks, moral of the story is: Libraries are cool, never turn away from a used book sale, and always be ready to explore new books, new authors, and new genres.

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.

Half Price Book Raid

I stripped my shelves of dozens of books, and afterward they were still crammed, and I still had stacks on my table and headboard. It was a painful, difficult task. I would look at all my fantasy books and immediately find them all to be priceless. I would look at all my books written before 1900 or about time periods before 1900, and could not bear to part with any. But in all harvests there is chaff, and I went through my storehouse of literature and cathartically removed the least nutritious, least savory, and least sweet. I took down these books, including a dozen or so old textbooks, until they numbered 57, and drove to the nearest Half Price Books, which buys used printed stuff.

They gave me $13 for the lot.

It’s not that I had been dreaming of sudden wealth from the sale of 57 used and somewhat useless books. But I did rather hope that it would at least cover the purchases I made. Six books cost me about $27, which is certainly a good deal, but leaves me $15 poorer than this morning. Oh well, minor complaint. The truth is, the value of the books I found is far, far more than $27, or even $72, if it had come to that (which I’m grateful it didn’t).

I found the two other Myst books, in which I was interested after reading Myst: The Book of Atrus.

 

Myst: The Book of Ti'ana

The Book of D'ni

The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip, which I have a dim memory of being recommended to me by some friends in the past. I know nothing of it, but I read McKillip’s debut series The Riddlemaster Trilogy, which I liked despite the spotty writing, and have wanted to explore her more polished writing.

Then there is Three Hearts & Three Lions by Poul Anderson, about which I know even less except that the back cover proclaims it a seminal and influential fantasy novel and that the author’s reputation is among those that have come highly recommended but only vaguely described. But the plot sounded interesting and it was $2 on the clearance shelves, so I doubt I stepped wrong.

And then…a Sutcliff novel! The store had a grand total of two Sutcliff novels, and the other was The Eagle of the Ninth, of which I already have two copies (and have given away a third). This one is a retelling of the tragic medieval tale of Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde), and is aptly titled Tristan & Iseult.

And lastly, Neil Gaiman’s Adventures in the Dream Trade, which is not actually an exciting novel but a collection of sundry items from many sources: an article here, a poem there, and the apparent entirety of the months from February to September from his old blog http://www.americangods.com. It was $2 and I enjoyed the introduction by John M. Ford (where he provided some witty poems that helpfully explained how to pronounce Neil’s name — Gaiman rhymes with drayman), so it was probably a good buy. It occurs to me now that I have read more of his casual writing on his blog and in a few articles than I have of his actual fiction.

Anyway, in more relevant news, I have finished Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and intend to review it soon. My review of the Doctor Who two-parter “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” will be delayed, as upon watching it many months ago I was so drawn in to the story that I forgot to take notes, and so will have to refresh my memory before attempting to report on it.

At any rate, God bless you all and Godspeed on your own reading!

Library Booksale Raid #2

First things first: I have a warm welcome to offer Autumn on this midnight of its equinox (or rather, the midnight after its equinox)…except that Autumn hasn’t yet shown up where I am. In fact, the last couple of days have felt like blazing midsummer. Which irks me, as Autumn is my favorite of the seasons. The cool breezes bearing faint burnt scents, the sharp slate skies, the foliage of amber, flame, and emerald mixed together. I drink it in, even though our Autumn isn’t as lush as those elsewhere.

But it hasn’t shown up yet, so I can’t welcome it. Fiddlesticks.

Fiddlesticks.

“But surely,” criest thou, “that canst be the reason for this post, which beareth the noble title of library book sale?”

“Of course it canst,” repliest I, “and callest me not Shirley.”

(Credit where credit is due.)

Despite the distinct lack of Autumn, this day was not a waste. I only worked a half day, and in the evening I went to one of my local library’s triannual book sales, that I so love. And here, dear friends, is my loot, bought for a mere $4.50.

YES, I already own a copy and have reviewed it here. But three times a year, every year, I go to these book sales combing the tables for a Sutcliff novel, and this is the first time I have FINALLY found one. It’s the exact same edition as the one I already own. It’s in perfect condition, which is kind of sad because it means virtually no one has read it. But now I have an extra to give away! That makes me happy.

I bought The Sable Quean mostly out of nostalgia for Brian Jacques, but also because this is one of his later novels which I haven’t read. The plot sounds standard Redwall, but it should be comfortable slipping back into Jacques’ charming world. It’ll probably get a review once I read it, eventually.

What can I say? I’m a medievalist with an interest in philosophy, so this was nearly irresistible. As the title suggests, it traces the influences and development of medieval philosophies and thought from the ancient Greeks and the Bible on through the Romans, the early church fathers, Arab thinkers, etcetera. When I’ll have the time to read this, I don’t know — I’ve got many other similar titles lying around, giving me great pleasure to look at but losing places on my reading list to more and more fantasy.

Ta-da! The cream of the crop. I’ve been hearing about Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn for longer than I can remember. Both the book and the animated movie have been called classics of fantasy, and I’ve never had the chance to see for myself. Well, that will change. I’ve got a copy in my book stacks, and at some point in the maybe-kind-of-not-so-distant future, I will read it, and probably review it. +)

On other news fronts: the Series 3 Doctor Who review is STILL coming, yes it is; just be patient. I’ve been super busy lately.

Also, the Highlander Audio reviews should be coming very soon as well. I feel very guilty for neglecting those, as I was given review copies by one of the writers, and the polite thing would have been to review them earlier this summer. But they are not forgotten! I will review them ASAP.

And lastly, I am about halfway through Stephen Lawhead’s Merlin, the sequel to Taliesin, and loving it. So far, the book has showcased more of Lawhead’s strengths as a writer than Taliesin did, and has kept the melodrama to a minimum (although some still creeps in now and then).

So, have you folks made any interesting book purchases lately?

Book Review: “King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition” by Tyler Tichelaar

[N.B. A review copy of this book was sent to me by its author. In no way has this influenced the opinions I express here. You can find Tyler Tichelaar’s blog at CHILDREN OF ARTHUR.]

Title: King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition
Author: Tyler R. Tichelaar, Ph.D.
Pages: 179
Publisher: Modern History Press
Genre: Scholarly study
Blurb: “…The first full-length analysis of every known treatment of King Arthur’s children, from Welsh legends and French romances, to Scottish genealogies and modern novels by such authors as Parke Godwin, Stephen Lawhead, Debra Kemp, and Elizabeth Wein. King Arthur’s Children explores and often overlooked theme in Arthurian literature and reveals King Arthur’s bloodlines may still exist today.” (Back Cover)
Recommendation: For anyone with a more-than-casual interest in the Arthurian legend, especially regarding different versions and the more obscure tales, this is a very handy resource. The end significance of many of the discussions may not mean much except to serious scholars, but Dr. Tichelaar’s book will open even the eyes of an amateur hobbyist of Arthuriana to the extraordinary diversity of the legends and the ways in which they have been continually adapted and retold over the centuries.

Key Thoughts

“It may be Geoffrey of Monmouth’s responsibility that Arthur’s sons disappeared from later versions of the legends; The History of the Kings of Britain was so popular that it firmly placed a structure on the way the tale would be told from then on, and since Geoffrey did not give Arthur any sons, his successors avoided creating sons for Arthur. And if writers had added sons to the legend, they would have had to come up with explanations for why these sons did not succeed their father.” (23)

Though a slender volume, Dr. Tichelaar’s book examines an impressively large amount of texts in its pursuit of all information that could potentially shed light on its subject of study, which is in some ways a bit obscure. Loads of scholarship exists on King Arthur himself and the main body of legends, but surprisingly little is known about his progeny except for Mordred, the bastard son of Arthur’s incest with his half-sister Morgan (whose name has numerous spellings). There are actually quite a few others just in the medieval and Old Welsh sources. The great virtue of King Arthur’s Children is how methodically Tichelaar goes through every mention of a character being a direct descendent of Arthur and examines all possible ways in which that mention interacts with other versions of the story.

The first section of the book concerns the Welsh traditions, which give Arthur three sons: Gwydre, Amr, and Llacheu. They have brief mentions—and in the case of Gwydre, only one undeniable mention—and thus little is known about their stories; nonetheless, they are the oldest mentions of Arthur’s progeny.

The most substantial section of the book discusses Mordred and the myriad portrayals he has had. Popularly he is Arthur’s bastard son, but in some tales he is legitimate, in others he is a nephew, in still others he is a brother, and sometimes he is not said to be related to Arthur at all. Scottish traditions even regarded Mordred as the good and legitimate king of England, with Arthur the evil imperialist usurper! This section really shows the diversity of the legends.

The third section is more interesting from a historical perspective, as Tichelaar looks at Arthur’s descendents and heirs. The English monarchy has often claimed descent from Arthur, but I was surprised to hear that those of Belgium and the Netherlands also make the claim. There is virtually no possibility of these claims being true even if there was one man who was the real King Arthur, but it’s still fascinating to explore all the possibilities.

The final section of the book deals with modern literature. Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset is identified as the first twentieth-century novel to give Arthur a child—a daughter—although the role is minor, since the infant dies soon after birth and serves mostly to provide a source of tension between Artos and Guenhamara. Discussions of other authors follow: Barbara Ferry Johnson, Catherine Christian, Parke Godwin, Vera Chapman, Susan Cooper, Patricia Kennealy-Morrison, Bernard Cornwell…even Stephen King’s Dark Tower series gets some attention! Not all sources seem legitimately relevant (such as the 1995 movie A Kid in King Arthur’s Court), but no one can deny Tichelaar’s thoroughness. This discussion of modern treatments is a great way to trace the legend’s influence, although Tichelaar does mix in a lot of these analyses in the earlier sections of the book, to distracting effect. I’d have preferred that he keep all the modern novels that deal with Arthur’s children in this final section, rather than sprinkling a lot of his discussion of them in the earlier sections as well.

As the subtitle indicates, Tichelaar is interested in the way Arthur’s children have been used by various authors. He believes in the possibility of a historical Arthur and goes to great lengths to see if any of the sons and daughters mentioned stand a chance of also being historical, or if not, then at least part of the earliest stories. Mostly this is done by checking what is said of them against the more venerable facts of older traditions. Tichelaar’s detailed examinations of the conflicting theories of various authors and later scholars is welcome, though often confusing for someone like me. I feel that many of the theories Tichelaar brings up rely too heavily on literary or mythical analogues, such as similarities in names and story events—many of which sound unlikely to a non-specialist. However, Tichelaar knows that the flexibility of Arthurian legend is such that it is extremely difficult to be dogmatic on almost anything. When discussing the more far-fetched theories of other scholars (such as the death of Llacheu coming from the tale of a Welsh solar god, or Norma Goodriche’s theory that Lancelot and Mordred were brothers because the Irish gods Lugh and Dylan might be interpreted to be brothers), he often comments on their unlikelihood. All the same, with subject matter as nebulous as this, it’s good to treat all legitimate possibilities seriously.

I cannot claim to know how exhaustive Tichelaar’s work really is, but it appears very thorough. I found King Arthur’s Children to be very interesting, and I’m glad to have it in my Arthurian collection.

Book Meme Day 17: My Favorite Quote From Some of My Favorite Books

Memetic modification is the order again. I neither want to spoil the “surprise” of my final choice for favorite book (which of course will not be “final” and could in fact end up being multiple books), nor limit myself to the impossible task of one favorite passage. Some of my favorite books, like The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, are simply too large and wonderful for me to hone in on any single passage.

So instead I have chosen two passages from two books which speak to me in very different ways.

As through the hard rock go the branching silver veins; as into the solid land run the creeks and gulfs from the unresting sea; as the lights and influences of the upper worlds sink silently through the earth’s atmosphere; so doth Faerie invade the world of men…

That’s George MacDonald in Phantastes, a truly beautiful and dreamlike book. In describing the ways in which magic relates to the world of the book, he is also saying something about the way the spiritual world relates to our real world. And…(my brain is kind of dead right now, so I’ll point you to these posts to get an idea of what I mean by that.)

The next is from The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff. It comes from the end of the book, is beautiful, and benefits from context which I cannot give you. +) The pages following it are equally beautiful, but you must earn them by reading the book itself.

Aquila reached for his best cloak, where it lay in a tumble, dark as spilled wine, across the foot of the low couch, and flung it round him, hastily settling the shoulderfolds. He was late, for there had been some trouble down at the horse-lines over the new Cymric steeds that he must see to, and the feast would have begun by now; this crowning feast for a new High King, who was the hope of Britain. He stabbed home the pin of the great bronze-and-silver shoulder brooch, and when he looked up again, there seemed to be all at once more warmth in the room, and more colour, for Ness stood in the inner doorway in a gown of thick, soft wool the colour of the apple flames. Roman in so many things nowadays, she had never taken to the pale colours that Roman ladies wore, and suddenly he was glad of that.

“I feel as though I could warm my hands at you, in that gown,” he said.

She laughed; something of the old mockery in her laughter still, but the sting gone from it. “My lord learns to say pretty things in his old age!” She came forward into the inner circle of warmth and light about the brazier…

…He half-turned towards the colonnade doorway, then back again, realizing he would probably not see Ness until after [the feast for] Ambrosius. “You look so pretty in that gown. I wish this wasn’t an all-male banquet.”

“I am sure that the Princes of the Dumnonii and the Lords of Glevum and the Cymru would be outraged if they found themselves expected to follow the Roman fashion and sit down to feast in the same hall with women, on such a state occasion as this!”

“Your people,” Aquila said, and was struck by a sudden thought. “Ness, do you see that it has come full circle? The Princes of the Cymru feast with their High King. Tonight Ambrosius will confirm Pascent as lord of his father’s lands and his father’s people. Tonight your people and mine are come together again!”

“Yes, I do see,” Ness said. “After twelve, nearly thirteen years.”

Aquila felt that he had been stupid in pointing that out to her as though it were a thing that she might not have noticed, when it must be so much nearer to her than it was to him. He wondered whether she had regretted the choice that she had made, almost thirteen years ago, but could not find the words to ask her.

And then Ness came and put her thin brown hands on his shoulders and said, as though she knew what he was thinking, “Have you regretted it?”

“Why should I regret it?” Aquila said, and put his hands over hers.

“I’m not beautiful like Rhyanidd—”

“You never were, but it was you I chose, in my rather odd way.”

“And maybe I’ve grown dull. Contented women do grow dull; I’ve seen it happen.” She began to laugh again, and this time with no mockery at all. “But at least I haven’t grown fat, as some contented women do.” She gave him a little push and dropped her hands. “Go now to this splendid all-male banquet of yours, before you are later than you are already.”

The meaning, the striking emotion, of this passage is gathered from all that came before it. Aquila’s long years of suffering, the heartbreaking way he and Ness married against both their wills, their years of bickering and misunderstanding. So much pain. But then, finally, to see them like this, where they have comfort with each other and both are surprised to realize that they do not wish to leave each others’ presence, even for an evening…oh my friends, all I can say is that this is the only passage of a novel to have wrung even a few tears of joy from my stubborn eyes. I love it. I reread it often on its own, and its power remains. It encourages me, sobers me, and causes me to praise God for His grace in allowing even flawed beaten creatures such as we to experience the joys of forgiveness, mercy, healing, and love.

Book Meme Day 15: My Favorite Male Character

The difficulty has been deciding whether my favorite male character is defined as the most admirable, or as the one in whom I am most interested as a person. I must go with the latter. He is not the most admirable, nor is he a model for how to live one’s life. His flaws are aggravating and his spiritual wounds are deep. He has few friends, and fewer that truly know and understand him.

But no other character’s situation has moved me so much, nor in the end given me such long-sought joy, as that of Aquila from The Lantern Bearers.

Make no mistake, Aquila is a hard man to like, both for those around him and for readers. He is cold and distant. He will not speak of the grief he has suffered in the past, nor does he speak of his feelings or inner thoughts. He spends years bottling up his pain and giving himself no relief, no closure, no peace. His manner is hard, his face usually inexpressive. His friends are few, and his respect is hard to win, although no man will gainsay his honor, courage, or the surety of his word and sword. When he does speak, his words are usually businesslike, or bitter. No one, it often seems, can understand him, least of all himself.

The loss of his family, especially his beloved sister Flavia, to the Saxons hurts so much that he cannot bear to tell of it to anyone else, even the few people he trusts. Further indignities he suffers as a Saxon thrall, and then another great dream dashed when he finds Flavia again but is unable to rescue her from her new life. He meets Brother Ninnias and refuses the monk’s warnings against vengeance, but does learn of how he can focus his energies and anger to a more productive end; that is, joining Ambrosius Aurelianus, Prince of Arfon, in the fight against the Saxons. Of all men he comes to trust Ambrosius the most, partly because the prince always respects him by never asking about his past, and also because he proves uncanny at knowing the kind of friends Aquila needs. But Aquila’s marriage to Ness, the daughter of a Celtic chieftain, at the request of Ambrosius, only serves to bring more pain and confusion. The two neither get along nor understand each other; Ness has her own heartbreaks and indignities she has suffered, and is quick to fling bitter barbs at her husband, barbs which he pretends to ignore, trying to believe they do not hurt. At one point Ness finally exclaims:

“It is never the things that you do, but the way you do them…You took me from my father’s hearth as you might have taken a dog—no, not a dog; I have seen you playing with Cabal’s ears and gentling him under the chin—as you might have taken a kist or a cooking-pot that you did not much value.” (167)

But Aquila, importantly, does not know this about himself; or at least, not until Ness tells him in that passage. He knows he is a difficult man, but he has never tried to be so, nor ever truly desired to hurt anyone. Ness’ confession surprises him, because he has never thought that he was important enough to have such an effect on someone else’s life. It’s almost as if he just doesn’t know how to be sensitive. And this is why he is such a sympathetic main character. We follow Aquila from just before his troubles start, when he was happy and loved and healthy in spirit, all through the events that batter him and shape him.

Sutcliff manages the difficult task of tracing the essential development of a man over twenty-some years in just under three hundred pages, and she does so without wasting a page or missing a defining moment. Aquila is one of the most complex and believable characters I have read, and I like him despite his faults because I feel I understand him so well.

The most beautiful part, the reason he is my favorite male character, is the slow and tender way he softens, grows, and begins to heal. This change does not come in clear, dramatic moments, as they usually do in book and most especially in movies, but in quieter events that demand a shift of attitude from him. Naming his only son after his father marks the first time Aquila has admitted to anyone any detail of his past; in this case, Ness learns that he had a father, and that he loved him.

A strong and cunning warrior, he is responsible for turning Ambrosius’ bands of horsemen into a highly trained cavalry force, and thus might be considered the grandfather of the English knight (considering how in Sword at Sunset Artos, the historical King Arthur, builds on Aquila’s foundation to increase the importance and effectiveness of the cavalry). All men respect him. He is a legitimate authority, a man who in his outward life is pragmatic and rational, purposeful and not to be trifled with.

The final chapters of the book are what solidify him as my favorite male character. I dare not say much for fear of spoiling it, but Sutcliff brings all the strands of her story together into a single event that is startlingly unassuming despite the its importance to his life. Aquila is confronted by the fruit of what caused his pain, and finds himself with a choice: enacting his anger or coldness of heart is supposedly what he has wanted, but enacting mercy (and even, in a way, love) would entail forgiving himself and coming to terms with his past. He chooses the latter, and what follows is a short series of moments that are painful in the way that the cleansing of a wound is painful. He makes the choice to heal. And it is a brave choice, a hardy one that takes more courage than any battle charge he has been part of. For this, he is my favorite character.

I fear I have given too much detail, and veered too closely to a book review. Forgive me for that. It is difficult to describe my affection for a character who on the surface should be unlikable. The magic is in Sutcliff’s handling of him. For the record, The Lantern Bearers is the only book at the end of which I have shed tears.