Saturday, September 23, 2006

The apple tree blooms white in the Land of the Living

I'm fond of the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, particularly the Roman ones which take place in ancient Britain and in which members of the Aquila family are participants. She wrote mostly for children, but there's no lack of sophistication in the writing.

The Lantern Bearers is one of the best. outlines the plot. Basically, the hero, Aquila, has had a golden youth, growing up on an inland farm and becoming an officer in the Roman army. His fortunes turn as the British legions depart the island and he suffers great losses and endures soul-destroying hardships at the hands of raiding Jutes from Denmark. He escapes bondage and, greatly embittered, joins the fight to expel the invaders. In the end he experiences success in battle and learns to soften his hard heart.

Sutcliff's books often have religious and magical motifs. In this one, there's a scene of black magic about a third of the way through, one which reverberates through the rest of the novel. Two battle chiefs have combined forces to subdue the remaining Roman adherents and thus and dominate the country. One of the two, Hengenst, skilfully undermines the other by arranging for him to fall in love with his daughter, Rowena, who, as we'll see, is skilled in witchery.

Sutcliff writes:
She looked far remote, as though she had no need to be aware of the mead-flushed faces turned toward her, for she and they were in different worlds. She began to pluck the strings more strongly, conjuring up a strange music of long silence and single, singing notes that sprang up, each separate and perfect as some infinitely small silver bird that leapt up like a lark toward the smoky rafters, and hovered a little, and was gone. Gradually the notes spun close together until the bright shadow of a melody began to emerge; and then suddenly, still looking into the fire, she was singing.

Aquila, watching her, had expected her voice to be hard and high and clear. It was clear, but with a clearness of depth, not height, a dark voice.
The apple tree blooms white in the Land of the Living:
The shadow of the blossom falls across my door stone:
A bird flutters in the branches, singing.
Green is my bird as the green earth of men, but his song is forgetfulness.
           Listen and forget the earth.
.... the great firelit hall, the warriors leaning forward on their benches, even the two men in the High Seat were no more than background for the woman harping beside the fire.
The pedals fall from my apple tree, drifing,
Drifting down the wind like snow: but the snow is warm:
And a bird flutters in the branches, singing.
Blue is my bird as the blue summer sky, over the world of men.
           But here is another sky.
... Aquila thought, She is a witch! Surely she is a witch! Rowena had risen, and moved, drifting as though on the slow, haunting notes of her song, to the foot of the High Seat; and sank down again, still looking up at the thin, red-haired man.
The apples are silver on the boughs, low bending;
A tree of chiming, of singing as the wind blows by:
But the bird flutters through the branches silent.
Red is my bird, crimson red as the life of my heart is.
           Will you not come to me?
... the singer rose without another word ... and went, sweeping her crimson skirts after her through the rushes, to set the little harp back in the hands that her father's gleeman held out for it. Hengenst sent one glance after her; it might have been in triumph, quickly hidden under his down-drawn golden brows. (pp 96-97)
Throughout The Lantern Bearers, as in her other books, Sutcliff employs nature images for symbolic weight to reinforce and enrich the plot and its underlying meanings. Here, for example, is a first echo of the witch song, turned bucolic:
He saw the hearth-smoke rising blue against the tawny flank of the mountain beyond, and a few people moving about the kale plots and the cattle-byres. The track swung right hand, towards the village, skirting a small village, an orchard cradled in the loop of the river, the apples ripe on the dripping branches of the little half-wild trees; and the bright shadow of a song came to his mind.
The apples are silver on the boughs, low bending;
A tree of chiming, of singling as the wind blows by...
But these apples were homely russet, not silver, and no wind stirred the branches; on the still, autumn sunlight slanted through the orchard, casting each tree's shadow to the foot of the next. But there was a movement among the trees, a girl's laugh, and the flicker of colours under the leaves, dark red and saffron and tawny, and a deep, living blue like a kingfisher's mantle, and he realized that a group of girls were at the apple-picking. (pp 151-52)
In the examples that follow Sutcliff shows her skill in using light to set mood, usually in contrasting peaceful natural landscapes with the violence of enslavement, intrigue, and battle.
The hut was full of sunlight that slanted in through the doorway and quivered like golden water on the lime-washed wall beside him. (p 108)

He lay still a few moments, blinking at the living golden water on the wall (p 109)

the still-wet forest was full of a crystal-green light. The beans were just coming into flower, black and white among the grey-green leaves, and the scent of them was like honey and almonds, strong and sweet after the rain. (p 110)

It was a wild sunset, beyond the low, wooded hills, touching woods and marshes and mudflats with its singing gold and kindling the water to flame. (p. 170)

There was a cuckoo calling somewhere among the trees, a rich and sleepy sound, the very voice of summer. ... The cuckoo was still calling in a distance that was blue as wood-smoke, and in the marshy ground beside the track the dense mat of iris leaves still showed a few yellow flowers, proudly upheld like lamps among the cool green sword-blades of the leaves. (p 206)

Aquila saw that the moon was down, but the dark had paled to grey and the grey was glowing luminous. The eastern sky was a awash with silver light, and somewhere down by the stream a willow wren was singing, and the whole world seemed poised on the edge of revelation, about to spread its wings... (p 268)

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