Saturday, April 12, 2008

a wind that harps on the wall

I've long been fond of Rosemary Sutcliff's historical novels. She wrote for young adults intelligently, without condescension. Some of her best track descendants of Marcus Flavius Aquila who lived in Roman Britain ca. 133 A.D. and who possessed a dolphin ring which turns up on the hand of his successors as the centuries pass.

Frontier Wolf is one of my favorites in this series. Its hero, Alexios Flavious Aquila, overcomes many difficulties eventually to make his mark.

You can read plot summaries in Amazon and literary appreciation web sites such as: (1) The Dark Age Novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, (2) Rosemary Sutcliff: An Appreciation, and (3) The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, Frontier Wolf. She wrote -- like Kipling -- about the soldier's life, about encounters of alien cultures, and about the ways, by trial and error, we each come into our own sense of rightness and honor, our own ways of making and keeping friends, our knowledge of the peculiar workings of our own individual courage.

Like Kipling, Sutcliff knew how to tell a story without oversell or cheap drama.

And like his, her descriptions sometimes take your breath away. In Frontier Wolf she tells how a "brief wing of sunlight brushed along the flank of the little glen," describes the "dark soughing of the wind across the dead heather," and reveals for us "the green rooty smell of things growing, and the air full of the lonely bubbling mating-call of curlew." On a hunt together Alexios and a native chieftain become close friends and "the first pollen scattered from the whippy sprays so that they rode through a sudden golden mist."

In one passage Alexios is leading a small group of survivors from a northern outpost that has been attacked by overwhelming numbers of enemy tribesmen. It is midwinter and the troop is cold, hungry, exhausted, and aware that their enemies are close behind them. Sutcliff's language lets us know that there is a small, bleak hope for them in the midst of this awfulness. She describes the scene thus: "Snow was still spitting down the wind as they rode out, but the sky was less full than yesterday; and presently as they rode, the low dawn showed a bar of cold daffodil yellow through a break in the cloud-room far down to the south-east."

Days later most of the troop has managed to survive, still harried and now grievously saddened by discovery that a fort where they sought refuge had already been sacked by their enemies. Somehow they find the strength to continue and Sutcliff again signals the small element of hopefulness that is theirs: "Somewhere in a bare thicket of rowan and hazel a robin sang as though there was no sorrow in the world, and from the skein of men behind him someone whistled back."

Finally regaining the safety of a fort on the Roman Wall far to the south of their starting point Alexios observes the land to the North and Sutcliff tells us Spring is near: "A puddling of snow still lingered in the hollows; and far off, the higher hills of the Frontier Country were still maned and crested with white; but nearer moors showed the sodden darkness of last year's heather, and the wind that always harped along the Wall had gone round to the West, and the green plover were calling."


Alan said...

Hi, nice post. I've recently read 'Black Ships Before Troy', after seeing Rosemary Sutcliff in your blog. The book in Spanish is called 'Naves negras ante Troya'. I liked it very much.

Un saludo

Jeff said...

Thanks, Alan!

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