This week, we bounce back in the timeline a little to books that were first read to me and then re-read a few times on my own. I hadn’t originally thought of writing about Rosemary Sutcliff for this series, but a recent conversation with my parents reminded me of her books, and how much I enjoyed them, and how worthwhile telling people about them is.
Each of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels of Roman Britain stands alone, with small references to earlier books for the enjoyment of careful readers. They are vividly world-built in both the physical environment and the culture. Much history is mentioned, but much less is explained. Exposition stays well confined to the perspective of the characters, even when what is common knowledge for them is mysterious to the young reader. The immersion is well-maintained and the characters feel authentically of their time, never turning toward the fourth wall for historical expositions. When I first read these books, I did not approach them differently than fantasy novels. I had no other historical reference to the times they were set with which to orient myself, so the world depicted was new and strange
I have only come to love these novels more as I return with much greater historical context. I find the interplay of solid history with legend and imagination enchanting, and I appreciate the effort Sutcliff puts on depicting the culture of the past without judgment, but also without excessive bowdlerizing. These books are satisfying to an amateur student of Roman history, both in the hints of larger social and political moves that drift into the narrative, and in their joyful examination of the details of daily life, hypocausts, and bath-houses, and legion careers. Beyond those details, the novels are united by repeated themes of legacy, loyalty, and the harmony and tension of blood family and found families.
The first of the series in The Eagle of the Ninth, set in golden age of empire, after the building of Hadrian’s wall. Our adventure is the search for a lost legionary eagle, vanished along with its legion in the mists of Caledonia beyond the wall, along with the main character’s father and an entire legion. After injury derails his career in the legions, our hero finds a second path in trying to redeem his family’s, and the empire’s, failure in the north. If there is a highlight beyond the lush description and enjoyable adventure, it is the clear-eyed view of the immense privilege that even a lower-level member of the Roman aristocracy enjoys. If there is a weakness, it the sensationalized savagery of the Celts beyond the wall, but it did not jar me when I was young, and I cannot now read past the veil of nostalgia to assess how deeply problematic it may be.
The next entry in the series is The Silver Branch, set a couple hundred years later, during Carausius’ rule of a semi-independent Britain. The issue of loyalties is immediately complicated in this book, as the legionary heroes must weigh loyalty to the distant and abstract Rome with duty to the nearby Carausius, a strong and effective steward of Britain, which they love. In the end of course, the question is resolved by Carausius’ murder by his treacherous minister Allectus, but not before much plot is wrung from investigation and skullduggery. Allectus allies with the Saxons, providing the series’ first glimpse of the blonde barbarians who will be the major antagonists of the last two books. In the end Rome, in the person of Re-conquering tetrarch Constantius, returns to its position as the light of order and civilization in Britain.
Rome is represented by a literal light in The Lantern Bearers, the lighthouse kindled by our protagonist as he watches the legions sail away from Britain, forever. Immediately after that melancholy symbol of defiance, our hero is captured by Saxons who look very much like proto-Vikings and taken as a thrall. The second half of the book, after his escape back in Britain, is an Arthurian story, with Vortigern, Hengest, and Aurelius Ambrosius, the sometimes Arthur, sometimes Merlin semi-historical last of the Romans in Britain. This was my first introduction to the Arthur as bearer of the Roman flame take on that mythology, and I have continued to be partial to that spin on Arthurian legend.
The Lantern Bearers technically closes a trilogy of related works, but I will also talk about a spiritual successor that I read along with the rest and enjoyed greatly. The Shining Company is an entirely British story, after the Romans and before Anglo-Saxon and British came to mean the same thing. It is in fact an imagining of a story told in a Welsh epic, preserved in fragments, called Y Gododdin. The poem and the novel tell of a picked force of 300 warriors, gathered by the wealthy king of what is now Edinburgh, and sent into doomed battle with the expanding Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia. (Fun trivia, if not a later interpolation in the manuscript, Y Gododdin contains the earliest known reference to king Arthur.) The style of The Shining Company is distinct from that of the Roman Britain novels, more lyrical, more epic, and more tragic, but it shows the same superb attention to the details of life in the past. It is particularly dear to me for portraying a world in which magic is believed in and magic is done without requiring any suspension of disbelief from the reader. Magic is done without anything necessarily fantastic occurring.
The lesson that the mundane must be explained and is worth spending exposition on no less than the fantastic is a quite important one, and that idea is perhaps the lasting legacy of these books for me. Also a deep fascination with Roman History. That may have started here too, or possible that was Asterix & Obelix. Either way, I loved Sutcliff when I was young, and I still find it worth returning.