I am not quite sure when I discovered Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels; it was sometime in my teens. The public library had several copies of Rider on a White Horse, which I thought immediately was the most perfectly evocative historical fiction ever, knocking such lesser lights like Gone With the Wind effortlessly into the shade. Besides, I was a Unionist and an abolitionist; and I thought Scarlett was a spoiled, self-centered brat and Melanie a spineless simpleton and I usually wanted to throw GWTW across the room so hard that it banged against the opposite wall when Margaret Mitchell began complaining about Northern abolitionists. Anyway, the only book that came close to Rider was Sutcliff’s adult Arthurian novel – Sword at Sunset. This was the book that had me taking my poor younger brother and sister to every significant site of Rome in Britain, the summer that we spent there. Here and now I apologize here for dragging them to the remains of Galava Roman Fort, near Ambleside in the Lake District. In 1976 it was on the map, a clear and distinct quadrangle … but when we went to see it then, there was nothing but some shaped rocks edging a grassed-over stretch of ditch in a field full of cows. A thing of less interest could hardly be imagined … but I wanted to see it, anyway, being haunted by the sense that Sutcliff conveyed in Sword at Sunset and in books like Lantern Bearers – that of men and women who were living at the end of things, among the half-crumbled ruins of a great and dying empire, wistfully seeing all the evidence around that things had been better, greater, grander once, and now they weren’t – and wishing there was something that could be done to call those days back again.
“…we clattered under the gate arch into Narbo Martius, and found the place thrumming like a bee swarm with the crowds pouring in to the horse fair. It must have been a fine place once, one could see that even now; the walls of the forum and basilica still stood up proudly above the huddle of reed thatch and timber, with the sunset warm on peeling plaster and old honey-colored stone; and above the heads of the crowds the air was full of the darting of swallows who had their mud nests under the eaves of ever hut and along every ledge and acanthus-carved cranny of the half-ruined colonnades…”
That’s from an early chapter, describing a visit to the horse fair at present-day Narbonne. Another chapter describes the arrival of Artos and his companions at Hadrian’s Wall.
“It must have been a fine sight in its day, the Wall, when the sentries came and went along the rampart walks and bronze-mailed cohorts held the fortress towers and the altars to the Legion’s gods were thick along the crest; and between it and the road and the vallum ditch that followed it like its own shadow … the towns were as dead as the Wall, now, for the menace of the North was too near, the raids too frequent for them to have outlived the protection of the Eagles; and we rode into a ghost town, the roofs long since fallen in and the walks crumbling away, the tall armies of nettles where the merchants had spread their wares and the Auxiliaries had taken their pleasure in off-duty hours, where the married quarters had been, and children and dogs had tumbled in the sunshine under the very feet of the marching cohorts, and the drink shops had spilled beery song into the night, and the smiths and sandalmakers, the horse dealers and the harlots had plied their trades; and all that moved was a blue hare among the fallen gravestones of forgotten men, and above us a hoodie crow perching on the rotting carcass of what had once been one of the great catapults of the Wall, that flew off croaking with a slow flap of indignant wings as we drew near…”
Sutcliff’s revisioning of King Arthur as Artos, the half-British, half-Roman cavalry commander, with his company of fighting horsemen – spelled out to me what it could be like; selling your lives dear to hold back the darkness for just a little longer, a long fight in twilight among crumbling ruins, with men and women who half-remembered the ways and habits of an older age. Sutcliff’s Artos and his comrades – they picked their hill, their Badon Hill and made their stand. They valued those ways and the memories of those institutions handed down, more than they valued their own lives, for living under the yoke of barbarian raiders … meant nothing at all. Better to die on your feet as free men and women, than live in chains … and to make the choice while it is yours to make.
(This post crossposted at my book blog, and at www.ncobrief.com. Later – a link to one of my favorite old posts about Rome – here.)