After starting my Sutcliff journey with Sword at Sunset, I always intended to read The Eagle of the Ninth next, but things didn’t quite happen as planned. I have a lot of great big thick books lying around at the moment and, while hunting for something short as a kind of palate-cleanser between epics, I unearthed this little novel. It was allegedly written for children but, in the tradition of the best children’s literature, it’s equally rewarding to read as a grown-up. In fewer than two hundred pages, Sutcliff spins a stirring tale of honour, bravery and adventure, the Viking sea road and the golden domes of Byzantium. How could I resist?
After his mother’s death, the half-British, half-Saxon boy Jestyn is no longer welcome in his father’s native village on the high moors of south-western England. Instead he heads east, towards his mother’s homeland, where he finds work as a cattle-driver. But one day, when the storms rise quickly off the sea and the herd scatters, Jestyn encounters a group of men very different from any he has yet met. These are Northmen, sheltering from the ravages of the sea, and they first take Jestyn’s cows for their fire, and then take Jestyn himself as a thrall for the slave-markets of Dublin. By any stretch of the imagination, his future looks bleak, and yet fate isn’t done with Jestyn yet.
He is purchased by another Northman: the quiet, mercurial Thormod, for whom he cleans armour and runs errands. When spring comes round, Thormod and his shipmates will set out again for their homes and Jestyn is desperate to accompany them, having nowhere else to go and no one else whom he cares for. Little does he realise that, in returning with Thormod, their old state as master and slave will transform into a friendship that will bind their lives together. Nor does he anticipate that, on their return, they will find Thormod’s family stained by a blood feud, which he is bound in all honour to pursue, no matter where it may lead – even if it takes him all the way to the edge of the Northmen’s world. And so, side by side, Jestyn and Thormod set off on a journey of dazzling scale: across the Baltic sea and down through endless pine woods to the frosty wastes of Kiev and then beyond, to the perfumes, luxuries and glory of Byzantium. There are wonders, to be sure. But there is also the bitter, implacable obligation of blood and death, and their prey is only a step ahead.
Sutcliffe is, predictably, marvellous. Although she doesn’t have much space to tell her story, and a lot happens in this limited number of pages, she manages to preserve a gently elegiac mood in which there is time for a stand of lonely thorn-trees atop a ridge, or the fluttering of pipits in the spring thaw, just as there is for swords and vengeance and the slippery terror of battle. I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed that the book was aimed at children if I hadn’t been reading a timeworn Puffin edition from 1976 (with a singularly ugly cover, not the one you see above). Perhaps, if it had been for grown-ups, the novel would’ve been longer and we’d have been able to spend more time savouring the details of Jestyn’s journey: I, for one, would have been very glad of that, although as it stands the story is told with tremendous pace and the chapters are so temptingly short that you feel there’s always time for just one more before bed. You could devour the whole book in a couple of hours and yet, somehow, it holds a whole world within it. I am shamelessly going to quote Sutcliffe’s magnificent passage in which Jestyn first sees Byzantium, to give you a flavour of her ability to conjure up the riches of the world in words:
I remember city walls that seemed to have been built for a fortress of giants, tall buildings set about with cypress trees and roofed with russet and purple, gold and green, vast arches upheld on marble columns that twisted as fantastically as bindweed stems … I remember little fretted balconies that clung like swallows’ nests high overhead… [and] gardens and open spaces where statues of marble heroes and golden saints and bronze horsemen stood tall and proud among shade-trees; and everywhere the domes of Christian churches catching the last of the run-honey light.
If I were, in passing, to note one other thing that would perhaps be different in a grown-up novel, it’s the nature of the companionship between Jestyn and Thormod, which seems to adult eyes to transcend the bonds of friendship. There is a hint of this towards the end, when one character says, after reading from the Iliad: ‘And so, for you too, there was a Patroclus‘. Quite. And yet Sutcliff’s gift is to create a better, nobler world where this kind of loyalty seems to fit: where you can believe in the kind of passionate, pure companionship that makes one man willing to die for another, without obligation or expectation, and which asks for nothing more. This is the kind of noble bond that would have made my heart sing as a girl, and still does a little now, and it’s a bit of a shame that with the loss of innocence I find myself imposing other layers on it.
It is a lovely book and, again, I only wish it were longer! My sensation on finishing it is rather like Bede’s swallow, having flown through a sudden burst of light and laughter and clashing ale-horns and song, and coming abruptly out the other side into darkness again. But it has confirmed my admiration for Sutcliff, whose writing has the kind of thoughtful quality that I’ve also spotted in Gillian Bradshaw‘s novels, in Nicola Griffith’s Hild and to some extent in Manda Scott’s Boudica books. Together, these authors have taken the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ out of their fictional corner and restored them to glorious, gripping, golden life once again. From my point of view, any one of them is worth cherishing.