Slightly Foxed Cubs is a series of reissues of classic children’s books which will, we feel, strike a nostalgic chord with many older readers and introduce a younger generation to writers whose marvellous books have, unaccountably, been allowed to slip out of print.
Rosemary Sutcliff (1920–92) wrote three of her four great historical novels for children set during the last years of the Roman occupation of Britain – The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers (winner of the Carnegie Medal) – between 1954 and 1959, and the fourth, Frontier Wolf, which comes third in the chronological story, in 1980. The four books are only loosely inter-connected, but together they give a vivid picture of the ebbing away of imperial power from Britain as Rome’s values were undermined and her defences gradually weakened by Saxon invasions. The three final novels that follow in this brilliant sequence – Dawn Wind, Sword Song and The Shield Ring – continue the story, forming a vivid panorama of the mysterious years from the departure of the Roman Legions, through the Dark Ages to the first decades of Norman rule.
Sutcliff was writing primarily for children, but she never talks down to her readers, and adults too find these novels impossible to put down. All of them are based on historical fact but it’s Sutcliff’s imaginative brilliance that makes you smell the burning cherry log warming old Uncle Aquila’s cosy study, feel the tension in the air at the Saturnalia Games, and shiver in the icy winds howling round the bleak frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall. Her protagonists are no cardboard cut-outs but flesh-and-blood people with understandable weaknesses and beset by recognizable human dilemmas, and it’s they who drive the plots. As well as being brilliant reads, together these novels make sense of a far-off period that left its mark on almost every aspect of British life. They have been difficult to find for some time and we’re delighted to be reissuing all seven of the Roman and post-Roman novels, with their original illustrations, in a limited, numbered edition.
As Marcus the young centurion arrives in Britain to take up his first command, he is haunted by the memory of his father and the 6,000 men of the Ninth Hispana Legion, who twelve years earlier had marched north of Hadrian’s Wall to quell an uprising and were never seen again. Seriously wounded soon after in an attack by hostile tribesmen, invalided out of the Roman Army and wondering what to do with his life, Marcus determines to make the hazardous journey north in a bid to discover the fate of the Ninth Legion, and in particular of the Roman eagle, the Legion’s standard and a possible rallying point for the northern tribes in their war against Rome. Sutcliff’s most famous book is a gripping adventure and a touching coming-of-age story, based on the real disappearance of the Ninth Legion around the year AD 117.
Roman influence in Britain is waning. The Empire is increasingly threatened by hostile tribes along its borders and divided by political struggles at home. Two distant cousins who have met by chance in Britain – Justin, a shy, newly qualified army surgeon and Flavius, a young centurion – are caught up in the power struggles between Carausius, the charismatic Emperor of Britain, his cruel and ruthless treasurer, and the Emperor in Rome. Disgraced after their attempt to warn Carausius about a plot against him fails, the two go underground, rallying support for the legitimate Emperor and finally taking refuge at the farm of their formidable great-aunt Honoria. Here they make an astonishing discovery which affects their future and links directly back to their ancestor Marcus and the disappearance of the Ninth Legion.
After a disastrous misjudgement which cost the lives of half his men, Alexios, another young centurion and member of the Aquila family, is sent to take charge of a bleak Roman outpost on Hadrian’s Wall and the savage bunch of men who defend it, the Frontier Wolves of the title. Dealing with this notorious legion is literally a matter of life and death for Alexios, for a commander who alienates them is unlikely to survive. Frontier Wolf tells the story of how this flawed but likeable hero grows in stature, gradually gaining his legion’s respect and the co-operation of the surrounding tribes, and defending Rome as the threat from the north grows.
The shadow of the approaching Dark Ages hangs over this last of the Roman novels. Rome’s legacy is finally decaying, the regular legions have been withdrawn, and Saxon raiding parties are invading the British countryside. As commander of a cavalry troop, young Aquila has been ordered to leave, but he has grown to love Britain and stays on, only to see his father’s farm torched by the Saxons, his father and the household servants murdered and his sister Flavia abducted. Aquila himself is captured and spends years as slave to a Saxon clan, but as the darkness gathers over Britain, it only strengthens his determination to avenge his family and keep Roman values alive.
In Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dawn Wind Owain, the book’s teenage hero who has both Roman and British blood in his veins, is the sole survivor of a terrible battle with the Saxons. Wounded and hungry, and with only a great fighting dog for company, he makes for the old Roman city of Viroconium where, among the ruins, he meets another survivor, Regina, a young and terrified orphaned girl and together they set off for the coast, planning to leave Britain for a British settlement in Gaul. On the journey Regina falls desperately ill and Owain buys her safety with his own freedom, becoming a thrall in a Saxon household. But in the years that follow he never forgets Regina, and when he regains his freedom the two meet again.
In Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword Song sixteen-year-old Bjarni Sigurdson, a young Norwegian living in the Viking settlement of Rafnglas, is exiled for five years by the chief, Rafn Cedricson, for the hot-tempered murder of a priest, so breaking an oath Cedricson had sworn to his foster-brother to protect Christians within his lands. Bjarni joins a merchant ship sailing for Dublin from where, robbed of his possessions but with a new companion, a stray hound he calls Hugin, he embarks on a career as a mercenary in the wars between the clan chiefs in Ireland, Wales and the Scottish Isles. On Mull, he falls under the influence of the chief’s devoutly Christian mother Lady Aud, and after a chance meeting on a journey with her to the monastery on Iona, he is able to return and receive absolution from Rafn Cedricson for the breaking of his vow.
In Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Shield Ring England is now under Norman rule, but hidden high among the Cumbrian fells is one last Viking stronghold. Into it comes the five-year-old Saxon girl Frytha, saved by her father’s shepherd Grim after her family farm has been torched and her family murdered by the Normans. Here she meets another orphan, Bjorn, and over the years the two become inseparable. When William the Conqueror’s son William II marches north through Lakeland to confront the Scots, the Norsemen send a peace envoy, who is cruelly tortured and murdered by the Normans. It’s clear William is determined to take this final tactical outpost, but Bjorn, disguised as a travelling harper and secretly accompanied by Frytha, enters the enemy camp and after a terrifying ordeal brings back vital information which gives the advantage to the Norsemen.
‘Sutcliff was a superb writer with a classicist’s grasp of the era, a poet’s eye for nature and a devilish sense of plot. Fiction this evergreen cannot fail to uplift.’ David Mitchell
‘These tales of Roman Britain have yet to be surpassed for their non-patronising prose and adult dangers. Sutcliff makes Classics and archaeology uniquely thrilling for children.’ Amanda Craig, The Times
‘Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors when I was a child. I loved the detailed description and beautiful prose which fired my imagination. She made time travellers of her readers and I have never forgotten the intense pleasure her books gave me. The Eagle Of The Ninth was my favourite, not only for the romance and poignancy of the lost legion but the thrilling journey she took her readers on to the wild savage edge of the known world. I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s books aloud to my own children who were as captivated as I was. She is one of our greatest writers and gave me a lifelong love of history.’ Chris Riddell
A Vanished Warmth
At school I loved our history lessons. I spent hours drawing plans of castles and battles, and was a binge reader of historical fiction by anyone from Rosemary Sutcliff and Henry Treece to Mary...Read more
Light in the Dark Ages
Nobody likes losing a pet. But for Owain it is the very last straw. His father and his older brother were killed in the last great battle against the invading Saxons, a battle which he himself barely...Read more
The Last of Rome
Desperation drove me to Horatius, one gloomy afternoon in late October. Thirty restless children were waiting to be entertained, educated or even just dissuaded from rioting by their hapless supply...Read more
I was thus apprehensive, for my sake as well as my children’s, when I encouraged them to read Rosemary Sutcliff. I wondered whether I would still be drawn to her ancient worlds, her vanished races...Read more