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 survived; he gave up his own freedom and became enslaved, to save the life of a sick girl he had befriended; his country, his home and his own family have been either overrun or destroyed and now Dog, his only friend, has been cruelly, pointlessly killed. Who could blame him for feeling suicidal?
He makes for a place in the woods where, long ago, the Romans had made a shrine, now of course crumbling and overgrown. He buries Dog, and finds himself saying a prayer – not to the Christian god of his childhood, but to Silvanus, the old Roman deity of the woodlands. Then, crawling into the little shelter, he sits and idly scrapes away the leaves at his feet, uncovering a beautiful, delicate tiled floor, where a girl dressed in blue forever plays with tiny birds. And his spirits revive, and he resolves to live.
It is a pivotal moment. We loved Owain from the start, but now we cheer him on, trusting him to become the man he wants to be. And he doesn’t fail us.
The sobering thing about this episode in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dawn Wind (1961) is that so little has changed. People still go to war, are still cruel to animals; slavery has never gone away – and discovering Roman remains is the daily work of ‘detectorists’. But the fictional Owain lived more than fourteen hundred years ago, in a period which, having left precious few relics of its very existence, is known as the Dark Ages.
Nowadays, historians often prefer the term Early Middle Ages. But for those living through them, those years must often have felt very dark. In Dawn Wind, the fifth of her novels on Roman and post-Roman Britain, Rosemary Sutcliff is, as always, bang on the money: there is a great deal of heavy cold rain in this book. Her language is vigorous and frequently new-minted: we hear ‘the faint tripple of a horse’s hoofs’ on the old Roman road; we see the moon striking ‘little jinks of light’ from a battered breastplate, while a busy stream goes ‘brawling down the hill’; cornered, a snarling wild boar fixes us with ‘eyes red like the sullen gleeds of a burnt-out fire’.
With such strong and urgent imagery, she conjures up the thorny, watery southern Kentish lands, perilous under wraiths of mist, over which the slippery moon floats ‘like a curved feather . . . under the grey sweep of the tall marsh sky’, where Owain is now enslaved. Across this treacherous landscape he goes in search of his master’s lovely runaway mare Golden-eye, and helps to deliver her little foal, gleaming silver in the moonlight, whose destiny is to be the great white stallion of Thor. And nearby he plunges into a furious midnight sea to rescue the inert body of his master, his owner in fact, and take him home to his strong and stoical wife.
Like a brooding Sibelius symphony, the momentum of the book never lets up. It swirls and grows, from the echoing silence of the battlefield where Owain wakes, wounded, surrounded by the dead; via the desperate urgency of his panic, hunger and despair as he tries to survive on hares and hedgehogs, leaves and leverets; and it thunders right through the furious drama of the final pages to the sudden grandeur of the climax, when the dramatic arrival is announced of ‘a tall proud man with cold eyes, and strong in his own esteem’, coming ashore with a party of monks on the Isle of Thanet. It is Augustine, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to evangelize the marauding, heathen Anglo-Saxons, and to usher in nearly a thousand years of monasticism, with all its attendant advances in education, science and the arts.
There is a famous story that Gregory, after seeing some fair-haired boys being sold in the Roman slave market and being told they were Angles, remarked, ‘Non Angli, sed angeli.’ Usually this is translated as ‘Not Angles, but angels’, though in 1066 and All That, Sellar and Yeatman gloriously suggested another reading: they were not angels, said the Pope, but Anglicans. Sutcliff takes it one bathetic step further, having the powerful King Aethelbert of Kent, on hearing the witty epithet, stroke his beard and remark that along this coast they were, in actual point of fact, Jutes.
By now, though, young Owain has made a decision. After that last great battle against the invading Saxons many defeated Britons had made for Cornwall, hoping to buy space in a refugee boat taking them to a region of Gaul known as Armorica: they fled in such numbers that people joked they’d soon be calling it Brittany. But Owain had, perforce, stayed, living for ten years in occupied lands and working for the Saxon invaders. He is himself the descendant of an invader, of Aquila, hero of The Eagle of the Ninth, a Roman who first owned the great flawed emerald ring, carved with a dolphin, that gleams darkly through all the succeeding books and which now he proudly wears. His ancestors had settled, married and become integrated, as the Romano-British people. Now, Owain realizes that further assimilation is beginning. His Saxon masters, with their revered harpers and their exhausting sagas and riddles, are mostly good people, he has learned, no longer to be feared and hated. He will stay. Quite simply, like Schiller, he has realized the great truth that all men are brothers.
And an old, one-eyed prophet offers him another, lesser but nonetheless handy truth, learned in the course of a long life: ‘There is nothing like the air that blows through apple trees for clearing a man’s head from the fumes of overmuch mead.’
Rosemary Sutcliff’s great – almost unique – skill is to weave seriously thrilling action, profound philosophy and even romance around the extant pillars of history, however few they are. She is trustworthy. To read her is to know, for sure, exactly what it was like to live in Sussex towards the end of the sixth century, and what it was to be a lad like Owain. This is such a great book, yet the flyleaf of my old paperback is stamped with the death sentence ‘pulp Copy’. How excellent, then, that a beautiful new edition is now available, courtesy of Slightly Foxed, as part of a limited edition of her superb novels set in England during and after the Roman occupation.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 69 © Sue Gaisford 2021