|Best enjoyed with tea and doughnuts. :)|
In the very first post I wrote this year, I mentioned that I wanted to read my first Rosemary Sutcliff novel sometime in in 2014. I had heard a lot about this author when I started blogging, and early in 2013 I asked some Sutcliff experts what would be the best book of hers to begin with. Upon their recommendation, I wrote "The Shield Ring" on my to-read list, and early this year (as this is my year for choosing the books I really want to read) I picked it up from the library.
"That is our Shield Ring, our last stronghold; not the barrier fells and the tottermoss between, but something in the hearts of men."
~The Shield Ring, by Rosemary Sutcliff
Frytha is five years old when the Normans come to burn her house and kill her family. A faithful sheepherder hides her and brings her safely away, but her parents were not saved, and she is left with only a faint memory of a burning thatch and a command from the man who rescued her that she must never forget that the Normans did her wrong.
Frytha and Grim take refuge miles and miles away in the stronghold of the Jarl, the leader of their people. His Hearth Hall is known as the Shield Ring, a secret stronghold that has held the land free from Norman invasion for twenty years or more. The Normans don't know where the Hearth Hall is, and none of the Northmen are about to give it's location away.
Frytha is a little older when the Jarl tells his people that they do not have enough men to hold the Shield Ring against the coming force of Normans, and it is in their best policy, though against all their hearts, to surrender. By general consensus the people agree. But when the envoy of peace they send is brutally tortured and mutilated, the Northmen people abandon all thought of making peace.
They will hold their Shield Ring against the bars of Hell itself. And though they are small in number, their love and loyalty bids fair to prevail.
Only betrayal, or the slow decline of men, can break their strong resolve.
Sutcliff is beautiful. Beautifully unique; I've never read an author like her before, and I think she must be one of a kind. Not complicated; a straightforward painter of words. The characterizations and themes are clear, and you know who you should be rooting for from the beginning. Yet in her simplicity, there's a pure thread of crimson that weaves through strong and bright--for Sutcliff's detail and her very simplicity is that of a true artist.
When I was finished, I was left wondering "Was it written for young readers, or adults"? It seemed that it might be written for young people because of the simplicity of the story and the plotting; yet at the same time, there was a deeper, grander theme to it that seemed more likely to be appreciated by older readers.
The answer, in the end, lies in the beauty of the fact that her works can be enjoyed by a wide range of ages.
For those who are wondering, it's not an intrinsically Christian story. As for the religion of the people, mostly gods such as Thor are mentioned. There's only one time where a man introduces a Christian Latin chant at a grave site, but it means nothing to the people, and they stick with what they're familiar with. However, the book is still very much worth reading, and certainly many of the themes are based from Scripture. I think you'll find it well worthy to be on anyone's bookshelf, for themes of sacrifice and heritage, friendship and bravery, family and defense.
Sutcliff doesn't drag her readers into the whirlpool of drama in a Dickens, or the romantic love triangles of a Jane Porter. She paints a clear picture of simple bravery, and steadfast nobility, and unbroken heritage. Even the romance--what there is of it--is merely the realizing of two good comrades that they want to go on in even closer friendship with one another.
The Shield Ring is not only a story about Frytha's view of her people, but also of her first friend, Bjorn, and his burning desire to prove himself steadfast, mostly to himself, but also to a couple of enemies. Bjorn and Frytha's story is over arched by the story of the Shield Ring itself--the Northmen's secret stronghold, and the battles the men fight to keep it well defended and safe from invaders' eyes. Both plots weave in and out together seamlessly
Strong defenders--Aiken and Gille, and even Aiken's dog Garm--are also worthy of mention as well-beloved and heroic characters. The sword Waveflame, the Road that Leads to Nowhere--a myriad of characters and objects that bring the story to a rich level of detail without overwhelming it's aim of simplicity.
A wonderful story. The first time in a long time I treated myself to reading in the middle of a work morning when I still had other things to do. On the very last day, when I knew I could finish it, I stayed up until midnight so I could mark it down on my list.
I definitely hope to be reading Sutcliff again. If you've never read her, be sure to put her on your list! A must-read for any historical fiction lover, and a writer worthy of study and imitation.