And it's so thought-provoking that it's going to require a two-part review. :) Today, I'll start with the traditional format.
The Book (description from Amazon)
Life is secure and peaceful for young Prosper, second son of Gerontius, until the day Prince Gorthyn arrives with his hunting party. Prosper's unusual daring in the hunt catches the prince's attention, and he promises to make Prosper his shield-bearer when he comes of age. Two years later, three hundred princes are summoned to the king's fortress at Dyn Eidin, where they will prepare to fight the Saxon forces which are gaining strength in the east. Prosper, with Conn, his bondservant, leaves his father's lands to join Gorthyn in the rigorous training for battle. With the coming of spring, word reaches the Three Hundred Companions that the Saxon leader has taken yet another kingdom. They set out at once for the Saxon stronghold of Catraeth, where Prosper must face the greatest challenges of his life.
Adventure and heroism against impossible odds create a moving, robust tale set in Britain in the eighth century and based on actual events.
So far Sutcliff has a 100% track record of gripping characters, beautiful prose, and causing me to wrestle with deep issues weeks after I've read The End. I like a book like that. One that isn't come and go, but lingers and drives you to God, his character, and his Word in a deeper way. The Shield Ring was the best book to introduce me gently, and so far The High Deeds of Finn MacCool and The Shining Company have been double home runs of wrestling with ethics, mythology, warfare, friendship, magic, and Christian discernment. For that reason alone, I want to keep reading her.
What's even more interesting, is that I don't think Sutcliff was a believer. Both mentions of Christianity that I've stumbled across have been negative, given from the perspective of pagan tribe members. Beyond that, she doesn't think to mention it at all. It's kind of sad, really, that a non Christian author with that much skill and depth wouldn't use her skill for the glory of God.
I love the atmosphere of an older England with the small tribes and allegiances and secluded ways of living. It reminded me a lot of Jennifer Frietag's The Shadow Things, and the culture that Indi grew up in. Prosper is a worthy hero, drawn with simple lines and not colored in with much detail--more an observer than a main player. I liked how he was part of the shield bearers. It gave the company of men preparing for warfare a greater gravitas, looking at them as heroes of legend through the eyes of a lesser vassal. The womenfolk are strong, but not post-modern discontents with their current society. They are beautiful, fulfilling the traditions of their people, and glad to do so. The men are courageous and handsome and dashing.
I was kind of surprised that the deep friendship that develops between Prosper and his slave dwindles away into nothingness as they grow up. It's not a plot tactic you see often. They just get busy, and still like each other, but rarely see each other. I missed them, and it made me sad, but it felt natural at the same time.
It's a story of great effort, great joy, great competition, great pain--yet told so simply that the greatness of each man shines so much higher than it would if the author were straining to make her point. She doesn't strain at anything, and that's the gift of it. She seems to know exactly how much to say and when to stop, and to stop exactly when she has reached it.
The only thing that wasn't my favorite was the mist the King's bard conjured up on the night of a battle. He was a pagan, but you can't attempt to control the weather without pagan witchcraft. Beyond that, there wasn't really direct reference to magic or paganism that I recall.
It is a heart wrenching story of impossible odds, hard decisions, and the bitterness and brokenness of memory. But for all the grief, I was satisfied with the results. Sutcliff left us a thread of continuing on to satisfy our imaginations and thirst for hope.
Intrigued? Don't look up this book quite yet. In its pages, there's one huge question that I was not expecting, on the issue of battlefield morality and euthanasia. We'll be talking about that on Friday.