The Mark of the Horse Lord
by Rosemary Sutcliff
Why can’t I find Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels on school reading lists? Is it because the history, set in ancient Britain in many cases, seems too remote for Americans? Or is it the violence? As Scott O’Dell, a man whose own books make a lot of reading lists, writes in the afterword to the 1989 edition of The Mark of the Horse Lord, “A river of blood and violence runs through this book. . . Yet it never runs just for effect. Ms. Sutcliff is never melodramatic, never drawn beyond the facts.”
The level of violence in this story of the ex-gladiator Phaedrus forced into the kingship of a Celtic tribe on the outskirts of Roman Britain makes The Hunger Games look mild. In fact, the similarity of the opening premise of both books -- young people forced to fight to the death for a crowd’s amusement (and still more darkly, the subjection of their own people), is striking. Perhaps it’s a story that needs repeating with every generation, and every war.
Sutcliff, who died in 1992, gained the label -- slighting for the time -- of a children’s author in the days before MG (middle grade) and YA (young adult) books were some of the best sellers on any publisher’s list. But as with the best of young readers’ fiction even today, her best books appeal as well to adults as for children and teens.
The opinion of Sutcliff herself was that “children should be allowed the great themes, which are also often tragic themes.” And as blogger Annis notes at www.historicalnovels.info/Rosemary-Sutcliff.html/, the only significant differences between her novels for young people and those for adults, such as the Arthurian retelling Sword at Sunset (discussed on this blog May 20 of last year), are “some sensitively drawn sex scenes unlikely to faze the modern teenager.”
Her protagonists were more often young men than women, whose social rules were more limited in the historical periods she chose. But she could still portray the likes of the young warrior queen Murna in The Mark of the Horse Lord. And the book’s antagonist, Murna’s soul-devouring mother. (Sutcliff’s own beloved but manic-depressive mother may be the model for her troubling portraits of older women.)
And she has no competitor in her depiction of the loneliness of outsiders in society, and of the disabled, subjects she knew in her own life. She suffered from a form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis that left her with painfully distorted joints and prevented her from marrying, although not from falling in love.
As she observes tartly but not bitterly in her autobiography, Blue Remembered Hills: A Recollection, “It has begun to dawn on the able-bodied world that . . . we may have the same emotional needs as anybody else, and the ability to satisfy those needs in each other, or even in the able-bodied.”
Although many of Sutcliff’s books are out of print, they’re gaining new life as e-books, available on Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook readers, ready to enchant a new generation.
(Next month -- Adventure classics begins a month of stories from Texan Robert E. Howard. Hope you enjoy his very different take on the same setting as Sutcliff’s, in Worms of the Earth next Wednesday.)