Rosemary Sutcliff, The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965)
I haven’t read much Rosemary Sutcliff, but I really need to change that. This new edition of The Mark of the Horse Lord from Chicago Review Press brings one of Sutcliff’s classic works of historical fiction back into print 50 years after its original publication, and it’s a stunner. Winner of the very first Phoenix Award, it’s a perfectly paced, thrilling, emotionally engaging foray into that time period that Sutcliff made her own: the Roman occupation of Britain. In this story of a gladiator from a frontier town who ends up as chief of the Dalriadain (better known to us as the Scots), both Roman and British culture are brought vividly, savagely to life.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot, because I want you to have the pleasure of having it unfold according to Sutcliff’s intentions; it is masterfully done. I will say that I wouldn’t have thought that I could pick up a book about a gladiator, a finely honed fighting machine, and be so instantly drawn into his drama and sympathize so fully with his quest. Phaedrus is a magnificent character, and in The Mark of the Horse Lord you will meet many others: Conory, his companion and rival; Murna, the woman who is a true match for him; Sinnoch, a wily horse trader. You will feel you have really inhabited the past with them, and touched the spirit of the northern tribes, which is at once foreign and familiar.
Sutcliff’s prose style is a joy to read, and beautifully creates an atmosphere and a mood without distracting from the drive of the narrative. Every word begs to be read and savored.
Phaedrus found himself riding at the head of a fiery cloud of horsemen that churned the glen trails to a puddled slush; and his ears were full of the soft rolling thunder of hooves and the exultant throat-cries of the riders.
It was Murna’s face looking up at him, gray-white and somehow ragged, as though in pulling off the bridal mask he had torn holes in something else, some inner defense that she was naked and terrified without.
“What has the Great Mother to do with gentle or ungentle? She does not do, she only is. She is the Lady of Life and Death.”
This is one of those books where age-related labels don’t really fit well at all. Published as a children’s book, it could indeed be read by a child and be an extraordinary and transformative reading experience. Its mature themes and violence make it more what we would call “YA” today (a label that didn’t exist 50 years ago). But it can, and should, be read by anyone who loves history, or thinking about what motivates human beings, or the British landscape and people, or great writing. It’s going on my shelf along with other favorites by Mary Renault, Naomi Mitchison, and Robert Graves, and I hope you will add it to yours as well.