Title: Sword Song
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Recommended Ages: 13 & up
Star Rating: ★★★
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Remember Rosemary Sutcliff and her book The Eagle which I raved over? Sword Song is another of her works!
Bjarni Sigurdson is sentenced to five years away from his settlement, the settlement where Rafn Cedricson sits as Chief of the Hall. His crime is no small matter in the eyes of the Thing; he has killed a priest of the White Christ, a group whom Rafn had sworn would be assured of safety in his settlement. He has made an oath-breaker out of Rafn, the Chief, and Rafn is displeased.
As punishment, Rafn temporarily exiles Bjarni from the settlement. Five years must he wait before he can return home. Bjarni determines to hire out his services to another liege-lord. He will become a great warrior, and return to his settlement with glory!
But can Bjarni withstand the dangers and loneliness of these five years? Will death swallow him up in the next great battle? Will he ever see his home settlement again?
I did not realize this until I had purchased it and carefully escorted it home, but Sword Song is the last book that Rosemary Sutcliff wrote. She actually died before she had completed the second drafting of it. And, I hate to say this, but it showed. Oh, it was still an interesting, adventurous work, but it didn’t have the zip and zing of The Eagle. Most importantly, it didn’t have the gel.
What I mean, is, that the storyline wasn’t as coherent or purpose-driven as some of her other works. In The Eagle, the purpose is clear – recover the Eagle or die – and the story is concentrated on this theme. Sword Song, on the other hand, does not have this driving purpose. At the beginning of the story, Bjarni is exiled. For the rest of the story, he is finding a way to occupy his time until he will be allowed back home. The whole story felt as though it were waiting for the action to happen. Why? Because the hero’s goal was to get back home, and the only way he could get back home was to burn up five years. In those five years he fights in many battles, but none of them concerns his ultimate goal of returning back home. They are simply battles that he fought because he was hired to fight them.
Also, the cast of characters shifted multiple times. There were at least three sets of main secondary characters in a two hundred seventy page book. I felt that I barely had time to get to know them (much less remember their oulandish names!) before I was whisked off to another setting so that Bjarni could fight in more battles so that eventually he could get home. He wasn’t working towards his goal, just, well… drifting towards it?
Sutcliff still managed to create a definite world and give an atmosphere to her story. And the writing was still spectacular – there were bursts of brilliance and excitement. It was the story idea that bugged me, partly because I couldn’t help comparing it to her magnum opus, The Eagle.
Also, unlike in The Eagle, the Norse religion does play a larger role in the story. There are many references to Thor and Odin and the legends that accompany them. Because the readers of the story will have to be mature in order to handle the reading level, I don’t think that this makes the story inappropriate. To the contrary, it adds a certain authenticity to the story. What I did think was interesting, was how, about two-thirds into the story, Bjarni becomes a ‘prime-signed’ Christian. To be a prime-signed Christian meant that “you were accepted into the following of the White Christ, which made life much simpler if for instance you wanted to take sword-service with a Christian chief; but you were still free to turn back to your own gods in time of real need.” [pgs. 113-114] Syncretism, anyone?
Bjarni fought in many battles, and thus, violence played a huge role in the story. For the most part it was not gruesome, but it was intense. This was probably the most bloody passage.
There was no time for another, or maybe no more shafts in the man’s quiver. He flung his bow aside and crouched, his knife in his hand, the bog behind him, as Bjarni hurled himself forward over the last short distance between. The ground was beginning to feel soft and hungry at his feet, but he was not aware of that; not aware of anything save the man waiting for him, dirk in hand, and the dirk in his own hand and the high red killer-singing inside his own head. Only the two of them in the dream; even the rest of the hunt had ceased to exist. For an instant he saw the bared teeth and widened eyes of the man who had killed Red Thorstein, his lord, as he dived in under the snake strike of the Pictish blade. He felt the dull shock, and grating of blade on bone as his own blade went in above the collar bones into the taut throat. And the thrust burst the dream and let in reality. Let in the faint shiver of cool air off the bog, and the sharp cry of a raven sweeping overhead – and the man still rocking on his feet for a moment before sagging to his knees, twisting over as he fell, so that he lay face up among the bog grasses.
There was a great deal of blood, pumping from the red gash in the man’s neck, then from other wounds on his breast and belly and flanks, as others of the hunt came crowding round, each fiercely eager to have a share in kill. [pgs. 172-173]
As far as romance goes, early in the book he comes upon a girl named Thara who has sprained her ankle. He carries her back to her home.
He glanced down, and found speedwell-blue eyes surrounded by feathery silver-gilt lashes gazing up at him, and noticed for the first time how bonny she was in a kitten-witted kind of way. He had never carried a girl before, and the feel of her in his arms was warm and soft and pleasant. But she was heavier than she looked, and there was still quite a way to go. [pgs. 36-37]
Bjarni isn’t interested in Thara, but she is enamored of him and pursues him. When he returns from a battle, he’s sees her…
She passed close to Bjarni, slanting her eyes at him and holding her shoulders back to make the most of her little round apple breasts. But he never saw her, because his face was buried in Hugin’s neck and his hands were up, working into the warm hollows behind the great hound’s ears. [pg. 66]
Later, during the festivities that follow the warrior’s return home, she tries again.
Bjarni, watching the girls circling by, saw Thara’s pretty, stupid little face go by with bursts of coloured silk twisted into the pale bright braids of her hair. Three times he saw her go by. Then, circling still, the girls slipped their arms free of each other and the steps became wider and looser, the circle swifter and more ragged as each girl darted out from it to catch whichever of the young men caught her fancy and swung him back with her into the dance. Bjarni found Thara’s face close to him, flushed and foolish, and next moment she had flung herself upon his chest, her arms round him, laughing, trying to kiss him wetly, trying to drag him into the jigging, bounding circle behind her.
If he had been stone-cold sober he would not have done it. He would have had too much sense or maybe too much kindness. But the bride-ale was strong and he had drunk a good deal of it, and he did not want to find himself caught up with Thara Priestsdaughter, who seemed to be forever hanging round him. He pulled her arms away and thrust her cheerfully into the arms of the man next beside him, and himself grabbed the next girl to spin by and swung her off her feet as he pranced out with her into the ring of dancers. He scarcely knew the girl, but she came willingly, squealing with laughter, and they danced together in the ragged spinning circle. The whole night was spinning, swimming and circling under the yellow moon to the lit of the pipes and the fog of ale and the nearing scent of thunder in the air. [pgs. 73-74]
Bjarni’s treatment of her makes Thara angry, and she is no longer interested in him. It is not until the end of the story, when Bjarni meets Angharad that romance reappears.
He searched around in his weary mind for the right thing to do, the right thing to say. He was not practiced in love talk, but suddenly his arms were round her and his face was buried in the side of her neck, speaking softly where the red flare was.
‘I have done something that I never did before. Last night I ran from a fight for your sake. Because I would not see you killed.’
And this time she did not draw away. Instead she put her arm around his neck, and he felt the beginning flicker of warmth, of life in her. ‘I have a dowry to bring,’ she said with a kind of weary laughter. ‘I have a horse and a ring that cures warts.’
‘And that’s a fine dowry after all,’ Bjarni said as they slipped down into the growing warmth of the streamside grass. [pg. 263]
This is where the chapter ends, so I’m not sure what happened after they “slipped down”.
Female dogs are referred to as bitches. When Bjarni and Angharad communicate with one another, Sutcliff writes that they speak “in a bastard Norse and British tongue that they seemed to be weaving between them.” [pg. 229]
Exclamations are often made in the name of Norse gods, and later in the book by ‘Our Lady’s Grace’ or the ‘Holy Mother’.
Conclusion. Not as masterful as her work The Eagle, but still a worthwhile piece of historical fiction.