The Shield Ring

[ for those of you who intend to read The Shield Ring and haven't, be forewarned: this post contains spoilers ]

For no reason I can give, I have always had a tingling curiosity, rather shy and yet at the same time determined, of the old Nordic world. This interest surfaced most vividly in a small story I wrote about the gods Tyr and Loki and their fight over the welfare of two humans which, in legendary fashion, turned out to be a truly tragic story, so tragic that no one in my family who has read it much liked it. Ah, well... Since then the interest has submerged itself under the Matter of Rome and what the Matter of Rome made of Britain which, in Roman fashion, served to dominate my other more peripheral interests.

I began a book, some years ago, by Rosemary Sutcliff called Sword Song. This last book of Sutcliff's was published posthumously by her godson Anthony Lawton, whose acquaintance I have had the pleasure of making, if only through emails. Unfortunately, Sutcliff died before she was able to complete her typical second and third drafts of the manuscript, and I believe that when I attempted to read Sword Song I could feel her final touches lacking. I put the book down unfinished, and let it lie, knowing that one day, in the distant future, I would take it up again. This was the first time I had seen Sutcliff's dealings with the Nordic kind, and I was a little put off by the unavoidable fact that its author didn't have time to polish it.

But, enjoying Sutcliff as much as I do, I was willing to give her a second chance. Not in Sword Song, not yet. Instead I took up the last of those books which loosely follow a family by way of an emerald signet ring, a ring with a dolphin engraved in the gem. Of course, I did not realize this until, among the inheritance that Bjorn was given by his foster-father, we found his father's ring. So I was still a little uncertain when I began reading, wondering how I would like a story about Vikings and Normans, hoping the while that a story set in the Lake District (which I should love some day to see) would make up for anything that might be lacking.

This is the reconstruction of a true story. In her author's note, Sutcliff assures the reader that, apart from Ranulf le Meschin (whose family name can be found in the Domesday Book), the characters in the story cannot be found in history books, but in local tradition and legend. The great Norman Survey of England halts at the foot of the Lake District, and the scar-marks of whatever struggle stopped the Norman advance can still be seen there today. As with many of her stories, The Shield Ring is the imaginative reconstruction of those mysterious gaps in history which those at the time failed to fill for us.

The story opened feeling like a scene in which Dan and Una might be walking in one of Kipling's Puck stories, which I liked. I liked Frytha, young, orphaned, uncertain Frytha, and I liked Bjorn's frank mocking demeanour, even as a young child, as though he were the King of Norway. They drew me in, the two of them, and their unspoken pact with each other. That serious unspoken bond, even in the midst of childhood, is something I have always appreciated. Frytha, having been uprooted at an early age from her family home, has a character which changes as she grows older, a character which changes naturally with age while the essentials remain the same, while Bjorn, after the first meeting, remains as potent and faintly mocking as the King of Norway throughout the book, though circumstances hammer his personality harder and denser as time passes.

Frytha. Orphaned as a child by a Norman raid, Frthya was taken by her father's herdsman Grim to join the Viking settlement in Lake Land. Growing up alongside her friend Bjorn, as war looms on the horizon, she wishes she was born to the sword side instead of the distaff side, but she proves her worth nevertheless. Though she directs her attention most often to the sword side of the fire where Bjorn operates, she gives the reader a glimpse into the woman's world of the Viking settlement as well.

Bjorn. Also an orphan, Bjorn is raised by his foster-father Haethcyn, the Hall Harper to Jarl Buthar of Lake Land. At an early age he shows the signs of a keen harper himself, but his own background, having strains of Welsh blood as well as Scandinavian, and his certain knowledge that one day he will be called upon to hang the fate of Lake Land in his hands lends to his harping a certain deep, melancholy appeal which few save Frytha really understand.

Aikin the Beloved. After the death of his foster-father Ari Knudson at the hands of the Normans, Aikin stands out among the warriors as a kind of fierce and furious, quiet silver flame of vengeance. Under Jarl Buthar he heads the Buthardale resistance against the Normans, an oddly gentle and charismatic figure to carry the day.

Among the handful of characters followed in this story, these three held both my attention and my heart and became, in their odd, different ways, friends to me.

I was able to relate to Frytha's unspoken, unasked understanding of the pattern of things, of why events unfolded as they did. Her sensibleness, her inner fire, her quiet fears, everything rang true to me as female characters so rarely do. In her eyes the Lake Land took on its living lustre as I read so that, though I have never been there myself, I could feel the throb of life in the earth beneath her bare brown feet. The dizzying loftiness of the fells, the plunging drops into the glens purple and green with shadow (white, in places, where the bilberry was fleeced with bloom), seemed to swell on my vision with all the immensity of their vasty wildness. And more than that, just as Frytha was a stranger to Buthardale at the beginning and, at the end, considered it home worth dying for, so I was made to feel the same to a land I have never seen in a time I have never visited.

On a more emotional level, Bjorn carries the main thrust of the story. The Norman have tried for twenty, thirty years to extract from the Lake Land people the location of Buthardale, and no one has ever told. Bjorn's unspoken certainty that one day he, too, will have his strength tested at Norman hands puts him at a kind of distance for much of the story, his faintly mocking demeanour a mask for the terrible surety underneath. Which makes the moment of his trial and his own triumph, by comparison, dim the triumph of the Lake Land people against the Normans. Bjorn stands out from among his dolphin-ring'd ancestors as strong, defiant, loyal, and shining as a hero while staying close enough to allow the reader to feel his heartbeat in the text.

Aikin the Beloved resumes his lawful place by tradition in the story: the hero-figure, the legendary man. Sutcliff never shows the story through his eyes, but follows him from time to time through the eyes of others. He is the fierce white shining genius of the story, a genius of determination and vengeance, of heart-bursting loyalty, coupled with an odd but fitting gentleness. Unlike Frytha and Bjorn, Aikin never seems to age throughout the story, and in his agelessness, he stands out to me as a sort of embodiment of the Lake Land fells, impassable and beautiful at once.

Aikin's How still looks down on Keskadale and the low ground toward Derwentwater, marking the place where Aikin the Beloved was laid, with his great sword Wave-flame in his hand and his hound Garm at his feet, after the last battle of all.

Among the gathering of characters in this story, there is one last addition which struck this tale with a true and throbbing note: Beowulf. Not the man himself, as such. The story of Beowulf, at this point, has been a story now for a very long time. But as with any legend, the genius of the great Geat warrior overshadows and empowers the steps of young Bjorn to the culmination of his fight, and he knows it. He played it on his harp, though only Frytha understood what he meant by it. The shades of Beowulf and Wiglaf stream in the dale sunset behind Bjorn and Frytha, a sunset lit by the firedrake. As Rich Mullins once sang, "Stories like that make a boy grow bold, stories like that make a man walk straight."

And we need heroes, don't we? The Shield Ring is a story of heroes, heroes unsung until Sutcliff took up her pen. From holm-gang to harp-song, heroes fill this story from beyond the fringes of the Domesday Book, from beyond the Norman pale, and with a strange sense of home-coming the long saga of the dolphin-ring brings itself most satisfactorily to a close.

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