Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review of Frontier Wolf, by Rosemary Sutcliff


I like to keep reading rituals.

One of them is every year on or around my birthday(september 17) I read or reread a novel by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Sutcliff was a writer of YA historical novels mostly set in Roman Occupied England, or right before. What distinguishes her novels is not so much the amount of historical detail that she manages to convey without being tiresome, as the tribal/mythic/mindset of the characters in that mieliu.

Frontier Wolf is the story of a Roman commanding officer, Alexios, of mixed heritage(Greek, Italian, and native British stock) who has through family influence achieved a high ranking post in Germania defending the frontier. In the first section of the book Alexios makes several judgemental errors that cause his men and fort to be wiped out by attacking barbarians, with only a handful surviving. Through family connections he is spared execution, but is also cast out by his family. As punishment he is sent to the Antonine Wall(north of Hadrian's wall and not so well defended) to preside over a group of auxiliary cavalry scouts known as the Frontier Wolves.

They are a rough group. Recrited from native tribal stock as well as Roman soldiers throughout the empire they have a history of killing off whatever commanders they don't like. The wolves also have their own traditions and rituals and Alexios, cosmopolitan Roman that he is, at first looks down upon such barbarism, but later comes to appreciate and share in their love for the worldview and its connection to the land.

He grows to see the tribesmen as defenders of their land and customs and also participates in their rituals. The rituals are the most fascinating aspects of the book. Sutcliff has done her homework and writes about tribal customs in such a way that the reader is taken in and made to feel they are participating. At the end of one ritual I recalled thinking that made perfect sense, but how in the hell would you recreate that in today's world. What experience could you possibly have that would reaffirm your belief in the stability of the cosmos and the unification of all things.

She does the job of putting a reader in touch with the ancient world. Or, to steal a Wallace Stevens phrase: "An ancient thought touching a modern mind." And when I say that she incorporates the tribal I mean the tribal. There are sacrifices, it gets pagan. She doesn't shy away from the bloody. It was a violent dangerous era and the characters all live it.

But the use of Alexios as an outsider who learns to love the strange yet familiar world was a brilliant narrative technique. Alexios is Roman through and through. Though he was born in the south, near Londinium, he is an alien in that northern land. A wonderful detail Sutcliff uses is how she describes his olive skin as standing out against the pale skins of tribesmen at a feast. But the Romans are not irreligious. They have their own customs and beliefs. Alexios daily sacrifices to Mithras in an underground temple(and this is a YA book, how freaking cool is that?).

When I first read Sutcliff's novels I was jarred by the tribal practices on both sides. The Romans, obsessed as they were with order, were every bit as superstitious as the barbarians they conquered. It was this side by side pairing of reason and myth that so moved me. Being an American and good student of the age of enlightenment I assumed the two were incompatible. But the more I read on the subject the more I realized that she had really captured the worldview of both sides.

The reason I read or reread her books once a year: Her books are very much about rebirth. Very much about personal loss, surviving it, and finding wholeness again. Granted there is something of the Four Feathers going on in Frontier Wolf, but the same basic themes dominate in all the books: surviving tragedy, the need for belonging and the place of ritual and myth in life.

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