Wednesday 14 March 2018

The Mark of the Horse Lord

Since I first read William Golding's Free Fall (1959) 32 years ago, I have been convinced that it has the finest opening paragraph in English literature:

I have walked by stalls in the market-place where books, dog-eared and faded from their purple have burst with a white hosanna. I have seen people crowned with with a double crown, holding in either hand the crook and flail, the power and the glory. I have understood how the scar becomes a star. I have felt the flake of fire fall, miraculous and pentecostal. My yesterdays walk with me. They keep step, they are grey faces that peer over my shoulder. I live on Paradise Hill, ten minutes from the station, thirty seconds from the shops and the local. Yet I am a burning amateur, torn by the irrational and incoherent, violently searching and self-condemned.

This passage, and many more in Golding's oeuvre, carry linguistic and poetic echoes of Thomas Thraherne's Centuries of Meditation. In both cases the English language flows like molten lava. Free Fall is as good as it gets for me. But the second best opening paragraph, in my view, comes from a children's novel published in 1965, The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992):

In the long cavern of the changing-room, the light of the fat-oil lamps cast jumping shadows on the walls; skeleton shadows of the spear-stacked arms-racks, giant shadows of the men who crowded the benches or moved about still busy with their weapons and gear; here and there the stallion shadow of a plume-crested helmet. The stink of the wild beasts' dens close by seeped in to mingle with the sharper smell of men waiting for the trumpets and sweating a little as they waited. Hard to believe that overhead where the crowds had been gathering since cock-crow, the June sun was shining and a fresh wind blowing in from the moors to set the brightly-coloured pennants flying.

The English language simply isn't deployed like this in fiction any more. The obsession with toning down 'purple prose' and filtering out unnecessary words has led to a flattening and hollowing out, which renders unfashionable much of the colour and vitality Sutcliff displays here. It is difficult to imagine a contemporary adult novel, let alone a children's book, beginning with such a burst of rich, imaginatively-charged prose. 

The quality of writing stays at this level throughout the book's 21 chapters. Phaedrus, a young gladiator in second-century Roman Britain, is awarded his freedom but, as in Colin Wilson's diagnosis of modern man, doesn't know what to do with it. Thrown into prison after a drunken night's revelry, he is sprung from jail by representatives of a Gaelic tribe from the western isles of what is now Scotland. He is asked to impersonate their former king, who was disposed of by the queen of a neighbouring tribe, and become the figurehead the Gaelic leaders need if they are to regain their kingdom. Phaedrus accepts, and the story flows organically and fluently from there.

Sutcliff's descriptions of people, places, and the natural world are atmospheric and richly-textured. Her characters are rounded and believable. The story seems to spring from them fully formed - like Athene from the head of Zeus - as if the tale already exists in some archetypal world of Platonic Forms and Sutcliff has merely picked up its wavelength and written it down in one sitting. Any author who creates this impression in the reader's mind is clearly, in my view, a great artist. The reality of even gaining access to that primordial realm, then crafting and shaping a story out of what one encounters there, is always (in my experience anyway) a colossally tough affair.

From about Chapter 13 onwards, the storytelling goes up a level again, as if the authorial presence has vanished and the story has taken on a life of its own and is telling itself. It's an extraordinary achievement, and one of those books that when I finished it I struggled to get my bearings for a few days as I had become so immersed in the fierce, elemental wildness of the Celtic fringes of the Roman Empire.

The Mark of the Horse Lord is full of big ideas as well - loyalty, honour, magic, faith, fraternity, trust, the bond between men and women, and the use and abuse of power. It's a tough, realistic read, despite the glittering prose, but the adult themes are explored in a manner that in no way undermines the innocence of Sutcliff's young readers. On the contrary, it's an education in what makes people tick - what they'll fight and die for, and how far an individual is prepared to go to become something greater than he currently is.

Many of Sutcliff's novels, such as The Lantern Bearers and Outcast, feature a Phaedrus-like figure as the main protagonist - a young man with a broken family struggling to find his way in life. Though her books have been enjoyed for decades by both sexes, I would say there is something particularly valuable here for young men, particularly in an age like the present where so much confusion and disorientation reigns concerning traditional male values and the role of men in society. The Mark of the Horse Lord is the story of a warrior - a man who has to fight every inch of the way - in himself, in his own community, and in the wider world of tribal and imperial conflict. Phaedrus finds his journey from gladiator to king tough going to say the least, but he sticks to his guns, trusts his intuition, does what he feels in his gut to be right, and grows in the end into something almost Arthurian, far more royal and archetypal than the impersonator and figurehead he was originally supposed to be.

The best thing of all about this book is that it posits a world freighted with meaning and value. It stands, as such, as a terrific antidote to hopelessness and despair. The ending may not be conventionally happy, but I found it deeply fulfilling in all the ways that matter. There is a pattern and harmony behind the plot's cut and thrust which Phaedrus begins to sense as the novel approaches its conclusion. But it only reveals itself and he only enters into it when he is ready, and that is what occurs at the very end of the book. 

Sammy Mountjoy, Golding's narrator in Free Fall, sees the world shot through with the Divine after his release from solitary confinement in a German prisoner of war camp:

Beyond the trees the mountains were not only clear all through like purple glass, but living. They sang and were conjubilant. They were not all that sang. Everything is related to everything else and all relationship is either discord or harmony. The power of gravity, dimension and space, the movement of the earth and sun and unseen stars, these made what might be called music and I heard it ...

What happens to Phaedrus on the last page of Sutcliff's novel belongs, I believe, on a deeper level again. It is a coronation and a consummation, an initiation into the mythic depths of sacred kingship. You will have to read it to find out! I promise you, it will stay with you forever.

1 comment:

William Wildblood said...

I've just read Rosemary Sutcliff's versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey with my 12 year old son.. She's a great writer.