The Mark of the Horse Lord was my first foray into the writings of Rosemary Sutcliff, the renowned British novelist widely regarded as the finest writer of children’s historical fiction. However, her elevated prose and depth of historical detail make her a captivating writer for adults as well; even she claimed that her stories (eventually spanning 50 novels) were for readers “from 9 to 90.” However, I think if I had first read this book at 9, I would have missed the vast majority of its complexities and unexpectedly sublime beauty.
Rosemary Sutcliff suffered from Still’s disease and spent most of her life in a wheelchair, making her incredible depictions of landscape and adventure all the more remarkable as they have the quality of someone who frequently wandered the hills; no doubt she did so in her imagination. She also trained as an artist and focused on the strong hues of black, red, and gold, which she then wove into her artistry of storytelling, along with her attention to visual detail. The child of a Royal Navy officer, her tales often reflect a strong military influence as well as a fascination with the ancient history of Britain.
Sutcliff opens her novel by transporting readers across the millennia to the stark sights and smells of the caverns below the Roman arena in Corstopitum, made palpable by her vivid descriptions. “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.”
Phaedrus, an embittered gladiator, is on the cusp of winning his freedom. Born a slave, he is an unlikely candidate to ever become a king. Yet, due to a surprising resemblance to the lost king of the Dalriad (historically referred to by their Roman term, Scots), he agrees to lead the people as their exiled king returned against the oppressive rule of the Caldones (or Picts).
Sutcliff brilliantly weaves together both brutal history and dazzling myth, creating an unexpected tale of reality with the faintest traces of “Earth Magic.” Main characters do not have the guarantee of survival typical of most YA novels, and radical plans have no promise of success against all odds. However, images early in the story neatly come full circle in tight bookends, giving it the arc of a masterfully woven tale — with a distinct beginning and end.
This arc of the story is only surpassed by the arc of the characters, especially Phaedrus, who paradoxically grows into himself only by assuming the life of another man. The smooth, seamless development from the slave gladiator to sacrificial king is a remarkable feature of her craftsmanship as a raconteuse. Readers only realize at the end the sleight of hand that now has them looking at a completely different being. And yet Phaedrus himself is not wholly insensible to a force directing the current of his life’s path. His self-awareness of the mythical elements in his story lends an interesting level of cultural consciousness. In Philip Reeve’s introduction to the Folio Society edition, he writes, “The way he sees the myth at work in his own life is one of the things that makes him a man of his own time, not of ours.”
This is one of those books that is difficult to discuss without spoiling the ending, because it is the brilliant stake that drives the story home and imbues power in the tale. It is also a book that I would like to go back and reread just to fully appreciate the graceful prose, free of the distracting suspense of the plot. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “It is even better the second time … We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading. Not till the curiosity, the sheer narrative lust, has been given its sop and laid asleep, are we at leisure to savour the real beauties.”