(Currently OOP. My edition: Bodley Head, 1990, 260 pages, ISBN: 0370314670)
It has been many years since Arthur, Britain’s famous warrior-king, drove the Anglo-Saxon invaders back from the lands of the Britons. Now the tide is beginning to turn once again, and Mynyddog, king of Gododdin, summons young princes from throughout the British tribes in a bid to forge a crack fighting force which could crush the Anglo-Saxon advance forever. Prosper, second son of a petty chieftain of Gwynedd, has longed to travel to the foreign lands of merchants' tales; but his call to adventure comes from much closer to home. Summoned by the Gwynedd prince Gorthyn, Prosper travels north alongside him to share in the training, the feasting, the drawing together of a brotherhood of warriors who will ride to meet the Anglo-Saxons at Catraeth. They are the Companions – the Shining Company.
Rosemary Sutcliff took her inspiration for the novel from a northern British poem, ‘Y Gododdin’, composed by the bard Aneirin some time in the 6th or 7th century. This tells of the titular tribe’s attack on Catraeth, whilst also eulogising the warriors involved. Many of those men named in the poem appear in the novel, but Prosper, along with his family and close friends, is fictional.
At the novel’s beginning, Prosper is still a boy with some growing to do. Honest, possessed of a sense of justice and given to bursts of compassion, nevertheless he can also be self-absorbed and bordering on arrogant where his inferiors are concerned. I sometimes found him hard to like, but the truth is that as well as being about the conflict between the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons, The Shining Company is about a boy maturing into a young man, gaining new perspectives and a deeper understanding of love, friendship, hatred; and, of course, war. This is a novel which doesn’t just show us a campaign and the warband fighting it, but takes a long, hard look at everything that goes into both, from the bonds and petty rivalries that grow during training, to the devastation of losing one’s companions in battle. Sutcliff has never been a writer to glorify war, but this novel stands out for me both for its vivid images, which manage to be raw yet not brutal, and its unflinching depiction of the acute mental distress, the anger, bewilderment and loneliness, felt by those warriors who have survived when their friends haven’t.
Like other Sutcliff novels I’ve read, The Shining Company elicits a profound sense of the past, not only in drawing the reader back to Prosper’s time, but in showing that Prosper, too, is aware of what has gone before. Carvings in an old Roman fort made by men long dead, which Prosper adds too; a boundary stone that, like those before him, he touches as he passes by; the myths and legends of pagan forebears – all these bring out a continuity, a sense of shared humanity, which throws the characters and events of the novel into relief. I’m not especially keen on the writing style Sutcliff uses here, which seems a little more old-fashioned than in some of her other novels and is inclined to produce a slightly stilted tone, but it does help to convey the stretch of time between narrator and reader, while at the same time remaining comprehensible. The prose seemed sparser than in some of the other novels by Sutcliff which I’ve read recently, but still had her characteristic touch, that limpid, immediate imagery which makes her characters and their surroundings both beautifully and hauntingly real.
A map at the front of the book places the relevant tribes within Britain and shows the major locations which appear in the novel, whilst an Author’s Note at the end gives the background to the story.
Poignant tale of friendship and loss amid the conflicts of early medieval Britain.