Dawn Wind by Rosemary Sutcliff

(considerable spoilers)

Another day, another book I have to talk about immediately. Broadly speaking, I do not get overly emotional at books. I’m not much of a crier, I don’t talk of getting destroyed. Yet after finishing Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dawn Wind, I had a ten minute lie down in the dark just to clear out my brain.

One of the reasons for this is Sutcliff’s mastery of what I can only describe as pain mic drops. She lets the momentum build up to the moment of hurt, then puts it in a few stark words that cut to the quick of it, like “Owain had felt as though something precious and infinitely private to himself had been torn free of its covering and held up naked to a jeering mob.” There is no escaping a sharing of such a thing. Sometimes (not in this example) she just moves straight on, like the character is trying to shield their pain, in a way that makes it all the more real.

Another big reason is that Dawn Wind is just an inherently bleak story. It is the tale of Owain, fourteen when he stands in the battle where the power of the Brythonic princes east of the Severn is shattered by the invading Saxons forever. The story goes on for eleven long years, most of it spent as a Saxon slave after he sells himself in order to save a friend. He finds an unexpected place there; the sense of fracture and otherness never goes away, yet again and again he postpones his freedom and departure because of that place.

Why? Here, I must apologise for moralising a little. The world talks of “be a man” and “don’t say that”, and of what it means to be a man. Well, I would submit that to be a man – or rather, to be a strong person in society, and have worth because of that strength – one cannot walk away from an important job that someone depends on you to do with it undone. If you account yourself strong, you take that burden, and you don’t set it down until others are ready. That’s what Owain does. It doesn’t always make him happy, just as real life burdens often make us unhappy. There’s a reason people would rather define strength as taking what you want, and those who take up such burdens and go unrecognised are often furious. It’s the sort if ideal that rules your life more than you will, leaving you at the whims of the weather. Perhaps that’s why I consider it strength. In any case, I might be fairly alone in thinking that’s what the ideal should be, but I do, and Owain exemplifies it. It’s a big part of why I like Dawn Wind, and a big part of all of Owain’s little pains.

Little things are something Sutcliff was a queen of. Sixth century southern England comes to life in her hands; from the landscape and its flora and fauna, to the people and their clothes and food. Their mannerisms, well, who knows for sure, but they are perfectly in line with what could have been. To me, it is part of what makes her stories so powerful, the sense of understanding the world and therefore the person.

Officially, Dawn Wind is a children’s book. I am undecided whether that is active cruelty towards children, or a great service. As with most things, it probably depends on the child. But I can tell you why I gravitated towards these books as a child; they felt like wild adventures and very real at the same time, both mimetic and fantastic. That is still just as true now I’m an adult.

2 thoughts on “Dawn Wind by Rosemary Sutcliff

  1. Another one that I went looking for in my Library, but they don’t have this one, just others.
    I might give one a try, because your praise is as much for her writing as the actual story.
    Any other recommendations, then?

    Liked by 1 person

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