The Shining Company by Rosemary Sutcliff

By way of introductory remarks, let me state that The Shining Company occupies an odd spot of being one of my least and most favourite Rosemary Sutcliff novels.

I should probably explain that one, right?

Warning – what might be called by some a gigantic spoiler, although it’s nature might be considered obvious by many. Caveat emptor.

The Shining Company is based on Y Gododdin, the elegiac hero poem ascribed to Aneirin that describes what might most easily be described as a Brythonic Thermopylae, a comparison that occurs naturally given the frequent mentions of it by Prosper, our hero and narrator.

Yeah. A lot of people die.

Prosper is an ordinary enough sort, a chieftain’s younger son with a mix of romantic notions and hard-headed practicality, until a chance meeting leads to a bond with Prince Gorthyn. That leads to him joining the Shining Company, a warband being assembled from the kingdoms of the northern Britons to combat the growing Angle threat (no Saxons that far north then).

Most of the book passes with Prosper’s teenage years, followed by his time training with the other warriors. It is a slow thing, lacking in drama but rich in evocative imagery and atmosphere. I’m never quite sure how much of Rosemary Sutcliff’s visions of the past withstand contact with the latest history and to a certain extent, I don’t care. To read Sutcliff is to visit Britain’s past in the most wonderous yet matter of fact way, and each part of that compliments the other. That said, since that’s all of Sutcliff’s books, it’s hard to recommend this over other of her books with more dramatic, emotional journeys for their heroes.

That is, until men went to Catraeth at dawn.

I think there is something special about the emotional bond formed between those who know little about the other save that they are here with them in the moment of bleakest danger, when everyone else in the world is either foe or a long way away. There is something almost more than human, something other, about those of us who can see their death clear in front of them. Not a maybe, not even a possibility, but an event beyond all doubt.

I tell you most of that from faint echoes and reading of others’ experiences, but it is very much what I believe.

Rosemary Sutcliff seems to believe it it too.

The last third of so of The Shining Company is mesmerising. It’s driven by an ancient primal drumbeat, like the thunder of our pulse, sending us down there with Prosper and those he has come to know into the dark valley.

I shall not say what happens there beyond what I have. Suffice to say if I find a lot of The Shining Company just a tad lacklustre to its fellow Sutcliff books, the ending shines like sun upon the sword.

And here that part matters a good bit more. The Shining Company weaves a dark magic in my mind, and no matter how much I reread, it never lessens – only grows.

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