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Rosemary Sutcliff

Mark of the Horse Lord, The
Walck, 1965


This book has been described as Rosemary Sutcliffe's best (and I totally agree). The story begins with Phaedrus, a gladiator in Northern Britain in the first century AD. Phaedrus wins his freedom by killing his best friend in combat, goes out gets drunk, arrested....and then the story really starts. Phaedrus is chosen to impersonate Midir, former king of the Scots, secretly blinded and deposed by Liadhan, queen of the Picts, who wished to reestablish matriarchal rule among the Scots. Phaedrus becomes a puppet king, and marries Murda, Liadhan's daughter, before embarking on a bloody war with the Picts. Phaedrus is a man of few words, but he is a well rounded, tragic hero. His self-doubt and confusion upon leaving the circus is easy to believe. His first meetings with the tribesmen who remember the real Midir, are breathtakingly tense, as is his relationship with Murda, who suspects that he is an imposter. Phaedrus is a thoroughly independent individual, but because he is unused to freedom, he allows himself to be carried along by events, and to a certain extent, manipulated. As the story progresses, Phaedrus gains confidence, and tries to take control of the tribe, and his life. The Mark of the Horse Lord is as much about myth as history. It is a story about a conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal societies. By worshipping the sun-god Lugh, rather than the old goddess, the Scots are choosing Midir/Phaedrus as a king for life. If Phaedrus fails to resist the Picts, he will be merely a temporary king, ruling by right of marriage to the queen, to be sacrificed at the end of a fixed term. The threat of death hangs over his head as much as it ever did in the circus. Historians may dispute some of the details of this story. The author implies that contact (or the lack of it) between the Picts and Scots and the aboriginal people of Britain, gave rise to legends of fairies. The encounter with the shamanic chief of the "little dark people" is hard to forget. I doubt that there were really stone-age tribes living in the highlands of Scotland at this time, but this hardly matters: the customs of offering milk and cakes, to appease "the little people", and hanging up iron horse shoes to repel them, continued into the twentieth century, long after the neolithic people had died out or intermarried with later invaders. Likewise, the coronation ceremony probably owes a lot to poetic licence, but it will be familiar to anyone who has read "The Golden Bough". We are told of a previous king who had "gone to meet the boar", when the land had been struck by famine. This expression is never explained, but at the coronation, a figure wearing a boars head mask lurks in the background, calling to mind Adonis, killed by a wild boar, Set the executioner of The Egyptian fertility god Osiris, and the Welsh story of Culwych's hunting of the boar Twrych Twyth. The Mark of the Horse Lord draws together considerable evidence from history, myth and folklore, to create a finely detailed and moving tragedy. It should appeal to anyone with an interest in ancient history or legends. Reviewed by Ian Sanders

- Ian Sanders , 12/19/2005

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