The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff Find!
When I was in my first year at Grammar School in 1967, our form had to read Rosemary Sutcliff's version of Beowulf and it left a lasting impression. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that among the many other books that she wrote, she wove a story around the Norsemen and women living in Buttermere in the North Western part of the Lake District shortly after the time of the Norman conquest.
The Shield Ring is a stirring tale of heroic courage, guile and cunning tinged with tragedy as the Norsemen defend their precious home against the encroaching Normans. It is a tale told through the eyes of children, who live a precarious life in such dangerous times. Set largely in the beautiful valley of Buttermere, the action spreads out around Cumbria as the Normans attack the Norsemen from all sides. Yet again we see the importance of the coastal settlements at places like Rafnglas (Ravenglass) and Workington for trade and communication, and the stategic significance of the passes, such as Midgate (Dunmail Raise) through the mountains.
The book wonderfully captures the desolation of the harsh winters and the golden days of plenty in the summer. You can almost see the ripple of waves on the Mere and hear the "lovely spiral of sound bubbling and rippling with delight" as the Curlew "skimmed low over the ground, then suddenly swerved upward, up and up, hung a moment poised on quivering wings".
In the author's note we learn that of all the people mentioned in the story, only Ranulf Le Meschin, (sometimes Norman lord of Carlisle), is likely to appear in any history book, but people like Frytha and Bjorn were real in local tradition if not in written history. Traces of them are present in local place names: Buttermere still bears the name of the Norse leader, Jarl Buthar, who made his stronghold there and Aikin's How still overlooks Keskadale and the low ground towards Derwentwater, marking the place where the Norse warrior Aikin the Beloved was laid to rest with his great sword Wave-flame in his hand and his faithful hound Garm at his feet. The very fact that the Domesday Book, that great Survey of England carried out under the instruction of William the Conqueror, stops short at the foot of the Cumberland fells and Lake Land is not mentoned in it, is evidence of the Norsemen's hard fought struggle to maintain their freedom, a fight which held the Normans at bay for 30 long years.
A wonderful story which readers of any age will enjoy!
24 September 2009 from Anne
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