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At sixteen, Bjarni is cast out of the Norse settlement in the Angles' Land for an act of oath-breaking and spends five years sailing the west coast of Scotland and witnessing the feuds of the clan chiefs living there.

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16 year old Bjarni is exiled for 5 years for murder and spends them as a hired sword for two sea lords before surviving a shipwreck on his return. While there is some fighting and mention of summers at sea, no stereotypical Viking raiding is more than mentioned in passing. Bjarni himself is a dog loving (the murdered man kicked his nursing bitch) earnest fellow who learns late to foresee trouble. ( )
  quondame | Feb 1, 2023 |
Bjarni Sigurdson is sentenced to five years away from his settlement, the settlement where Rafn Cedricson sits as Chief of the Hall. His crime is no small matter in the eyes of the Thing; he has killed a priest of the White Christ, a group whom Rafn had sworn would be assured of safety in his settlement. He has made an oath-breaker out of Rafn, the Chief, and Rafn is displeased.

As punishment, Rafn temporarily exiles Bjarni from the settlement. Five years must he wait before he can return home. Bjarni determines to hire out his services to another liege-lord. He will become a great warrior, and return to his settlement with glory!

But can Bjarni withstand the dangers and loneliness of these five years? Will death swallow him up in the next great battle? Will he ever see his home settlement again?


I did not realize this until I had purchased it and carefully escorted it home, but Sword Song is the last book that Rosemary Sutcliff wrote. She actually died before she had completed the second drafting of it. And, I hate to say this, but it showed. Oh, it was still an interesting, adventurous work, but it didn’t have the zip and zing of The Eagle. Most importantly, it didn’t have the gel.

What I mean, is, that the storyline wasn’t as coherent or purpose-driven as some of her other works. In The Eagle, the purpose is clear – recover the Eagle or die – and the story is concentrated on this theme. Sword Song, on the other hand, does not have this driving purpose. At the beginning of the story, Bjarni is exiled. For the rest of the story, he is finding a way to occupy his time until he will be allowed back home. The whole story felt as though it were waiting for the action to happen. Why? Because the hero’s goal was to get back home, and the only way he could get back home was to burn up five years. In those five years he fights in many battles, but none of them concerns his ultimate goal of returning back home. They are simply battles that he fought because he was hired to fight them.

Also, the cast of characters shifted multiple times. There were at least three sets of main secondary characters in a two hundred seventy page book. I felt that I barely had time to get to know them (much less remember their oulandish names!) before I was whisked off to another setting so that Bjarni could fight in more battles so that eventually he could get home. He wasn’t working towards his goal, just, well… drifting towards it?

Sutcliff still managed to create a definite world and give an atmosphere to her story. And the writing was still spectacular – there were bursts of brilliance and excitement. It was the story idea that bugged me, partly because I couldn’t help comparing it to her magnum opus, The Eagle

Conclusion. Not as masterful as her work The Eagle, but still a worthwhile piece of historical fiction.

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  LauraKathryn | Apr 24, 2013 |
Sword Song is a marvelous tour of northern Great Britain during the Viking age, prior to the coming of the Normans. The main character, Bjarni Sigurdson, is expelled from his home settlement for manslaughter at the age of 16 and sells his service as a bodyguard and warrior to a series of seafaring captains, seeing the world as far south as Ireland, along the coasts of Scotland, and up to the far northern Orkney Islands. He encounters not only other Scandinavian expats, but such diverse characters as wild Pictish warriors, Welsh farmers, Irish thralls, and Ionian monks.
Rosemary Sutcliff is, as far as I know, the preeminent author of British historical fiction for young adults. I have only read one other of her books, The Shining Company, but it made a profound impression on me and it remains one of my favorite books.
Sutcliff was disabled, beginning in early childhood, with severe arthritis. She did not learn to read until she was nine years old, partly because of this disease and partly because her family moved a lot; her father was in the British Navy. She died in 1992. Sword Song was in its second draft and posthumously became her last published book.
Biographer Margaret Meek described the author’s writing process: Once she had the idea for a book, she began with the encyclopedia and checked out all the works cited in an entry from the library. She continued likewise with these books’ bibliographies and wrote down all the information she collected in red notebooks. According to the Historical Novel Society’s Sandra Garside-Neville, “Then Sutcliff would start to create a picture of the daily life of the era her idea was set in. This was the most enjoyable part for her. Not much of the plot would find its way into the notebooks.”
Her painstaking research is clear in passages like this, where a simple walk through the village en route to the next action scene is a detailed tableau:
Men were at work in the wood-wright’s yard and the smithy, someone was driving a pig up the stony street, women with their cloaks huddled about them against the thin rain were moving between house and byre and gathered bucket in hand around the spring head, children and dogs were busy about their own affairs.

The book is alive with sights, sounds, smells, and unobtrusive facts that tell the contemporary reader what that world was like.
No mother is mentioned in Bjarni’s narrative, and it is interesting to watch his understanding of women develop as he slowly encounters them one by one. I appreciate that Sutcliff doesn’t present them as exotic objects of desire for a starved male appetite, but instead as people he sympathizes with. Their situations as well as Bjarni’s are presented matter-of-factly. His saga of exile is different from those usually proceeding from the Viking age, showing how the greatest virtue for these land-poor people was not glory in warfare but the ability to adapt.
Bjarni is a stubborn young man, more critical than accepting of other people, especially those in authority. This is apparently typical of Sutcliff’s heroes; she described one of her own favorite characters as “difficult and prickly.” The world she draws is thus not idealized but natural and human.
The portrait of religious attachment in Sword Song is interesting in this light. Sutcliff said in an interview:
The Middle Ages I am not at home in. I am interested in them and love to read about them, but I can’t write about them, or practically not at all. I think it is because I can’t take the all-pervasiveness of religion which has a stranglehold on life. The more level-headed viewpoint of the Romans is nearer to our own way of looking at things.

Some of the Christian believers Bjarni meets, like the great lady Aud the Deep-Minded, are extremely attractive characters. His experience on Iona appears to stir his soul more than anything else in his life’s travels. There are also the monks sprinkled throughout who bring more inconvenience than blessing. Indeed, it is a monk who drowns a little too easily in the first chapter, providing the occasion for Bjarni’s five-year exile. But the pagan priest portrayed in the story is by far the most unpleasant religious figure.
Eventually, Bjarni takes the mark of the White Christ in a ceremony called “prime-signing”: a pre-baptismal step involving little to no religious commitment but offering one slight advantages over complete pagans when trading with Christians.
And eventually Bjarni finds a bride, in developments that are both romantic and pragmatic. Towards the end of the book Bjarni is called upon to entertain two young girls with the harp, and he hesitantly recognizes the potential of embellishing his life story, making a dramatic song from it. His story in Sutcliff’s hands is a fascinating thing, with plenty of excitement for the young reader and also plenty to reflect upon, since it is presented in a thoughtful and historically sensitive way.
A Times review of The Shining Company in June 1990 expresses her ability to evoke feelings of honor and tragedy along with her admirable realism:
[Sutcliff:] is moved by simple concepts of loyalty and integrity that may be as foreign to today’s children’s literature as they were to the no-baby-talk Gododdin. But by admitting their possibility, while not shirking the real facts of ferocious woundings and pragmatic betrayals, she still persuades us that a bardic reading of the past is sustainable alongside an awareness of its squalor and its indifferent, but unpolluted, landscapes.
( )
1 vote theonetruesteph | Mar 30, 2013 |
Sword Song is Rosemary Sutcliff's last book. There is a note from her executor that states that Sutcliff always went through three drafts when writing a story, and was partway through the second draft of this one when she died suddenly in 1992. Her agent and editor got this ready for publication, and I think they did a fair job.

Sixteen-year-old Bjarni Sigurdson is forced to leave his settlement after he accidentally kills a man. With nowhere to go, he hires himself out as a mercenary to the Viking lords who raided the islands off the west coast of Ireland. We follow his story as he gets involved in the rivalries of clan chiefs and their daring sea battles. Bjarni must wait five years before he can return home — but when the time comes, does he really want to return? Where is home for a mercenary warrior?

I really enjoyed this story despite its flaws. Sutcliff doesn't manipulate the practices of the time that offend modern sensibilities (like arranged marriages, the mock captured-bride hunt, the realities of warfare, etc.) to make them more palatable to us. She shows things the way they were, and her characters live within their social customs in a realistic way. I think this is what sets Sutcliff apart from other writers who do historical fiction aimed at a YA audience: Sutcliff's actually live in their historical period. They aren't just modern characters with modern ideas who are merely dressed up in period clothes.

I did find it odd that the love interest only comes in at the very end. Usually Sutcliff weaves that thread throughout the entire story. It made the tale less cohesive and a bit episodic, and I kept waiting for the girl to show up. But I suppose there was really no believable, workable way to do that. As is usual in Sutcliff stories, the relationship starts out as one of mutual help and develops slowly.

I was also impressed with her handling of Bjarni's religion, as he is torn between the old gods Odin and Thor and the new god, the "White Christ." Sutcliff shows us how Bjarni comes to realize the import of his choice, that there is more to it than just being baptized to increase one's marketability among the hiring chieftains. Bjarni eventually becomes a "prime-signed Christian," a term I'd never heard before. Apparently it was a preliminary step to full baptism, a way for a man to indicate he was not hostile to the White Christ though he still called on his pagan gods. In the story Bjarni does seriously consider Christianity, but eventually decides to remain pagan. It's a sensitive and realistic picture of the religious divisions of the time as they affected ordinary people.

And for any Sutcliff fans who are wondering, yes, the famous flawed emerald dolphin ring does show up in this one, right near the end. This little heirloom is a common thread loosely linking the characters through generations in Sutcliff's other historical novels, and it *is* fun to see it pass through various hands in a string of novels. The dolphin ring... ah yes, we know it well!

Sword Song isn't the best of Sutcliff's work, understandably, but it's quite good. New readers should start with the more polished books like The Eagle of the Ninth, The Lantern Bearers, or my personal favorite, Warrior Scarlet. But really, there aren't any bad Sutcliffs. Fans of historical fiction will recognize in Sutcliff a kindred spirit. Recommended! ( )
12 vote atimco | Jan 12, 2010 |
Another of Sutcliff's History of Britain stories - this one is Norse settlements. It has a link to the Dolphin Ring series - I need to look at Dawn Wind to see if this follows. Bjarni certainly does get in trouble for his dogs! ( )
  jjmcgaffey | May 18, 2008 |
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At sixteen, Bjarni is cast out of the Norse settlement in the Angles' Land for an act of oath-breaking and spends five years sailing the west coast of Scotland and witnessing the feuds of the clan chiefs living there.

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