THE SHINING COMPANY
Around A.D. 600, King Mynyddog gathered 300 warriors for a year's training in what is now Edinburgh, then sent them to fight the Anglo-Saxon settlers to the south. One of the few survivors was Aneirin, a harper whose epic about the mission's heroes is "the earliest surviving North British poem." Prosper, shieldbearer (squire) to one of the company and one of the few fictional characters among the historical figures here, narrates his own involvement in the tragic venture from the healing distance of a time years later, when he is in Constantinople. Sutcliff is at her superlative best here. She combines impeccable research with extraordinary imaginative power--mingling recorded fact with logically extended details of what might have happened. With subtle dexterity, she reveals and builds character through action and shapes exquisite, dramatic vignettes that are intrinsic to the story's web of tragic irony. In gracefully cadenced prose, never marred by sensationalism or false heroism, she re-creates the horrors of hand-to-hand combat and vividly evokes the rivalries and loyalties of men whose joys and hopes she makes kin to our own. Her lucid, precise language echoes the long ago ("mind" for "remember") without a hint of obscurity or the falsely quaint. Her many memorable portraits include the well-meaning king, unable to extricate himself from a cruel dilemma (he was "not Artos"); Cynan, traumatized hero-survivor; and the bard, who reluctantly escapes the suicidal last stand in order to bear witness. A splendid achievement.