The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff

This is the second book I’ve read for this week’s 1965 Club, hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. Like my first, Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Mark of the Horse Lord is described as a book for younger readers, although it doesn’t really feel like one. I have previously read two of Sutcliff’s adult books (The Rider of the White Horse and Blood and Sand) and I found this one just as beautifully written and with just as much to offer an adult reader.

The story is set during the time of the Roman Empire and our hero, the gladiator Phaedrus, is the son of a Greek wine merchant and his slave. The novel opens with Phaedrus, a slave himself, winning the Wooden Foil (and therefore his freedom from slavery) when he is victorious in a fight in the arena of Corstopitum, a town on the great wall built by Hadrian in what is now the north of England. His freedom is short-lived, however, when he is imprisoned after getting into trouble while out celebrating in the town, but this time he is rescued by a group of men who have noticed that he closely resembles their king and are hoping to persuade him to take part in a conspiracy.

Soon Phaedrus is heading north into what we now call Scotland, a land which at this time is home to both the Caledones (Picts) and the Dalriadain (Scots). The plan is for Phaedrus to impersonate Midir of the Dalriadain, who has been usurped by the Caledonian Queen Liadhan and blinded to prevent him from trying to rule. As he travels to the Antonine Wall and beyond, Phaedrus educates himself on the history and culture of his new people and comes to understand the significance of his new role as Horse Lord. But will he manage to convince everyone that he really is Midir – and who will win the upcoming battle between the Dalriads and the Caledones?

There was so much to enjoy about this book. I loved the descriptions of the Roman settlements along Hadrian’s Wall, including Corstopitum or Corbridge, as it is now known (I can recommend a visit to Corbridge Roman Town, run by English Heritage, if you’re ever in the area), and the contrast with the tribes in the north, where Roman rule hasn’t reached. I also found it fascinating to read about the differences in culture between the patriarchal Dalriads, whom Sutcliff tells us have ‘become a Sun People, worshipping a male God’ and the matriarchal Caledones who ‘had held to the earlier worship of the Great Mother’.

The plot was good enough to hold my interest to the end and made me think of other imposter stories I’ve read (such as The Great Impersonation and, in particular, The Prisoner of Zenda), but the setting, the time period and the themes it explores make it different and original. Also, without wanting to spoil anything, I thought the ending was perfect – both powerful and poignant. And yet, there was still something that prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I would have liked to. I’m not sure why, but I sometimes seem to struggle with books set in more ancient periods of history; I often don’t engage with the characters and storylines as thoroughly as I do when a book is set in slightly later periods. I’ve no idea why that should be, especially when an author writes as well as Rosemary Sutcliff does!

Katrina from Pining for the West has also reviewed The Mark of the Horse Lord for 1965 Club, if you would like to read a Scottish perspective on the book.

22 thoughts on “The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff

  1. whatmeread says:

    I think I’ve read this one, but so long ago that your description doesn’t ring any bells. I like Rosemary Sutcliff, however, and think her books are just as suitable for adults as older children.

  2. Rachel B. says:

    This was one of my favorite books when I was younger! I still like it, but there are only so many hours in the day, and some rereading just does not get done. If you liked this one, you may wish to track down a copy of Dawn Wind.

    In my opinion, Sutcliff’s “youth” novels are better than her adult ones. Sword at Sunset was a great disappointment to me, though perhaps that is because it suffered by contrast with Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave and The Hollow Hills (which since has become a tetraology, but then was only the two).

    • Helen says:

      Thanks – I’ll look out for Dawn Wind. I have only read a few of Sutcliff’s books so far, but I think I enjoyed this one more than the two adult novels I read. Sorry to hear you were disappointed with Sword at Sunset. I’ve been looking forward to reading that one, but I love Mary Stewart’s Merlin/Arthurian novels too so maybe I’ll feel the same way.

  3. piningforthewest says:

    I think I did enjoy this one more than you did, of course most of teh action took place in and around Dumbarton which is where I grew up and that was a large part of my enjoyment, I could really picture it all. Thanks for the link, I’ll link to your much more detailed review.

    • Helen says:

      I haven’t read The Lantern Bearers yet. Sutcliff wrote so many books, it’s difficult to know which ones to look out for, so thanks for highlighting that one.

  4. Judy Krueger says:

    Fascinating. I did not know of Rosemary Sufcliff. My knowledge of Scottish history is meager but I got more interested when I read The Lost Queen by Signe Pike last year. I am glad you are enjoying some books from 1965. I am almost done with my 1964 list and you are giving me some new ideas for the next year in my project.

    • Helen says:

      I have a good knowledge of more recent periods of Scottish history, but know nothing at all about the earlier periods, so I learned a lot from this book. I’ll be interested to see what you read from 1965 after you’ve finished your 1964 list.

  5. elainethomp says:

    I found it in the adult section of the local public library back when it was newish and I was young. (my library didn’t keep kids out of the adult books.) i loved it. Sutcliff is very good.

  6. Calmgrove says:

    Haven’t read any Sutcliff (without an ‘e’) for simply ages, but this sounds up to her usual high standard. Now I would baulk at some of the anachronisms (Dal Riata wasn’t established for certain until after the Roman period, though I’ve no doubt that Irish peoples began settling in this area of west Scotland earlier) and would be dubious that such stark contrasts in worship existed; but I’m speaking here with a bit of hindsight about how the 60s theorised concerning pagan religious beliefs! The story’s the thing, right? 🙂

    • Helen says:

      I have to admit, I don’t know enough about the period to really comment on the anachronisms, but I agree that the differences between the two cultures were probably more subtle than they were depicted in the book. As a work of fiction, though, this was as good as the other Sutcliff novels I’ve read.

  7. Cleo @ Classical Carousel says:

    Wish I’d jumped on this bandwagon but I’m enjoying reading all your reviews. I love Rosemary Sutcliff ….. I don’t think I’ve read one book of hers that I don’t like. I still think The Eagle of the Ninth is my favourite so far but I have so many books to go. Great review!

    • Helen says:

      Thanks, Cleo! I haven’t read The Eagle of the Ninth yet, but I’ve been looking forward to it, especially as it is one of her best known books.

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