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Literature / Song for a Dark Queen

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Her Majesty sporting the traditional British "chicken's bottom" helmet.

Song for a Dark Queen is a 1978 Young Adult Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. It dramatises the life of the British queen Boudica and won the Other Award.

Boudicca, future queen of the Iceni tribe of eastern Britain, is not pleased about her Arranged Marriage to a man who will lead her people for her. But young Prasutagus is not her real enemy – The Roman Empire has landed in Britain. When the Roman authorities move to seize her entire kingdom, she leads the British tribes in a bloody uprising.


Song for a Dark Queen contains examples of:

  • Action Girl:
    "We are not like some tribes whose women go to war with the men in the usual pattern of things, only in times of sorest need our women follow the war-trail with us and we lead our mares under the chariot-yoke; yet our mares are broken to harness and our women learn to use their spears, lest the need come upon us."
  • All First-Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: The main body of the text is narrated off the cuff by the Iceni's official historian, Cadwan of the Harp, as he lies dying under a tree at the end of the story.
  • Anti-Hero: She killed seventy or eighty thousand people, most of them civilians, in real life.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Boudicca is acclaimed Queen of the Iceni and Goddess-on-Earth on the ancient grave mound where her father has just been laid to rest.
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  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Boudicca is the only belligerent, because Prasutagus is a patient Nice Guy.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: After her army's defeat, Boudicca returns to the Royal Dun to take poison rather than be paraded as a captive in a Roman triumph.
  • Burning the Ships: Boudicca summons her allies to witness the sacrifice of the women of Camulodunum.
    Andragius: Assuredly, from this trail there can be no turning back. Oh you witless ones! Do you not know why she did the thing that she did two nights since in the Grove of the Mother? Nor why she called in chiefs from every tribe of the War Host, to have a part in it? Do you think the Romans will ever forget that?
  • Call-Back: Sutcliff established that Icenian rule descends through the Queen rather than the King in the story "Death of a City" told from the perspective of a survivor of Londinium in 1973's The Capricorn Bracelet, and again in 1977's Sun Horse, Moon Horse. The Procurator's role and Boudicca's death by poison were mentioned in 1954's The Eagle of the Ninth. The full story of Caratacus of the Catuvellauni's resistance and betrayal by Queen Cartimandua of the Brigantes was told in 1965's Heroes and History.
  • Dead Guy on Display: The war host hangs up the sacrificed women of Camulodunum in the sacred grove, flays several defenders of Londinium, and crucifies the rest.
  • Defiled Forever: The Princesses Essylt and Nessan are part of the line of sacred and untouchable priest-queens, so when there's a danger of the tribe perceiving them this way after they're raped (off-screen) by the Romans, their mother Boudicca stamps down hard. The tactless young warriors who try to take liberties with them narrowly escape Human Sacrifice.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: Among the British, killing someone completely harmless without making them suffer too much or mounting a Worthy Opponent's head on a stick are noted as gestures of mercy and respect. Boudicca ritually sacrifices some Roman women in a way that even the narrator finds unspeakable, then is horrified and remorseful – she might have profaned the rite because she got some political gain out of it.
  • Divided We Fall: The Iceni and other surrounding tribes choose not to support the Catuvellauni, the powerful tribe embattled by the Romans, because they've already suffered the Catuvellauni's expansionist policy. It turns out The Roman Empire is worse than the devil you know.
  • Elective Monarchy: The Iceni head of state and chief religious official is the hereditary Queen, but her husband the King is chosen for her by her parents' Council of chieftains and priests (all men).
  • Epistolary Novel: Starting about halfway through the novel, the chapters are ended by letters written by Gnaeus Julius Agricola to his mother, explaining events from the Roman perspective.
  • Establishing Character Moment: In A Minor Kidroduction, six-year-old Boudicca attempts to follow her father’s war party on foot to battle with the Catuvellauni.
  • Fiery Redhead: Essylt inherits Prasutagus's hair and Boudicca's personality.
  • Gondor Calls for Aid: After the sack of the Royal Dun, the Iceni send to the surrounding tribes.
    "In the dark, beneath the surface of things, by the old secret ways, by the sunken drove-roads and the tunnelled forest tracks and the winding fen waterways, the messengers were going out, even as the Queen had said. And by the same secret ways, the chiefs and war-captains were coming in."
  • Heir Club for Men: Inverted. Prasutagus won't come into his full power as King until he provides the Queen with a female heir.
  • Heroic BSoD: Boudicca shuts down after Prasutagus’s sudden death and is only roused up again by the demands of the Roman tax collectors.
    "Boudicca was like one bound by a spell […] nothing looked back out of her eyes, and the glow of warmth and life that had always come from her came no more."
  • Historical Domain Character: Boudicca, Prasutagus, their anonymous daughters; Caratacus and Cartimandua; Agricola, Suetonius Paulinus, Claudius, Nero, and other Roman officials and officers.
  • Human Sacrifice: Boudicca has the captured women of Camulodunum sacrificed to her mother goddess in some manner too brutal for the narrator to describe. She's also interrupted in sacrificing a couple of presumptuous young warriors who hit on her daughters (and sends them on a Suicide Mission instead).
  • Incurable Cough of Death: The first sign of Prasutagus's chest defect and the fever that kills him.
  • Karma Houdini: The Procurator Decianus Catus, who orders the assault on Boudicca's household.
    Agricola: "Our valiant Procurator sent half of [the garrison] up to hold Camulodunum against the rebels, before he himself hurried aboard the last ship for Gaul. It seems to have been largely his treatment of the Iceni that fired the heather in the first place."
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: Prasutagus reluctantly decides war is impractical against the vast resources of the Roman Empire.
    Prasutagus: There was a moment–I could have set fire to the stubble. I could have had the whole Horse People out in revolt, and maybe driven the Red Crests back into the soft lands in the south.
    Cadwan: What happened?
    Prasutagus: I started to think.
  • Last Stand: The citizens of Camulodunum fight to the last ditch and are finally cut down in the temple of the Divine Claudius, while those who can't escape Londinium are besieged in the army depot.
  • Like Brother and Sister: Boudicca’s Royal Daughter Essylt and her childhood friend and fiancé, Duatha.
  • Mixed Ancestry: Boudicca and Prasutagus’s younger child Nessan looks like one of the pre-Celtic Dark People.
  • Nude Nature Dance: Boudicca has an Out-of-Clothes Experience in the Grove of the Mother the night before attacking Camulodunum, when she apparently promises the goddess a sacrifice in exchange for the victory.
  • Portent of Doom: An omen of red water might be a warning to Boudicca, or to the unfortunate Ninth Legion, or it might actually be their blood in the stream.
    Boudicca: The water is running red.
    Cadwan: It is only the sunset in the water.
  • Rape as Drama: A Roman sexually harrassing Boudicca's teenage daughter Essylt provokes her betrothed Duatha into stabbing him. The Roman party retaliates by sacking the Royal Dun, killing most of the household, raping Essylt and Nessan, and giving Boudicca A Taste of the Lash.
  • Reality Ensues: Unsurprisingly, the ragtag alliance of local nations lose against Rome.
  • Rescue Romance: Boudicca rejects Prasutagus until he nearly dies protecting her during a stampede, whereupon she suffers a Love Epiphany and nurses him back to health, and it turns out they have a Perfectly Arranged Marriage after all.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: In return for Roman offenses, Boudicca reduces Camulodunum, Verulamium and Londinium to smoking ruins, before Suetonius delivers a No Holds Barred Beat Down.
  • Secret Stab Wound: Cadwan hangs on long enough to get Boudicca back to the Royal Dun and recite the entire novel to himself before expiring of the spear to the flank he got while sheltering the dying Nessan.
  • Speech Impediment: The Emperor Claudius.
    "A man with a big paunch and a little head on a long neck, who stammered like a midsummer cuckoo in his speech, and limped when I saw him walking. [...] Like young Prasutagus, he had a thinking face."
  • Supporting Protagonist: The two narrators – Cadwan, a bard with an avuncular relationship to Boudicca who reveals virtually nothing about himself otherwise, and Agricola, a Roman observer who doesn't affect the plot in any way.
  • Tagalong Chronicler: The narrator Cadwan of the Harp has the useful function of following the protagonist Boudicca around on campaign as her official historian, but also of witnessing moments with Prasutagus and Nessan that Boudicca isn't present for.
  • This Is My Side: There Is Only One Bed, and Boudicca lays her sword down the middle of it (a Shout-Out to the Mabinogion). Prasutagus has no mind to force her to do anything, so this state of affairs continues for months.
  • Worthy Opponent: The new Governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, busy putting paid to the Druids in Wales.
    "A great soldier, so said his reputation, following him from the ends of the Empire; but a hard man like an east wind and a hammer."
  • Young Future Famous People: Agricola, later the Governor and conqueror of the farthest extent of Roman Britain, happens to have also been around acting as Suetonius Paulinus’s aide-de-camp during the Boudiccan Revolt, but not doing too much and free to narrate some of the novel for us.


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