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Literature / The Mark of the Horse Lord

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The Mark of the Horse Lord is a 1965 Young Adult Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. It was the winner of the inaugural Phoenix Award in 1985.

A British gladiator named Phaedrus is recruited to impersonate the rightful king of the Dalriadain tribe in a revolt against the usurper queen Liadhan and her powerful Caledonian allies. He must masquerade as the lost heir Midir, win the trust of The Lancer Conory, marry the princess Murna, lead the Dalriadain in war against the Caledones, fend off The Roman Empire, and learn the true meaning of kingship.

The novel's themes of sacred kingship and Heroic Sacrifice are heavily influenced by Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough.

The Mark of the Horse Lord contains examples of:

  • Action Film, Quiet Drama Scene: The ending, memorably.
  • Action Girl: Murna and the other Dalriad women, nicknamed the Wild Cats, form the reserves of the Dalriad war host.
  • After Action Patch Up: Conory confronts "Midir" about his identity when Phaedrus offers to rebind his wound and mentions doing it as boys after a whipping.
  • Agent Peacock: Phaedrus is not prepared to find, upon meeting Conory the leader of the young Dalriad warriors, that Dude Looks Like a Lady. He wears cosmetics, effeminate jewellery, and a Right-Hand Cat, and Even the Guys Want Him.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Phaedrus comes to some unspoken knowledge about Conory from reading between the lines of Midir's description. When Conory turns out to be kinda fabulous, it's difficult not to arrive at this conclusion.
  • Arranged Marriage: Unusually, it's presented as a horrifying threat from the male perspective as well as the female. Conory has been selected by Liadhan, his aunt, as her next consort. Then Phaedrus is forced to marry her daughter Murna, who's even less enthused than he is.
  • Artistic License – History: It's an important plot point that the Antonine Wall, the more northerly of the two Roman walls across Britain, is garrisoned. The story takes place in the 180s, however, and the Antonine Wall was abandoned between the 160s and 208.
  • "Ass" in Ambassador: The Caledone envoy doesn't even pretend to be diplomatic. Murna equally rudely has the Women's Side perform a war dance for his benefit.
  • Awakening the Sleeping Giant: The Roman Empire, whom Phaedrus believes Liadhan would persuade to intervene in the Dalriad-Caledone war for the sake of their border security if he allowed her to take political asylum with them.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: It involves standing on the Rock of the Footprint at the break of dawn after ritually slaughtering a White Stallion.
  • Back-to-Back Badasses: Phaedrus and Conory during the coup, before Phaedrus knows whether they're going to be Heterosexual Life-Partners or mortal enemies.
  • Battle Amongst the Flames: By summer's end, the Dalriadain no longer have enough men to attack the Caledone camp on Black Crag. So they set fire to it. It's the decisive victory of the campaign.
  • Battle Couple: Phaedrus and Murna, who's handy with a knife, spear, or chariot, after they warm up to each other.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: An aversion. Phaedrus is one of Sutcliff's few heroes explicitly described as handsome, and it's part of his stock-in-trade as a gladiator. Then he takes a huge, disfiguring wound to the side of his face in his first battle with the Caledones, which he finds both difficult to accept and shameful to care about. Midir, who looks a great deal like Phaedrus, had his eyes put out and his tattoo slashed off his forehead.
  • Becoming the Mask: Phaedrus, a lifelong slave, takes to tribal kingship Like a Duck Takes to Water. The "mark" of the title is not only a ritual tattoo, but the willingness to die for his people.
    "The odd thing was that he never once thought to himself that he was not, after all, the King...It was as though, growing into the kingship through this past year, Red Phaedrus the Gladiator had grown into this other thing, too, because without it, the kingship would not have been complete."
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Phaedrus and Murna. At their wedding she tries to stab him while she kisses him.
  • Bittersweet Ending
  • Born into Slavery: Phaedrus is the son of his father's housekeeper, a British woman Made a Slave in the northern wars. He has to outgrow the habit of obeying orders to come into his own as King.
  • Call-Back: Earra-Ghyl is the same territory visited by Marcus and Esca in 128 CE in The Eagle of the Ninth, when it belonged to the Epidaii [sic] tribe. The Place of Life where Phaedrus spends his pre-crowning vigil is apparently the same Place of Life where Marcus and Esca saw the Feast of the New Spears and found the Eagle. Three generations ago Midir's great-grandfather the first Horse Lord conquered the Epidii [sic] and married their last Queen. This presumably happened soon after The Eagle of the Ninth, given that The Mark of the Horse Lord is set only 50-60 years later in the 180s.
  • Call to Adventure: Phaedrus is rescued from the Corstopitum drunk tank by a sketchy traveller who offers him a job as the true king of the Dalriadain. Phaedrus sensibly refuses until the actual true king, who's been horribly maimed, asks him personally to get revenge for him.
  • Career-Ending Injury: Liadhan has Midir blinded to make him ritually unfit for kingship. Whether he's incapable or not would be irrelevant to the Dalriadain, because a damaged man must not be king.
  • Challenging the Chief: Liadhan and the matrilineal Caledones employ a ritual version for the position of king: every seven years, the queen chooses a new young consort who kills the old king in a staged Duel to the Death.
  • Cover Identity Anomaly: The Old Man of the Green Hills, a chieftain of the Little Dark People, is surprised to find that Phaedrus doesn't understand what he means by "the Call" of a monarch. That Phaedrus can resist his powers of hypnosis or illusion, which Phaedrus attributes to his Roman rationality (the scene is a Shout-Out to Kim), seems to confirm his suspicions.
  • Creepy Uncle: Though her private motives are never revealed, the creepy icing on the cake of no thanks that is Liadhan's command to Conory to kill her husband, marry her, and get killed himself in seven years is that she's his aunt.
  • Culture Clash: Roman vs. Celt and Dalriadain versus Caledones. Each cuture wears a couple of colour-coordinated Hats.
    • People of Hair Color: The Dalriadain are fair, Caledones and the Little Dark People are dark.
    • Order Versus Chaos: Romans are order, rationalism, and the mundane; Celts are chaos, intuition, and superstition.
    • Solar and Lunar: The Dalriads worship a male sun god and inherit through the male line, while the Caledones worship an earth and moon goddess and inherit through the female line. Which makes it awkward that the king of the Dalriads married a Caledone queen and had a son and a daughter.
  • The Coup: The pro-Midir tribesmen attend the ceremony in the Royal Dun in which Conory is scheduled to become the New King by fighting to the death with Logiore, the Old King. Instead Conory attacks Liadhan and Phaedrus takes on Logiore, but the timing is screwed For Want of a Nail, so Liadhan escapes to the Caledones and starts the war against the Dalriadain.
  • Delinquent Hair: One of the group of young Romano-Britons Phaedrus gets drunk with has bleached hair like a tribesman – "it was the fashion just then to be very British." Conory later proves to have it too (and gets it freshly done for The Coup / his would-be coronation). Phaedrus chats with a warrior not in the know on the night of, who complains about the stupid-looking braids all the young conspirators are wearing these days.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: When Phaedrus wins his Wooden Foil and is turned loose on the streets of Corstopitum, he has no skills and nowhere to go. So he does what unemployed adrenaline junkies always do: agrees to a harebrained scheme to moonlight as the king of the Dalriadain.
  • Disability Superpower: Midir has sharp hearing to compensate for his blindness, which apparently makes him better at doing anything in the dark than a person with vision.
  • Due to the Dead: Phaedrus asserts his independence of his advisor Gault by countermanding his order to burn the body of Liadhan's Little Dark messenger. For an earth-worshipper, burning would deny his soul its return to the goddess. Phaedrus isn't interested in persecuting his enemies beyond the grave, so he has the body thrown out with the rest of the compost.
  • Duel to the Death: All part of the job as a a) a gladiator or b) the New King of the Dalriadain. Luckily Phaedrus has some relevant experience!
  • Gambit Pileup: Liadhan takes political asylum in a Roman fort. Midir hatches a plot to assassinate her using Phaedrus as his decoy. Liadhan's spy overhears the plan and warns the Romans, who allow them to get into position before arresting them. Midir breaks out of his cell while they question Phaedrus. He finds Liadhan in the dark by the sound of her voice and drags her off the battlements with him. To make up for the loss of Liadhan, the Romans hold Phaedrus hostage for a levy of Dalriad soldiers, to effectively demilitarize the tribe and the frontier (leaving them vulnerable to the Caledones). Phaedrus accepts, then while pretending to announce his decision to his men from the battlements, stabs himself and jumps off.
  • Gladiator Games: Aside from the whole "kill your only friend" thing, Phaedrus's years in the arena give him the sword skill and sense of showmanship that stand him in good stead as the Horse Lord, and nothing better to do with his freedom. He frequently compares life as the Horse Lord to his experiences in the arena.
  • A God Am I: Liadhan is the Goddess-On-Earth, and the Horse Lord represents the Sun Lord. Phaedrus asks Murna if she actually believes this, and Murna points out that it's literally true that the Queen is the embodiment of their religion.
    Liadhan: I came to see this–this thing that would have called itself Horse Lord and King of the Dalriadain in my stead; this thing that tonight would have slain me who am the Goddess-on-Earth! [laughs megalomanically] [dies 10 seconds later]
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Liadhan, the Caledone queen of the Dalriads, is a Black Widow My Beloved Smother Evil Matriarch infanticidal leader of a Scary Amoral Religion. And Phaedrus's mother-in-law.
  • Going Native: Phaedrus is half British, but grew up as a Roman and doesn't even know what tribe his mother came from. To become king of the Dalriadain he has to learn their values, and then learn to actually believe in them.
  • The Great Wall: The Southern and especially Northern Walls mark the thresholds of the Roman and tribal worlds, with a deserted No Man's Land in between. Crossing them takes Phaedrus into the unknown and back.
  • The Hero Dies: In case it wasn't obvious.
  • The Hero's Journey
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Phaedrus can't allow his people to fatally weaken their defenses against the Caledones by ransoming him with a draft of troops, so he stabs himself and jumps off the battlement he's supposed to tell them his decision from.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Midir and Conory, and Conory and "Midir".
  • Human Sacrifice: The Horse Lords are expected to Face Death with Dignity if hard times require a Human Sacrifice for the good of their people. It has to be their free choice through Self-Sacrifice Scheme, so Midir's father had a "Hunting "Accident"" when Midir was fourteen. (Nobody appears to reflect that this led to a Succession Crisis.) The matriarchal system adds a ritual twist in which the Old King is killed every seven years by the New King whether he needs it or not. Liadhan's husband Logiore goes willingly and dies defending her from Phaedrus and Conory during The Coup.
  • Identical Stranger: Phaedrus, who is half Greek, happens to look enough like the lost king of the Dalriads to fool everyone but his cousin and Heterosexual Life-Partner Conory, and perhaps his cousin and wife Murna.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Sinnoch, the half-Dalriad bastard who couldn't be a warrior, so he became a Merchant Prince instead, as well as a spy, conspiracy organiser, and The Chooser of the One. He dies a most unwarriorly but very horse-traderly death in battle, trampled by stampeding cattle.
  • Kill the Ones You Love: Phaedrus's best and only friend Vortimax is the opponent he's assigned for a Duel to the Death in a celebratory Games thrown by the new Roman governor. He wins his freedom for it.
  • Kissing Cousins: Murna and "Midir", as far as she and everyone else knows. Conory is also first cousin to both of them.
  • Matriarchy: The Caledones, the Little Dark People, and the tribe the Dalriadain conquered and absorbed all follow a system where the Royal Woman is identified with the earth goddess, and the King is her consort. Liadhan imports this idea into the Dalriadain because her mother was Caledone, but she's something of a ruthless, megalomaniacal tyrant, so the Dalriadain never get totally behind it, especially the part where she chooses a young New King every seven years and kills the old one.
  • My Beloved Smother: Liadhan sucked the life out of everyone she loved, according to Murna, who learned her emotional reserve out of self-preservation. She sides with Phaedrus partly just to maintain her newfound independence.
    Murna: I can scarcely remember a time when I did not know that I must keep her out, and–I do not know how to be explaining this–I learned to go away small inside myself, where she could not reach me. I made walls to keep her out, and all these years that I have done and said and maybe even thought as she bade me, I have been safe from her behind my walls. Only, to be strong enough to keep her out–they had to keep me in.
  • The Natives Are Restless: Northern Wall fort commander Titus Hilarion's perspective on the Dalriad-Caledone war, which he's keen to stamp out by neutralising Liadhan and/or Phaedrus.
  • Not Himself: The conspirators test Phaedrus with Bluff the Impostor and other people stumble over a Cover Identity Anomaly, but Midir's best friend Conory simply guesses that Phaedrus is not him. He suspects Murna does as well.
    Conory: You will know how it is with weapons: to the eye they may be as like as one grain of sand is like another, but each comes from the armourer a little different in balance, with some nature of its own no other weapon has, and your hand grows to know it, so that if you take up another in its stead, though there is no difference to the eye, the hand knows.
  • Not-So-Omniscient Council of Bickering: The six powerful chieftains who are in on the conspiracy are introduced in great detail in the chapter where they squabble about whether to accept Phaedrus as the ringer, then virtually disappear and have no impact on the story.
  • Parental Neglect: The reason Phaedrus ends up as a gladiator is that his master and father, a Greek wine merchant, didn't make a will freeing him and his mother before his unexpected death. His mother kills herself to avoid being sold.
  • Post-Victory Collapse: Conory is kept out of the final showdown by a Secret Stab Wound after the Battle of Black Crag. Phaedrus seems to deliver him to The Medic in a Bridal Carry.
    Conory: I've never fallen off a horse yet. Nor have I been lifted off a horse like a screeching captive maiden. [falls off the horse]
  • Prophecies Are Always Right: After Phaedrus signally fails to demonstrate a convincingly Dalriad mindset, the Old Man of the Green Hills tells him that never mind, the next time he sees a plover's feather, he'll have become a legit Horse Lord. Sure enough, there's one drifting past when Phaedrus makes his Heroic Sacrifice.
  • Our Fairies Are Different: The Little Dark People, chiefly represented by the Old Man of the Green Hills with his powers of hypnosis and prophecy, are the demythified stand-ins for The Fair Folk.
  • Red Pill, Blue Pill: A passing captain of Frontier Scouts offers Phaedrus the chance of a slightly less dangerous career as a Roman soldier. But Phaedrus is already starting to think of Rome as The Empire, and also thinks it would be dull.
  • Refusal of the Call: Murna and the Old Man of the Green Hills claim that Liadhan lost the support of the matriarchal faction of the Dalriadain when she refused to answer her "call" to death at The Coup.
  • Rescue Romance: Phaedrus and Murna have a fraught relationship until he gets his face half sheared off in battle and she takes chief responsibility for nursing him. After they clear up a few issues they find they've got a Perfectly Arranged Marriage.
  • Revenge: Midir's reason for getting up in the morning.
    Midir: Take my place, Phaedrus, and with it, take my vengeance, and keep it safe–warm with your own warmth, like a little polished throw-stone in the hollow of your shield until the time comes to throw. But cry my name when that time comes, so that both the Sun Lord and the Woman may know that it is my vengeance, not yours.
  • Right-Hand Cat: Shan, Conory's hand-reared female wildcat, who is both a fashion accessory and a projectile weapon. She's another mark of his girly exotic-ness, since Sutcliff usually wrote Canine Companions and the Dalriad women are called Wild Cats.
  • Rightful King Returns: Invoked and subverted by the conspirators' plan. Phaedrus of course isn't the rightful king by Royal Blood, but his new subjects don't know that. (Liadhan does, but she can't exactly tell people she had the actual king brutally mutilated.) In any case, Phaedrus earns the rightful kingship by acting as a Dalriad king ought to act.
    Midir: To shout 'Brothers! Here is Midir your King! Liadhan would have slain him, but he escaped and now he is come back to be the battle standard of the war host!' That is a sharper weapon, and the sharpness of the weapon is all I care for, now.
  • Runaway Bride: The Dalriad wedding ceremony includes a bit where the groom and his mates chase down the bride who's pretending to flee on horseback. Murna obviously goes for the breakaway at the first opportunity.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Insofar as a hardened gladiator can be a lamb, Vortimax is the lamb.
  • Sadistic Choice: Book Ends. In the opening, Phaedrus is forced to choose his best friend's death over his own. In the end, he has to choose his people's welfare over his own life.
  • Scotland: Earra-Ghyl, "the Coast of the Gael", is better known as Argyll.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The scene in which Phaedus resists the Old Man of the Green Hills' illusion is an homage to (or rip-off of) Rudyard Kipling's Kim. The terms "Men's Side/Women's Side" are inspired by "Song of the Men's Side" in Kipling's Rewards and Fairies.
    • The quoted phrase "two inches in the right place" is from Vegetius's De rei militari. See also: the Trivia tab.
    • Phaedrus directly discusses Tacitus's Agricola with Titus Hilarion.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Murna warms to Phaedrus because she's observed that he's less of a pitiless dick than the original Midir.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: Murna only leaves Phaedrus on campaign because she's pregnant with their heir. Phaedrus observes that it's ironic that the Horse Lord's son will get his only Royal Blood from his mother.
  • Tattoo as Character Type: The Dalriadain and the Caledone tribes are both Picts – Painted People – whose warriors wear extensive tattooing after their Rite of Passage. (Sinnoch the merchant explicitly doesn't, and there's no sign that the women do.) The Caledones sport full-body tattooing because they're just that hardcore, while the Dalriadain have less. The Horse Lord and his heir wear a forehead symbol called the Royal Flower, which was gashed off Midir and which is the first piece of preparation Phaedrus gets.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: Justified. The scene in which Midir unfolds his assassination plot is also a spy's opportunity to overhear it.