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Literature / The Shining Company

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"Is that a giant angel-sword behind us?"

The Shining Company is a Young Adult Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff published in 1990. It was her last completed novel before her death and later won the 2010 Phoenix Award.

A hundred years after Artos and his Company of three hundred cavalry united Britain’s forces against the invading Saxons, the Britons have fractured once more into the petty kingdoms of the Old North. Under the growing threat of the Saxon kings of Deira and Bernicia, King Mynyddog of the Gododdin summons the second sons of the North and West to form a new Three Hundred.

The Shining Company is based on the Welsh elegiac poem Y Gododdin, commemorating the fallen of the Battle of Catraeth circa 600 CE. It was traditionally attributed to the bard Aneirin, a supposed eyewitness.


The Shining Company contains examples of:

  • All First-Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: Tagalong Chronicler Aneirin will compose the Great Song that celebrates the Company's triumph (or tragic demise.) If they’d wanted a novel, apparently Prosper the shieldbearer could have done just as well.
  • Alliterative Family: The brothers Cynan, Cynri, and Cynran Mac Clydno, who are theoretically Scottish, enjoy a matching set of Welsh names.
  • An Ass-Kicking Christmas: On the third day of Mynyddog's Midwinter feast, the Company and the Teulu fall to squabbling about the Champion's portion of the roast, end up in a mead-fuelled brawl, and nearly burn down Dyn Eidin.
  • "Ass" in Ambassador: On being invited to review the Company, the envoy from the kingdom of Dalriada pooh-poohs mere combat readiness and wants a demonstration of discipline like, say, jumping off a cliff on command.
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  • Band of Brothers: The Companions; their forebears in Artos's Company; and also the Teulu, the king's bodyguard.
  • Because Destiny Says So:
    Conn: Maybe the Fates have marked their pattern on your forehead and on Cynan's as a while back you told me that they had marked it on mine. But among mortal men there can be no knowing why.
  • Big Eater:
    "People often thought that it was for his fighting powers that Gwenabwy had come to be likened to the wild pig. It was. But we who came to know him, knew also that there was another reason."
  • Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards: Phanes acquired the archangel dagger from a broke friend in the Emperor of Constantinople's Varangian Guard, to whom he means to return it someday. After his Career-Ending Injury, Prosper and Cynan ride off into the sunrise on the pretext of doing it for him, and end up joining the Guard themselves.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Aneirin and Prosper's account of the battle in the Hall in Dyn Eidin turns into calling Mynyddog to account for his Betrayal by Inaction.
  • The Cavalry: The Plan is for the Company to strike the Deiran capital Catraeth, ideally kill King Aethelfrith, then dig in to await reinforcements from Gododdin and the nearby allied kingdoms. The reinforcements don't come.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Prosper's best friends, his cousin Luned and his slave Conn. Prosper eventually notices that She Is All Grown Up and wonders if his father plans to marry them to each other, but in the end he sends Conn home as a free man to marry her if he can.
    Prosper: Luned is nobody's until she chooses. There is love between Luned and me – once I thought... But it is more Like Brother and Sister. There is love between Luned and you, and that, I am thinking, is of another kind.
  • Continuity Nod: Prosper and Co. spend their wakefulness test in the wolf-haunted ruins of Castellum in a Shout Out to Frontier Wolf. The various references to King Arthur are also specifically to Sword at Sunset.
  • Dead Guy on Display: Ceredig the Fosterling has an unpleasant post-mortem.
    "The mist had got into my head, and when, some way ahead, I saw a battered and half-naked body wearing the great wolf helmet hoisted aloft on spear-shafts, it was a moment before I knew whether it was Aethelfrith or the Fosterling."
  • Defeat Means Friendship: Zig-zagged. Prosper accidentally humiliates a fellow shieldbearer named Faelinn during a Trust-Building Blunder, and Faelinn resents it until another test exposes similar weakness in Prosper to him. They fall together during the siege of Catraeth and become Cynan's replacement shieldbearers, and though still not exactly friends, they'd rather go into the Last Stand together than not.
  • Divided We Fall: Mynyddog of the Gododdin is trying to unite a warhost of the kingdoms of the northwest, in the tradition of Artos, to check the expanding Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia. The last guy who tried to do that, Urien of Rheged, was murdered by his own men. His fellow rulers decline to send troops to his support, and the Shining Company is sacrificed in the hope of killing the dynamic Saxon king.
    Gwyn: I am thinking that on the day that the tribes learn to stand together instead of slitting each other's throats, the stars will fall out of the sky.
  • Due to the Dead: The casualties of The Siege are buried in mass graves, stripped of their precious equipment but left their personal ornaments. There's no one left to bury the last of the Company, but their memorial will be the song of Aneirin.
  • Dwindling Party: Dara, Cynri Mac Clydno, Gorthyn, Cynran Mac Clydno, Lleyn, and Peredur and six hundred others are killed in the course of The Siege.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: Prosper and Cynan find themselves alone (and to really make the point, in a graveyard) at the end of the broken charge.
  • Fiery Redhead: King Aethelfrith of Bernicia and Deira, nicknamed "the Flame-bringer."
  • Fog of War: The ability to conjure a concealing fog is said to be an ability of druids, of which Aneirin is one. He actually manages to do it on the night of the Last Stand.
  • Foreshadowing: If you don’t know going in that everybody in Y Gododdin died, references to the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae might give you a clue.
  • Freudian Trio: The three Welsh princes, with their leader Tydfwlch the Tall as the Ego, Gwenabwy as Id, and thoughtful Gorthyn as Superego.
  • The Hero's Birthday: The novel opens on the day Prosper is given Conn as a birthday present. He's disappointed, as he actually wanted a dog.
  • Heroic Bastard: Ceredig the "Fosterling," captain of the Teulu and the Company.
    "I looked at the Captain of the Teulu standing by, and saw an odd look on his face – surprise, and a kind of bitter inward-turning laughter – and guessed that although the thing was indeed common knowledge, it was maybe the first time that the king had formally acknowledged his briar-bush son before all men."
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Prosper and Conn.
    Prosper: It is but five springs since my father gave us to each other, yet it seems as though we came into life together.
    Conn: And the grief is on me that we may not go out of it together also.
  • Historical Domain Character: Aneirin, the kings Mynyddog, Aelle and Aethelfrith, and all the Companions named in Y Gododdin (including Gorthyn, Cynran and his brothers, Ceredig, Gwenabwy and Tydfwlch, Llif, Peredur, Madog, Morien, etc.) were all, supposedly, real people.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: Averted! The only result of Old Nurse's illness is that Prosper has to spend a few days looking after Conn's knee injury and bond with him in the process.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Phanes of Syracuse is a man of parts: Blood Brothers with King Mynyddog, his interpreter with the Saxons, he survives a Secret Stab Wound to bring news of Aelle’s death, and carried the archangel dagger that alters the course of Prosper, Conn, and Cynan’s lives from Constantinople to darkest Wales.
  • It Has Been an Honor: Part of Ceredig's Rousing Speech, an unwitting paraphrase of Bedwyr in Sword at Sunset.
    The Fosterling: I am a man who likes to choose with care the company he dies in, and I should be full fain to die in yours.
  • Kill the Ones You Love: Prosper resolves to shoot the white hart, rather than let it be pulled down by Gorthyn's hounds. Cynan cuts the throat of Cynran, his wounded youngest brother.
    "It was time that those who were too sorely hurt to ride were sent on their way; for they could not be left to fall into the hands of the Sea-wolves. The last mercy, among fighting men, performed by brother for brother, friend for friend."
  • Last Stand: When two-thirds of the Company are dead and their reinforcements fail to materialise, the Fosterling decides on a Self-Destructive Charge in the hopes of Taking You with Me, since they have no chance of escaping the encircling Saxons.
    "So – I turned in the saddle and looked back. And I saw the Companions on their last ride. I have never forgotten that sight, nor, I am thinking, will any of the Saxon kind who saw them coming and lived beyond that night. I saw the Wild Hunt. I saw riders with black eyesockets in glimmering mail where their faces should have been, grey wolfskins catching a bloom of light from the mist and the moon; a shining company indeed, not quite mortal-seeming, but made of another kind that might dissolve at any moment into the mist that smoked about them. Only for that bright breath of time I saw them by the white levin-light of the moon, as something in which I had no part at all. Then I faced forward and settled down to ride; a part of them once more, in a oneness that was more potent than the oneness we had come to know on the Dyn Eidin training grounds. The bloom of light was on my own wolfskin, and my own mailed face, faceless with the rest."
  • Leave No Witnesses: On the march south Prosper and Cynan capture a highly dangerous Saxon shepherd. The Fosterling apologetically executes him.
  • Line in the Sand: When the recruits have assembled and Mynyddog finally explains what they're assembled for, he gives them the chance to say "so long and thanks for all the fish" before his first great equipment-giving feast. Before the Last Stand, the Fosterling offers everyone still alive the chance to Opt Out of the Self-Destructive Charge, judgement-free. No one does, of course.
    Aneirin: If you take honour from my hands here and now, you also will each become such a one as the harpers sing of, but it may be that you also will not count your first white hairs. It is only right that you should know this, before you make your choice. This evening you have feasted all together, and with the feasting done, any who wish it, shall ride away.
  • Made a Slave: Conn was sold to slave-traders in Ireland. Aneirin was held prisoner by King Aelle.
    "I learned what lay behind the white mark of the thrall-ring on the neck of Aneirin the Poet; how he had been taken captive by the Saxons when on an embassage to their King, taken under the Green Branch of peacetalk."
  • Manly Tears:
    "I cried as I had never cried before, and as I do not think that I have ever cried since; for the last ride of the Shining Company, for the death of my friends, for strength and beauty and brightness gone out of the world, though we had not killed the white hart; I cried I think for my own boyhood that I had thought myself grown out of years ago, but that in truth I had only lost at Catraeth two nights since."
  • The Marvelous Deer: Prosper, Conn, and Luned are the first to sight the white hart that they decide to protect from the prince Gorthyn's hunting. Gorthyn calls off the hunt himself on seeing the deer and thereby wins Prosper's loyalty and his services as shield bearer.
    "For a moment the thought came upon me that he was some creature out of ancient legend, such as the harpers sang of beside the fire on winter nights. He stood with his head back, poised and proud under the arching crown of antlers, seeming not so much to shine in the moonlight as to be fashioned of the same stuff as the moonlight itself. For a long breath-held moment we looked at each other. I'll swear we looked at each other, eyes into eyes as men look, and for that moment it was as though some enchantment held us all, humans and beast alike, within a perfect circle that had neither beginning nor end."
  • The Medic: Old Nurse and Brother Pebwyr at Nant Ffrancon, the Queen and Princess Niamh at Dyn Eidin, and Aneirin at Catraeth.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The first chapters deal with Prosper's childhood with Luned, Conn, and Gelert in the Small, Secluded World of his father's domain in North Wales, and how he came to meet Prince Gorthyn and was drawn into the Shining Company.
  • The Outside World: The archangel dagger "pricked a hole in my familiar world and let in the world outside..."
    "For the first time I knew, really knew, not just with my head but in my heart's core, that there was another world beyond the mountains; not the world of legend and faery of which the harpers sang, but a real world of living people, in which one of the Emperor's bodyguard was at that moment lacking his best dagger because he had wagered more than he could afford on a horse race."
  • Rule of Three: The Companions are the third of three celebrated fighting forces of three hundred soldiers, after the Spartans at Thermopylae and the Brotherhood of Artos; they fight in three-man units (making their actual numbers three times three hundred); Prosper grows up with ¡Three Amigos!, and Cynan is one of three brothers.
  • Self-Destructive Charge: When The Siege has reduced the Company to a third of its strength, the food and water are running out, no escape is possible, and no rescue is coming, the Fosterling resolves on a final attempt to kill King Aethelfrith and as much of the Saxon fighting force as they can manage.
    Ceredig: Let us make an end of our own choosing. Let us make one last charge against the Saxons, where their spear-wall is the thickest... We shall not break through; it is not for that we make our charge. We shall go down. But we shall take down with us such a harvest of the Saxon kind that it shall be long and long before their war hordes can gather full strength again.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: The loss of his brothers, the shock of betrayal, and a spiked club to the face render Cynan catatonic for a few days.
    "Despite the half-healed wound that marred his cheek and forehead, he looked almost to be himself again, but still he seemed shut off from all that went on around him, and he never spoke. He was like one of those terrible slain warriors who, so the ancient stories tell, were put into the great cauldron of Annwn, and came out seemingly restored to life but without the power of speaking."
  • Shout-Out:
    • Aneirin recites a Welsh lullaby, "Dinogad's Smock", recorded in the same manuscript as Y Gododdin.
    • To Celtic Mythology: References abound, since almost everyone in the novel is a 6th century Celt.
      • Gwyn ap Nudd and The Wild Hunt
      • Branwen, and the Cauldron of Annwn: the 2nd branch of Mabinogion
      • Cuchulain: hero of the The Cattle Raid of Cooley
      • Languareth, Queen of Strathclyde: recipient of a Clingy Macguffin miracle performed by St. Mungo
      • the Water Horse of Pwl Ddu: a drowning hazard
      • the Rock of Black Annis: a folkloric witch of uncertain origin
  • The Siege: The Company takes Catraeth to hold it in advance of the British war hosts' arrival. They occupy the Roman ruins which the Saxons believe to be haunted, sending out killing sorties as they wait for The Cavalry, while the Saxon forces gather around them. They lose two thirds of their number, are forced back from their water supplies and run out of food. By the time it is clear no help is coming, it is no longer possible to escape.
  • Single Girl Seeks Most Popular Guy: Ladies' man Cynan and his very devoted old friend, the Princess Niamh. He’s too damaged to requite her, but he rides away wearing The Lady's Favour.
  • Slave Liberation: Conn wins his freedom with the help of a little Loophole Abuse.
    Prosper: Conn, I cannot give you your freedom – I would if I could, but you are my father's, not mine. But if you want to learn to be a swordsmith, then here is your chance to learn the skill, and when you have learned it – you're free.
  • Sole Survivor: The Three Hundred are reduced to a single Cynan Mac Clydno. There's also Prosper, Aneirin, a scout and three or four smiths, but they apparently don't count.
  • The Squire: Each Companion is backed by two shieldbearers in a unit called the Arrowhead, who serve him, and in battle replace his weapon, horse and even him, if necessary. The Three Hundred are in fact nine hundred.
    "He sang deep into the night, of the three hundred men wearing golden torques and bearing swords that were the King's gift. Not of us, the shieldbearers, of course; we did not expect it. I do not suppose the men of other states who stood with the Spartans at Thermopylae expected it, either."
  • The Storyteller: Aneirin the Tagalong Chronicler, whose job it is to immortalise the Company in song, and various others: Old Nurse and Gwyn the harper, Phanes of Syracuse, and Huil and Dara, Prosper's companions in the ordeal of wakefulness.
  • Suicide Mission: Mynyddog knows almost as soon as the Company has left that no help is coming from his neighbours and he can't afford to waste the rest of his war host rescuing them. He doesn't recall them, on the off chance that they might manage to kill the expansionist Saxon king. They have no idea.
    Mynyddog: No man should ride on such a trail altogether without hope. I was not quite without hope myself, at the outset.
  • Training Montage: Averted. The middle section of the novel expands on their equipping and training.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: Prosper, Luned with whom he's Like Brother and Sister, and his Heterosexual Life-Partner Conn.
  • Undying Loyalty: Prosper and Prince Gorthyn, after they bond over beauty of the white hart. After Gorthyn's painful and lingering death Prosper rededicates his existence to looking out for the shell-shocked Cynan.
    "Something, a kind of fealty, went out from me to him that I knew would not return to me again so long as life lasted, his or mine."
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The novel is based on Y Gododdin, an elegiac poem allegedly written by an eyewitness of the Battle of Catraeth, but since the major drama of the poem is that all the heroes die, the novel focuses on their unnamed supporters, the shieldbearers like Prosper.
  • We Have Reserves: Subverted. Mynyddog is forced to cut his losses with the Shining Company precisely because, lacking reinforcements from his neighbours, he can't afford to commit the Gododdin host to bail them out and leave his territory defenseless.
    Mynyddog: Their chance would have been small indeed, against the joined hosts of Deira and Bernicia. I judged that my shining and beloved Three Hundred were enough to lose.