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Literature / Warrior Scarlet

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A wolf in sheep's clothing
Warrior Scarlet is a Young Adult Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff published in 1958, and her only novel set in the Bronze Age. It was shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal.

Drem, a boy of the Proud Warrior Race Golden People born with a withered right arm, learns that he is expected to fail his Wolf Slaying Rite of Passage and be exiled to the Slave Race Half People. Also born supremely self-confident, he determines to become a warrior so great that his tribe will never again question his right to wear the Warrior Scarlet.

Warrior Scarlet contains examples of:

  • The Ace: Drem is pretty much the ideal of what a warrior of the Golden People should be – bold, sharp, a great fighter and a handsome devil. There's just the small matter of his missing sword arm. . .
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Drem’s schoolmates sense weakness when it suddenly becomes obvious to everyone five minutes into the first day of warrior training that Drem can’t carry a shield and a weapon at the same time. Drem’s answer: fight the entire class.
    "This was the Boys' House; this was the beginning of the Men's side, the Spear Brotherhood, the beginning of the question whether Drem's place was inside with the Spear Brotherhood or outside with the Half People."
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Two chapters are devoted to the accession of the king of the tribe, who is never given a name or heard from before or afterward.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Drem accidentally wins Blai's Undying Loyalty by sticking with her out of mere territoriality when her father rejects her in front of the tribe. But when Drem asks her to marry him, she hesitates until it’s obvious he’s not asking out of pity.
    Blai: You came after me once —years ago—when that man came, and all the other children laughed. You came after me because I was of your hearth, you said; and so now—surely if I am of your hearth, then you must be of mine.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition:
    • The old and new Kings' joint funeral-wake-coronation.
    • Each boy ritually "dies" and is "reborn" as a man at the Feast of the New Spears.
    • Drem's Wolf Slaying in front of a mortally-injured shepherd and an ewe in labour.
  • Canine Companion: Whitethroat, the half-wolf pup Talore gives Drem for his first kill.
  • Character Development: After he's alerted at the tender age of nine to how precarious his place among his people is, Hot-Blooded Determinator Drem resorts to Refuge in Audacity to overcome every challenge to his worth with flying colours – his first kill, his fight in the Boys' House, his duel in front of the tribe. Then he fails the critical test through sheer bad luck and is forced into a life that requires patience, endurance, and compassion. It's the Necessary Fail that makes him Take A Level In Kindness towards those whose problems can't be solved with their sword-arm.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Drem observes with bewilderment that Blai won't let his new sister-in-law near him.
  • Coming of Age Story: Drem spends half his life preparing for the Rite of Passage that he fails, then spends the next year as a shepherd learning skills he hadn't trained for as a warrior, like "patience" and "compassion”.
  • Contrived Coincidence: Drem crosses the same wolf twice. Then again, there can’t be too many wolf packs hanging around one village.
  • Cool Old Guy: Doli, the oldest of the shepherds, doesn't give a damn that Drem is one of the Golden People.
    "That was one of the maddening things about the Dark People; they were often in some way beyond the reach of an insult."
  • Creation Myth: Doli explains human migration into the British Isles:
    Doli: Tah-Nu, the Father of my people, in a land where the sun casts no shadows, dreamed a dream of the north, and how he hollowed out the trunk of a great tree and put into it his woman and his child and his hunting dog and a basket of barley seed, and paddled after the dream across the Great Water, and how he came to this land after many days, and sprang ashore and found that he had grown a shadow.
  • The Determinator: Drem compensates for his missing hand by sheer force of personality.
  • Disappeared Dad: Blai's travelling blacksmith dad left her behind in Drem's village after her mother's Death by Childbirth. The other children mock her for believing that He Will Come for Me. After he makes his disappointing return, she denies that he is her real father.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: If there's one thing Drem hates, it's sympathy.
  • Dream-Crushing Handicap: Drem was born with his undeveloped right arm (and boundless self-confidence), and doesn't realise that other people consider him disabled until he overhears the Grandfather complaining that he'll never wear the Warrior Scarlet.
    Talore: Listen, cub. If the thing is worth a fight, fight for it and do not hear the Grandfather too clearly. There are ways— ways round, and ways through, and ways over. If you have not two hands for a bow, then learn to use a throw-spear with such skill that your enemies, and your brothers, forget that it is not from choice.
  • Duel to the Death: Drem's chieftain Dumnorix quarrels with another chief at the King's coronation feast over the iron dagger and demands satisfaction in a duel. The King de-escalates this into a dog-fight. Rather than let Whitethroat get killed in a No-Holds-Barred Beatdown, Drem volunteers for a Knife Fight instead. He fights his opponent to first blood, when the king Takes a Third Option and confiscates the dagger as a coronation present.
  • The Exile: Exile to the Half People effectively means moving uphill to the sheep pastures and crushing awkwardness when you meet any of the people you used to know.
  • Foil: Erp is also shut out of the Spear Brotherhood, but as one of the Dark People, he grew up expecting it.
  • For Want Of A Nail: Drem fails his Wolf Slaying; not for lack of skill; not because of his useless arm. No. He fails because of a root.
  • Grumpy Old Man: The Grandfather has outlived his friends and his sons. He fancies himself a badass and figures Screw Politeness, I'm a Senior!.
    Drem: Always he is pleased with himself. It is the rest of the world that he is not pleased with!
  • Handicapped Badass: Drem and his mentor Talore the Hunter.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Drem and Vortrix become inadvertent Blood Brothers when they fight the rest of the first years on their first day in the Boys' House and remain inseparable thereafter. Vortrix saves Drem's life at his first Wolf Slaying and convinces the rest of the clan to accept his second.
  • Hidden Depths: The point of the chapter "The Dagger and the Fire", in which pale, silent, but occasionally fierce Blai is juxtaposed with her father's iron dagger, a cold silvery metal that nonetheless strikes sparks.
  • Last-Minute Hookup: Drem is Oblivious to Love until it dawns on him in the final scene that he and Blai are Birds of a Feather, and asks her to more or less marry him roughly five seconds later.
  • Loophole Abuse: Drem was supposed to kill a wolf within one day in order to pass his initiation, and no wolf he killed later in the usual course of guarding the sheep would ever count for it. Vortrix discovers the year-old scar of his spear on Drem’s dead wolf and persuades the tribe that Drem’s Wolf Slaying was just unfinished business.
  • Mama Bear: Drem's mother Sabra definitely doesn't allow the Grandfather to give him a hard time.
  • The Mentor: Talore the Hunter, or Talore One-Hand, convinces Drem to fight his ground, sets him his first test, and promises to stand sponsor for him at the Feast of New Spears.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The first few chapters cover incidents when Drem is 9-12, before a Time Skip to the cusp of official manhood (the ripe old age of 15).
  • Misery Builds Character: Drem and Blai attain a certain broadness of perspective from the experience of never quite fitting in among the Golden People.
    "Blai looked at him in silence, her narrow white face set in the twilight; and he had a feeling that she was older than he was, much, much older, which was foolishness because he had seen eleven summers and she only nine."
  • My Greatest Second Chance: Drem kills the wolf that got away. This time, he has nothing to gain from it except saving an old man and a sheep.
  • Necessary Fail: Drem is brave, clever, a skillful hunter and fighter, tall, handsome, and one of the Golden People. The only thing that gives him the slightest sympathy for those who don't have his advantages – like Blai or the Half People – is the experience of losing his social position and living among them as an outcast. It doesn't exactly make his life better, but it makes him a better person.
  • Red Is Heroic: Only the Men's side are allowed to wear the Warrior Scarlet.
  • Referenced by...: In Knight's Fee (published two years later), the medieval inhabitants of the same village on the Hill of Gathering puzzle over an ancient flint hand-ax, evidently made for a left-handed man – or, thinks the protagonist for no reason at all, a one-handed one. . .
  • Refuge in Audacity: Drem's life philosophy.
  • The Resenter: Luga will never forgive Drem for being given Whitethroat instead of Luga's dad.
    Drem: I know you; you're a troublemaker, always one to pick a quarrel and bear a grudge; but you're one of the Brotherhood still, and let any threat come against the Brotherhood from the outside, and you'll stand with the rest of us until the threat is beaten back.
  • Rite of Passage: The Feast of New Spears involves the Men’s Side dressing up in animal masks (and only animal masks), going out behind the old grave mound, getting a bunch of tattoos, and seeing the face of god.
  • Savage Wolves: Wolves prey on the sheep, so the Men's side mounts the Wolf Guard every winter, and to join the Men's side each New Spear has to kill a wolf single-handed. Drem faces a starving pack of three and kills the grey leader.
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: Business as usual for the Men's side.
    "Drem saw where he had halted to change it to the other shoulder, and left the tale in a single blood spot on the sodden ground, and in the changed balance of his footprints when he went on again."
  • Scenery Porn
  • Serious Business: The Price of Whitethroat is a pretty big deal to ten-year-old Drem. . . and the grown man who also wants to buy him.
  • Shout-Out: The setting of the prehistoric shepherds beset by wolves is inspired by Rudyard Kipling's story and poem "The Knife and the Naked Chalk" and "Song of the Men's Side" in Rewards and Fairies. The phrase "a singing magic" is from "The Cat Who Walked by Himself".
  • Slave Race: The Half People serve Drem's village as shepherds, while the Golden People are a warrior caste. The Half People are descended from the flint-using Dark People and the copper-using "golden giants" who conquered them, who were in turn conquered by the bronze-wielding Golden People – who will, inevitably, someday be conquered by someone carrying the new, magical metal called iron.
  • Snow Means Death: Drem’s battle against the wolves happens in the snow, after he and Doli follow a sheep into a blizzard. Images of scarlet on white throughout the book, like the blood on the breast of Drem's swan, foreshadow blood on the snow.
  • The Stoic: Doli summarises the Half People’s outlook on life:
    Doli: The wind from the east is a cold wind, and blood runs from a spear-thrust, and if a man be too long without food he will die. And all these things are bad; yet he would be a fool who spent his life grieving for such things.
  • Stranger in a Familiar Land: Zig-zagged. After growing up as "one of the Lordly Ones of the world", Drem never quite belongs among the Half People, and when he finds that in fact You Can Go Home Again, Erp makes it clear to him that he can’t have it both ways. Nevertheless, Drem knows that he (and Blai) will always have slightly different perspectives than the rest of the Golden People.
    Luga: Even the great Drem One-Arm cannot hunt in two worlds at once.
  • Swans A-Swimming: Drem's first kill, and the sight that awakens him to beauty:
    "He heard the rhythmical creaking sound, half eery, half musical, of a swan in flight, and turning, saw the great bird flying low toward him across the level of jewel-green turf between two spreading sheets of water. The sun was on its feathers, and its shadow flew beneath it like a dark echo along the ground; a bird of snow and a bird of shadow . . . Drem saw the proud spread of shining wings, beating with slow, almost lazy power and beauty, as it flew with outstretched neck; he heard louder and louder the half musical throb of the wing beats; and the great swan swole on his sight. It seemed rushing toward him, blotting out the world with the white spread of its wings. He was caught up in a piercing vision of white, fierce beauty that was like thunder and lightning and an east wind, like a sunburst."
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Drem's mother Sabra is sick of weaving for her irritating father-in-law, the Grandfather.
  • This Is Something He's Got to Do Himself: Zig-zagged. Each New Spear is required to kill his wolf unaided. When Drem slips, Vortrix stabs his wolf to keep it from killing him, which Drem isn't entirely grateful for. When Drem does kill the wolf a year later, Vortrix identifies it by the scar of his spear and uses it to convince the rest of the clan that Drem has passed his test.
  • Took a Level in Kindness:
    "It seemed to Drem suddenly that the world was very kind. He had known its beauty often; a fierce and shining beauty like that of his great white swan, but he had not had time for the kindness. After this, maybe he would not have time for it again, but he thought that he would not quite forget . . ."