Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach
Ruan takes the reader to late sixth century Britain, where the title character's most important life choice begins with a trip to the Scilly Isles for a king's burial. This novel must have been close to the author's heart. Winifred Ellerman took the name Bryher, borrowed from one of the legend-haunted Scillies off the western tip of Cornwall, not just as a pen name but as her legal name.
Young Ruan is the last descendant of a druidic family. His uncle is training him to take his place one day as chief druid, despite fears that the present king's heir may adopt Christianity, displacing the druids. This novel has no religious axe to grind. The Christians, a group of shipwreck survivors given land by the king out of charity, are peripheral to the story. Ruan's druidic training involves memorizing royal genealogies, learning an ancient ceremonial language and assisting at rituals of mourning and celebration. He finds his studies oppressively tedious, longing for a seaman's life instead.
Bryher's novel is short and unpretentious with a slight plot that serves as excuse for the richly drawn setting and clean, poetic prose. As part of her research, she sailed from Cornwall to Wales to Ireland and back. Her care shows in the lovingly matter-of-fact details about seafaring and the sea. In one passage, sailors prepare their boat for another voyage after wintering ashore: "We had left her well covered but there was always a corner where the rain had seeped through some join, there might be a plank to change on one of the rowing benches or a leaking water cask. If the weather were fine, or there were a light, drying wind we spread the sails on the grass beside the beach, then our sailmaker, on his hands and knees, went over them inch by inch." (1960, 191 pages)
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Other novels about ancient and early medieval seafaring:
The Golden Wind by L. Sprague de Camp (1969), about a second century B.C. Greek seaman who sets out on a voyage around the coast of Africa. More info
The Sea Road by Margaret Elphinstone (2001), about a Viking woman who goes on the expedition to Vinland on the American continent. More info
Over the Wine-Dark Sea by H.N. Turteltaub (2001), about ancient Greek seamen; #1 in a series. More info
Nonfiction about ancient and early medieval seafaring:
Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times by Lionel Casson (1994). More info
The Barefoot Navigator: Navigating with the Skills of the Ancients by Jack Lagan (2006). More info
The Brendan Voyage by Tim Severin (1978), the story of the author's recreation of St. Brendan's voyage across the Atlantic in a leather curragh. More info
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