Sarum: the Novel of England by Edward Rutherford

“First, before the beginning of Sarum, came a time when the world was a colder and darker  place.”

Much after the order of James Michener, Edward Rutherford begins his novel of England with the ice age. Rutherford pans across the silent, icy continent, and across time, to a single prehistoric hunter huddled with his wife and family on the frozen tundra. His name is Hwll, and he is one of a small band of nomadic hunters following the dwindling game roaming the barren wastes. Hwll is about to undertake an impossible journey to follow an ancient legend of a land far to the south, a warmer land where people live in caves, and the hunting is good. Rutherford describes the incredible journey of this lone family, a journey that must, in fact, have been made by someone.

As this family becomes involved with other families upon completion of their journey, the story follows them through their harsh struggle for survival in this prehistoric world. It follows their emerging social structure, tensions, factions, and growing interdependence, as in the following scene of hunting an aurochs, and the subsequent disaster that leaves a family destitute:

The attack was sudden. In perfect unison, all four hunters rose and hurled their spears. They came from three sides, and were all within thirty feet of the aurochs when they threw. It had been an expert piece of stalking. Hwll watched the aurochs’ head jerk violently as it let out a bellow that echoed down the valley. And at that same instant, he knew that the attack had failed . . . The disaster took place in seconds. In a fury the aurochs  wheeled about . . . It was Tep that the aurochs saw. The cunning little hunter with the long toes had no chance . . . The aurochs’ great horns caught him . . . and Hwll saw his small body broken apart . . . The death of Tep left the little community with a new problem, and one that had to be solved quickly. Ulla was still of childbearing age, and her family . . . had no protector.”

The story then follows the descendants of these early hunters, taking special note of physical characteristics and attributes that would extend into countless future generations. And though these families are fictional, they depict the reality of such strong DNA factors upon people throughout the ages, and the recognizing of certain features among people of a specific region.

Wrapping up the early story of the journey to Sarum, its settlement, and the time of the hunter, Rutherford leaps forward a few thousand years to the introduction of farming and its impact upon the descendants of Sarum’s first families. He moves still further forward to the building of the barrow, of the henges, Stonehenge, and Roman occupation. He brings us close to the people who might have lived these times, close enough to share their hopes and dreams, ambitions and fears, and all that human beings contend with in the course of a lifetime.

He takes us into the hearts and minds of the builders of great cathedrals, of the stonecarvers who recreated the story of the Bible in vivid detail upon its surfaces, of little landholders who became great landholders, and of those whose promising lives held great tragedy.

Rutherford divides the book into “Old Sarum” and “New Sarum”, and marches us through England’s history, as it impacted Sarum, all the way to World War II and on through the 20th century. It is an exciting and epic personalizing of history from generation to generation, with fascinating details of events and places most of us only know about in impersonal generalizations. A reading of Sarum is not only entertaining, it is time well invested.

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