Summary of Rosemary Sutcliff historical novel, children’s book The Shield Ring (1956)

In England  just after the Norman Conquest, high up among the fells of the Lake District is a secret valley where the Northmen (or Vikings as they are sometimes loosely called) have their last stronghold – or shield ring – struggling to keep the Lake District free. The Normans want to crush this last group of Northmen, so they build a castle in Carlisle and an army is sent north under Ranulf de Meschin. Frytha a young, orphaned Saxon girl seeks refuge in the valley after her home is burnt by the Normans. She witnesses the waning power of the Norse as she  joins Jarl Buthar’s Viking band after her family are slaughtered by the Normans.

Bjorn, the Bear-Cub, is the foster son of the old harper. He  longs to be allowed to play the ‘sweet-singer’, the special harp owned by his foster father which is smaller than the hall harp and strung with Irish white bronze, not horse hair. The old harper realises that one day Bjorn will indeed be a harper and he starts to teach him how to play it.

Life goes on in the valley – lambing, shearing, spinning, harvesting, and singing and story telling in the great hall in the evenings. But always there is the need to prepare for a Norman attack and Bjorn has a secret fear. Several times in the past the Normans have captured Northmen and  tortured them to try to force them to reveal where the hidden valley is – but no Northman has ever betrayed the vital secret. Bjorn wonders how he would act if he were ever in that position and fears he would not be able t keep silent.

The outnumbered Northmen try to outwit the Normans by building the Road to Nowhere – a road which will lead the Normans into an ambush. But they also need intelligence about  the Norman army. They need to send someone into the Norman camp. Bjorn volunteers; he speaks enough Norman to get by, and a harper  can go anywhere. So Bjorn sets out for the Norman camp knowing that if he is found to be a spy he will be tortured – his secret fear from childhood. But he does not go alone. Frytha follows him.

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

One thought on “Summary of Rosemary Sutcliff historical novel, children’s book The Shield Ring (1956)”

  1. Though I eagerly read all the RS books i could find when I discovered them, about the age of 12 or 13, somehow The Shield Ring managed to capture a special place in my heart. When my family visited the Lake District thereafter, I insisted on dragging them around many of the sites mentioned in the book, just so that I could re-imagine the scenes in situ and think that I had “been there”. :) And though in the many, MANY years since, I have never yet completed a draft of any novel of my own, if I ever do, it will be in a large part because I finished the last page of The Shield Ring and though, “Oh, I wish I could make something like that!”. :)

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