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Heather, Oak, and Olive

by Rosemary Sutcliff
120 pages, Historical Fiction
Reviewed by Jenny

Three excellent short stories covering native British, Roman, and Greek cultures.

Plot

Note: Three distinct stories are contained in this book, The Chief’s Daughter, A Circlet of Oak Leaves, and A Crown of Wild Olive.

The Chief’s Daughter:
Irish raiders are combing up and down the western coast of Britain. Huddled up inside the Dun, Nessan’s people are safe from harm. But when the spring goes dry, Nessan’s young friend Dara, an Irish captive, is blamed, and sentenced to be sacrificed so the spring will return. Nessan must make a plan to save him and suffer the consequences.

A Circlet of Oak Leaves:
The Corona Civica, the crown of gilt oak-leaves, is an honor rarely bestowed. While bringing the new young horses down from the horse-country, Aracos finds himself in an uncomfortable discussion with some new acquaintances about the acts of valor of a certain Dacian cavalryman that happened ten years ago. And it is not until a man from ten years ago gives him an unexpected gift that Aracos finds any peace in his past.

A Crown of Wild Olive:
It is the year of the Olympic Games, and everything in the Greek world has come to a halt, including the war that has sprung up again between Athens and Sparta. It is the first year that young Amyntas the Athenian will be running, running for himself and his father and for Athens itself. But when he strikes up a friendship with the young Spartan runner, things become blurred, and the decision he must make is horribly difficult.

Morality

The Chief’s Daughter:
While this story centers around pagan beliefs, all characters are honorable, and a point is made of justice being done.

A Circlet of Oak Leaves:
While in the military, Aracos disguises himself to save his friend’s life, which is both dishonest and loyal at once. However, neither he nor his friend are liars, and a great sense of loyalty and courage is fostered in this tale.

A Crown of Wild Olive:
Amyntas struggles with knowing what is right as regards his family and his friend, but the conflict is concluded admirably, and loyalty is definitely a crowning aspect to this story.

Spiritual Content

The Chief’s Daughter:
The people of Nessan’s Dun worship the Black Mother, a black standing stone that they believe gives them life. The whole story hinges around appeasing her in order to get their water-supply back. The priest will go ‘within himself’ to talk to the Black Mother.

A Circlet of Oak Leaves:
There is virtually no spiritual content in this story. Roman gods are sworn by: no more.

A Crown of Wild Olive:
The Games are held in honor of the Gods, particularly Zeus, and Amyntas makes an offering to the god at one point.

Violence

The Chief’s Daughter:
None.

A Circlet of Oak Leaves:
Centering around a battle that happened ten years previous, there are several instances of violence involved. A man vomits from terror, people are injured, weapons are described in brief as they are used. Aracos suffers from a bad heart. Very little is described graphically.

A Crown of Wild Olive:
A war is mentioned, though not described. A runner’s foot gets cut on a piece of metal and bleeds. Nothing is described graphically.

Drug and Alcohol Content

The Chief’s Daughter:
A drug is mentioned that puts a sacrificial victim into a deep sleep before being killed.

A Circlet of Oak Leaves:
A group of men get drunk at a wine-shop, though nothing violent ensues. A drug is mentioned in passing that numbs the mind to fear and pain.

A Crown of Wild Olive:
None.

Sexual Content

The Chief’s Daughter:
None.

A Circlet of Oak Leaves:
None.

A Crown of Wild Olive:
Athletes perform unclad, but this is only mentioned once and not in a sexual context.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

The Chief’s Daughter:
None.

A Circlet of Oak Leaves:
None.

A Crown of Wild Olive:
None.

Conclusion

The Chief’s Daughter:
While brief, I found this a delightful story of a young girl willing to risk everything to save her friend. The descriptions of the countryside are colorful, the customs are fascinating, and the interrelations of the main characters gripping. Though the story does center around the influence of a pagan deity, it must be stated that the pagan deity never once exhibits any power, and is at most a passive entity on the outskirts of the story. I do not believe this aspect of the story will have any negative effect on readers, and I would heartily recommend this little tale.

A Circlet of Oak Leaves:
Again a short story, but a potent one. Invalided out of the Eagles, Aracos makes for an unlikely hero, but his story is powerful and gripping with the trademark bitter-sweetness of Sutcliff’s works. While several of the characters get drunk during the course of the story, nothing violent ensues, and like the paganism of the previous story, I don’t believe this aspect will impact the reader.

A Crown of Wild Olive:
Deviating from her typical Roman subject, Sutcliff delves into the pre-Roman world of the Greek city-states and their relationships during the Truce of the Games. If the author had been there herself, she could not have made the bustle of Olympia more real, more poignant. The reader is caught up in the struggles of the athletes in their training, in their mismatched friendships, in their races to attain the honor of the Crown of Wild Olive.

Fun Score: 5
Values Score: 4.5
Written for Age: 13+

Review Rating:

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