Boudica: Dreaming the serpent spear, by Manda Scott

British myth and magic from the mists of time
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The Independent Culture

This is the conclusion of an extraordinary achievement, a sequence of four novels re-creating our great matriarchal national epic: the story of Boudica, or Breaca, and her rebellion against Rome. It is ultimately, like other episodes in British history, a story of defeat made glorious by courage and legend, and this is its most spellbinding incarnation.

Manda Scott's three previous books were Dreaming the Hound, Dreaming the Bull, and Dreaming the Eagle. The titles referred to symbolic visions that both motivated Boudica and foretold her future. To reach the psychological depths necessary to understand the deepest levels of Boudica's nature and destiny, Scott has steeped herself in the learning of Druid priests and identified with elements of the natural world. At the opening of this fourth volume, there has been open revolt against Rome, Boudica and her daughters have been flogged, and her son has burned a Roman watchtower. But Boudica, still recovering from her wounds, is not spiritually defeated.

Marching his legions west to destroy the Druid strongholds, the Roman governor has left the cities of eastern Britain wide open. One by one, they fall to her tribal attackers, who are banded together in secret societies and fighting in unpredictable ways, with women making war alongside the men. Colchester, home of the celebrated Legio XX, is overwhelmed; the miserable little settlement of London easily destroyed.

Scott's imagination elevates her tetralogy into a strong story of two opposing forces: the pragmatic and disciplined might of the Roman legionaries against the chaotic and shifting allegiance of British tribes.

But this would be a gross simplification of a world full of subtleties and complex characters; not merely Boudica herself, presented as a warrior-priestess fulfilling a legendary destiny, but the others caught up in the clash - her siblings and children. Valerius, her brother, is part-Roman and torn in his loyalties. Authorial empathy is extended even to the Roman commanders, charged with the easy-peasy task of reducing a bunch of tiresome Brits to obedience and suddenly finding a full-scale war on their hands.

There are spine-chilling accounts of legionaries marching through forests where naked ghost-like figures, covered with grey and white markings that blend with the mists, leap out silently to cut their throats. And there are creatures of totemic significance: to Boudica's own tribe, the Eceni, the horse is not merely a beast of burden but a force of nature. There is much equine lore and devotion, which is saved from Horse Whisperer-type sentimentality by Scott's own informed viewpoint, since she is a veterinary surgeon as well as a novelist.

In the end, the heroine must pass beyond history and into myth. Scott's Boudica is not the Victorian creation, a corseted English lady grasping a spear, but a deep multi-national personality drawing on Celtic and Hibernian sources for her strength. These books are an immense accomplishment, a quartet that gives us back our own history. They will be read and re-read many times.

Jane Jakeman's 'In the Kingdom of Mists' is published by Black Swan