[DWJ] slavery in fiction (was HP)

Minnow minnow at belfry.org.uk
Tue May 15 14:52:32 EDT 2007

Hallie wrote:

>The question that might be tricky with a modern setting, becomes even
>more so when you consider historical fiction.  Can you present
>attitudes which may have been standard at the time but would now be
>considered intolerable bigotry or sexism or homophobia?  How can you
>write about a time in which those views would have been standard
>without either appearing to endorse them OR without indulging in the
>worst sort of anachronism?  Or if you try to avoid the problem
>altogether, does the conspicuous silence speak louder than dealing
>with it up-front?  And which is 'worse'?  Fiction of course implies
>something other than non-fiction, but surely doesn't remove the
>responsibility of the author to some kind of accuracy.

I think perhaps one author who gets this right is Rosemary Sutcliff.

Writing about the Roman presence in Britain, she has to include slavery,
both born-slaves and enslaved captives, because it was part of the life of
the time.  None of her characters questions that it exists (that would be
daft); none actually expresses strong disapproval (that would be unlikely);
none advocates slavery (that would be against what we see of them in other
contexts).  In one book, the relationship between first master and slave,
then master and freed-man, is explored with delicacy and a consideration
for the personal pride of both parties -- but particularly that of the
slave/freed-man.  When I first read the book, at about age seven, I didn't
have any particular views about slavery -- I knew nothing about it at all,
and it wasn't a subject that was constantly in the news.  After reading the
book I had a vague feeling that slavery was very bad for the people who
owned slaves.  That seems to me to be a pretty fine take on the subject for
an author to have got across without ever once making me feel "author's
message" about it.

Her main character's family farm is entirely run by free men, after the
first book, in spite of this being regarded as unusual; he has too much
self-respect and respect for his freed friend to want to own slaves again,
one gathers.

There are other examples of enslavement in her work, all of them
matter-of-fact.  In at least one case the enslaved hero of the work resents
his own slavery, but doesn't feel that it is "wrong" or "unfair" exactly,
just intolerable in a particular set of circumstances.  A different

For those who don't know the series, *The Eagle of the Ninth*, *The Silver
Branch*, *The Lantern Bearers*, *Sword At Sunset*, and *Dawn Wind* are the
titles in chronological order.  Another unconnected book that deals with
slavery in passing (a freed gladiator is the hero) is *The Mark of the
Horse Lord*; in *Outcast* slavery is an ultimate horror for the hero, or at
least slavery with a bad master is so, though with a good one it has been
tolerable; and in *Blood Feud* the hero is enslaved by raiders and sold in
Dublin Market for six pieces of gold and a wolfskin cloak, and becomes a
thrall to a Viking.   In some ways the hero of *Warrior Scarlet* is made a
slave when he fails his testing as a warrior and is demoted from being one
of the tribe's warriors to being a shepherd and attached to the
servant-clan, an older people whom the warriors have subjugated.  It could
also be suggested that the central characters in *Knight's Fee* and *The
Witch's Brat* start out as slaves: they are serfs in Norman England, and
belong to another person absolutely, to be bought and sold and gambled for
if the lord of the manor they were born in happens to feel like it.

Gosh, I hadn't realised just how *much* slavery and thralldom there is in
Sutcliff!  There may be more than that even, but I have only looked at the
ones I have got on the shelf to hand.


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