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Esca's Name

Apparently I am so taken by 'The Eagle' setting that I have actually taken to fanfic.  This is most uncharacteristic and peculiar behaviour of me, and I hope to be better soon, as Roman Britain is currently eating my brain.

In the meanwhile, I have finally found a use for the Welsh lessons that I only vaguely remember, which were compulsory at my primary school.  The film uses Scots Gaelic as a stand-in for whatever language was spoken in Northern Britain in the second century, but I can't do Gaelic and Welsh though still way off, is as close if not closer. 

Aaaaaanyway....  This is set a while  before the setting of the book/movie, just after the battle in which Esca's family are killed and he is taken prisoner.  A longer version of this story that takes Esca all the way to Calleva can be found here.

Esca's original name, given to him by his mother, is  Ysgafnyny bôn meaning, "light at heart". But the Romans can't pronounce it.


They came to make a list of the prisoners,  not long after he woke up. Maybe it was a morning, maybe a day.  A big man with a sour face and black hair curling from his Roman nose, a brisk little man with a stylus and a wax tablet, and a couple of soldiers behind them.   They looked at the Brigantes as a man might look at cows going to market, if they were not very good cows.

It was hard to tell how long it had been. Maybe it was two days before the Romans came? His head hurt too much, and there was a sound in his ears like waves on the shore that didn't seem to come from anywhere.

It was cold, too on the floor of the barn where they had put the prisoners after the battle. And it was so hard to stay above the waves of sleep for long. His head hurt so much, and anyway, it was hard to care much about time. There had been a cart, somewhere, jolting. Then the floor.  And cold.   His clothes were wet, he must have been knocked into the ditch. Outside the barn, it was raining.   Somewhere at the back of the barn, where he couldnt' see, someone was sobbing, very shrill. He wished it would stop. It made it harder to stay under the waves of sleep.

An unqualified period of time later, one of the women gave him some water in a leather cup.  Gwen, she was called, it came to him his brother had kissed her once, so long ago, at last year's Beltane fire. It seemed a hundred years ago, in another world.  Her hands shook a little when she gave it to him.  There seemed no point in drinking, but after all, he was so thirsty.

There were not many other men in the barn, and none of them from his own village. They had all gone down in that final rush as the Roman soldiers came in through the last barricades,  his brothers, father, his friends, all gone together on the warrior road, west of the sunset. Even his mother. Leaving him behind. Leaving him somehow, bitterly, alive.  Alive, and a prisoner of the Romans.  No, not even a prisoner, a slave.  They were all slaves, now.  

The big man with the nose walked around the barn, stalking quickly on his long legs, counting. The little man with the stylus had to add a skip to his step to keep up with him. It would have been funny, except that nothing was funny any more.

The big man came to Gwen, sitting near the door with another older woman.

. "Stand" he said, in Latin. She stood. "Turn" - she looked confused, so he took her shoulder and turned her round, looking her up and down with that cattle-market stare again. "Name?"  She didn't answer, so he took her shoulder and shook her pointing at her with a long finger.
" Name?"

  "Gwen" she said, and started to say something else, but he had already turned away to speak to the little man and one of the soldiers came up instead pulled her, not unkindly, to stand against the far wall. 

It was somehow very difficult to turn and look around at the sobbing person at the back of the barn when the big man went back there.  Nobody  looked.  They looked at the ground, in case they should catch each other's eyes, when the sobbing person would not stand or turn, and was beaten.  The sobbing stopped after that.

When the big man came to him at last, he stood, just about.  The throbbing in his head almost took him back under the waves, but in the end, the waves retreated enough to let him get to his feet.  When the big man told him to turn, he lunged with his fist for his big hairy nose, but somehow it was a very long way away, and he could not move as fast as he had thought.   And the soldiers were there, suddenly, competently holding him back.  He couldn't even fall over, they held him too well.

"Hmm" said the big man. " This one will need a few lessons to be saleable.  Young though, and strong, if we can get him over that head wound. Lead mines, or the arena? "  The big man looked down his long nose at the little man, who nodded and made marks on his tablet. 

"Name?"  No answer.  The thought of the burning smell you got around the lead mines was filling his mind and making it hard to think. He'd ridden past a mine once, three years ago, with his father.   It wasn't a place you'd want to go back to, not at all, even riding free on his own bay mare.  It wasn't a place you'd want to go back to as a slave.

One of the soldiers slapped him .   Not hard, but it was enough to send him back under the waves again.

When he awoke again, most of the women who had been in the barn had gone. Someone had moved him to lie on a pile of straw and there was a blanket over him.   And his hands were chained. He wished Gwen would come and bring more water, but he couldn't see her any more.

"Name?"  The big man was back, and so were the soldiers.  Somehow it didn't seem worth the effort of trying to hit him again, and anyway, it would be awkward to do it with his hands like this.
" Ysgafnyny bôn ap Cunoval" 

"Cunoval?" The big man paused and looked at him with more interest - as a man might look at an unpromising horse with a good pedigree, perhaps.  He turned to the man with the stylus  " Severus! definitely the arena for this one.   They'll pay to see a son of Cunoval fight for his life down South, I'll warrant.   Get that red-headed trader with the stupid name to have a look at him once he's patched up. " 

He turned back "What was the rest of that mouthful?"
"Ysgafnyny bôn..."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, British names!  Esca? Near enough.  Write him down  Esca mac Cunoval, Severus"

Ysgar, he thinks. Ysgar.  It means,  Enemy.  A new name for this new, broken life.  As good a name as any.   

* Note
I was puzzled by Esca's name, which doesn't seem to mean anything much (not that lots of people don't have meaningless names, but for some reason I wanted some sort of explanation for it and it niggled me).

I had a bit of a rummage in a Gaelic dictionary, but there didn't seem to be anything very helpful in there, so I thought I'd take a look at Welsh, on the grounds that (from my fairly shaky understanding) modern Welsh is  probably just as close to whatever language second century Brigantes spoke as modern Gaelic, if not closer.

There didn't seem to be any very likely derivation there either, but then I thought about someone who is not a native speaker of the  language, trying to write down a Welsh name phonetically, with a whole big batch of brand new slaves to sort out so probably in a bit of a hurry. What a job!

It didn't seem that big a stretch that the 'Y' sound in Welsh, which I think is now usually pronounced as  'Uh' might have been pronounced 'Eh', and that the C might actually have been a G.   Thus, you get something that might, with a bit of luck and a following wind, be pronounced "escavn' for 'lightness'  (Welsh 'f' sounds like 'v')  and 'esca(r)' for enemy.   This seemed like too good a coincidence to waste.

I haven't checked the etymology of either of those words so they could be too new for Roman Britain, but hey.



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
24th Apr, 2011 19:25 (UTC)
Not bad. C's and G's were almost interchangeable in Latin,(Gallipolli = Callipolis, Giaus = Caius, Gnaeus = Cnaeus etc.) I don't think that at the time Sutcliff was writing, too much attention was paid to such things. It continually annoys me that everyone refers to M. Flavius Aquila as Marcus - the prenomens being reserved for close family and lovers - but hey, in the 21st century we can be too anal about these things.

I love this rationale for his name. Thank you for spending the time and energy on researching it.

25th Apr, 2011 19:03 (UTC)
Thank you!
I wasnt' sure about Welsh, let alone whatever it is, Brittonic...

This has now grown tentacles : I was trying to write the 'fall of Cunoval' originally, but I keep wandering into Esca backstory or having to read more books about the period!

I guess it's probably OK for Esca to use 'Marcus' by the end of the book/film?
26th Apr, 2011 00:11 (UTC)
i love this story the book and movie both had so much potential but they wasted it on Aquilas character
6th May, 2011 17:12 (UTC)
Ooh, I liked that. That's the best kind of fanfic, for me, the sort that goes in for explaining/filling in/ fleshing out/ adding details, sort of like a less-dry form of lit. crit. (Not denying that people read/write for all sorts of reasons, of course!)
6th May, 2011 18:20 (UTC)
I am glad you liked it. I like explainy fiction too...

I am still not recovered from Roman Britain yet, as I am currently pootling through a followup to this story, have read a small mountain of textbooks, and wrote another one:

It's about twenty years since I last wrote a fanfic, I am not sure the word even existed then. :-o It's an illness... :-D
8th May, 2011 12:44 (UTC)
Great story i love themovie a little more thanthebook as it better leaves you guessingabout escas intentions but goodjob withthename
29th Jan, 2012 16:18 (UTC)
Late to the party, but...
I recently saw this movie on cable, and was completely possessed by it as well. I've lost track of how many times I've watched it, and bought the DVD and soundtrack CD. Although you may have recovered from your own obsession with this, I thought I'd mention I ran across this http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20110630122258AAWwDfK

Not sure if that helps with the name thing or just muddies the waters.

Enjoyed your fanfic :)
29th Jan, 2012 18:20 (UTC)
Re: Late to the party, but...
Thank you for the link! I've since seen resources referring to the 'food' meaning in Latin - which seems unlikely to be the meaning intended by Sutcliff - and the water-meanings, but I had not come across the Jackson quote from Britannia before, which is really interesting.

This post http://sutcliff-talk.livejournal.com/1901.html suggests that Sutcliff picked up the name from the Victoria writer George Whyte-Melville, but we still don't quite know exactly where he got it from or what he thought it meant! I don't think it's a documented Roman British name.
8th Apr, 2014 01:38 (UTC)
Very late to the party but I've just discovered this film. Thank you for this. Esca fascinates me, as do the power dynamics in the movie.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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