Flowering Dagger
First edition cover




Short story


Young adult

Historical era

Bronze Age


The Real Thing, Peggy Woodford

"Flowering Dagger" is a short story written for the 1977 anthology The Real Thing (US: Looking for Love), edited by Peggy Woodford, which describes it as "the first love story [Sutcliff] has ever written."

In the Bronze Age, a Royal Daughter falls in love with a hostage not of her Tribe, and then discovers an even more insurmountable obstacle.


Saba, the fourteen-year-old daughter of a chief of the High Chalk, suddenly notices for the first time Brychan, chief's son of the neighbouring tribe who by custom exchange hostages for seven years. They meet again while Saba gathers flowers for her Midsummer garlands and is stung by a bee, whose sting Brychan removes with his foreign, flower-inlaid iron dagger, and they acknowledge their sense of connection to each other. Saba mentions the dagger to her Old Nurse, Marrag, who warns her that it is best thought no more of.

That night at the Midsummer fires, Saba rejects the advances of the young warriors of her tribe, but sneaks away with Brychan when he comes to find her. Though they cannot marry, by the laws and customs of their tribes, they are about to sleep together when Saba painfully scratches a mole on Brychan's neck, and the moment passes.

They resolve to run away together, even though they must wait until Brychan is no longer a political hostage, and Brychan reveals that he is a foundling, left on his foster father's threshold with the flowering dagger. Hoping to find evidence that he is of her own tribe, Saba returns to Marrag to interrogate her about the dagger. Marrag confesses that Saba's mother, in a fertility ritual before her marriage, slept with a passing traveller who left her the flowering dagger, and later bore a child with a mole on his neck, whom Marrag helped spirit away to the neighbouring tribe to save him from sacrifice. Marrag had thought the child would die.

Saba tells Brychan what she has learned, and in despair, they decide to use the dagger. They wait until the next morning, pass a single idyllic day together, and lie down at its close to die.


"Flowering Dagger" takes place in the Celtic late Bronze Age / early Iron Age of southern Britain, when Brychan's iron dagger is a recognisable but rare and semi-magical import item on the High Chalk, carried in by a traveller from southern mainland Europe.

  • In Marrag's youth: the tribes were at constant war and she was taken captive by Saba's tribe
  • 20 years ago: harvests started to fail
  • 17 years ago: Saba's mother slept with a traveller from Europe and bore Brychan
  • Later: Saba's mother married her father and bore Cordaella (and possibly Garim)
  • 14 years ago: Saba born
  • More than a year ago: Brychan became a hostage to Saba's tribe for 7 years
  • A month ago: Cordaella married Maelgun Swift-Spear
  • Spring: Saba and Brychan fall in love
  • Midsummer: they fail to sleep together
  • Two weeks later: They learn Brychan's parentage
  • The next day: They commit suicide


  • Cordaella, the eldest Royal Daughter
  • Saba, protagonist, younger Royal Daughter
  • Maelgun Swift-Spear, Cordaella's new husband
  • Garim, Saba and Cordaella's brother
    • Kea, Garim's young bitch
  • Brychan, seven-year hostage from the neighbouring tribe
  • Den, Saba's young slave of the little Dark People
  • Drustic, owner of Fleet-foot
    • Fleet-foot, a dog with young puppies
  • Marrag, Saba's Old Nurse, taken captive from Brychan's tribe as a young woman
  • Govan, a rejected suitor for Saba


  • The High Chalk (North or South Downs of south Britain)
  • The Royal Village
  • The Dancing Hill
  • Grey Stones, another village
  • Village of Brychan and Marrag's tribe
  • The Great Water (the English Channel)
  • the Continent

Background Edit

The "About the authors" section of The Real Thing notes:

"Her story Flowering Dagger, specially written for us and the first love story she has ever written, is set in the Bronze Age, and the dagger is twin to a Mycenaean one in Athens Museum. This 1000 BC dagger has always fascinated her and she is delighted to give it a fictional home at last."
Sutcliff also referred to this dagger as a story inspiration in the 1989 paper "History and Time":
"I never start off with the research; I mean I never decide in cool blood that it would be interesting to set the next book in a particular time and place and then start to read up about it. First has to come the Basic Idea, and it is no good my going in search of the Idea, it has to come looking for me. Sometimes it comes from outside, from something read or seen or experienced, once from a little privately published handbook on the Lake District turned out by a friend in spring cleaning his attic, once from seeing in an Athens museum a dagger with lily flowers inlaid on the blade."[1]
The dagger is apparently a bronze (not iron) blade from Mycenae, artifact number 764 in the collection of the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Greece.[2] A twentieth-century reproduction by Émile Gilliéron, père, is pictured in The Palace of Minos, vol. 3 (1930) by Sir Arthur Evans.[3]

Publication historyEdit

  1. The Real Thing: Seven stories about love. Edited by Peggy Woodford. London : Bodley Head, 1977.
  2. Looking for Love: Seven uncommon love stories. Ed. Peggy Woodford. New York : Doubleday, 1979.[4]
  3. Within the Hollow Hills: An Anthology of New Celtic Writing. Ed. John Matthews. Edinburgh : Floris Books, 1994.[5]

External links Edit

References Edit