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Archive for the ‘Sword at Sunset’ Category

Portrait of historical novelist and children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff by Mark Gerson

Always at the same writing desk, seated in an old captain’s chair, Rosemary Sutcliff imagined a rich cast of characters to people her historical novels. But many of her works also draw heavily on legend. In her first published book in 1950, she re-worked her  Chronicles of Robin Hood. The best-selling Sword at Sunset in 1963, written for adults, re-made the story of King Arthur. Later in her writing career, she created a trilogy of books aimed at children and young people retelling the tale of Arthur again—The Light Behind the Forest: The Quest for the Holy Grail (1979), The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1981), and The Road to Camlann: The Death of King Arthur (1981). She  also wrote novels re-making the stories of Beowulf, Tristan and Iseult, and the Irish heroes Finn Mac Cool and Cuchulain, The Hound of Ulster, as well as re-telling Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey

 

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Rosemary Sutcliff’s Arthurian novel, Sword at Sunset, was top of the UK bestseller lists in 1963, the year it was first published. Fifty or so years ago there was no internet; cuttings services collected press clippings and sent them on to publishers, the agent and the writer.

Sword at Sunset newspaper clippings of reviews  of historical novel by Rosemary Sutcliff

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I have found an article from 1982—which is new to me— by ex-MP and Minister Roy Hattersely about Arthurian legend, and  Rosemary Sutcliff ’s The Road to Camlann.

Roy Hattersely writes about Rosemary Sutcliff

 

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Academic John Withrington wrote to The Independent (London) newspaper  (August 20, 1992), to comment on their obituary of Rosemary Sutcliff.

Last year I interviewed Rosemary Sutcliff on the Arthurian theme in her fiction. The published text arrived a matter of days before her death and on re-reading the transcript I was reminded of her vitality and enthusiasm, of an honest approach which combined scholarship with an unsentimental attitude to pain and suffering.

As Julia Eccleshare observed of her writing, allusions to historical sources are present but never signposted, the battle narrative magnificent yet never glorifying the strife it depicts. These traits were most apparent perhaps in her adult novel Sword at Sunset, the ‘autobiography’ of King Arthur, and the work of which she was most proud. But as Sutcliff herself acknowledged, she also had “a feeling for the mending side of life”; and whether writing of the physically and emotionally crippled, or, when following in the footsteps of her beloved Kipling, of the healing which happens when clashing cultures learn to live together, her prose was always characterised by compassion.

She felt that as the years progressed she had become a tougher writer, a belief reinforced by a reading of The Shining Company, itself based upon the poem Y Gododdin, which celebrates the annihilation of an army at Catterick in circa AD600 (sacrifice was always a theme which fascinated her). Yet for all her seriousness, she remained a cheerful and remarkably modest author, seemingly surprised by her success. “You’re always terrified that the books you write are going to go downhill,” she once said. It seems unlikely that those books which remain to be published will disappoint.

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Cover of 2012 Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff  published by Atlantic BooksChristina Hardyment’s life of Thomas Malory was  published by HarperCollins. In 2012 she reviewed a 50th anniversary re-publication of Rosemary Sutcliff’s bestseller Sword at Sunset—an Arthurian era novel—which was, in 1963 when it was first published, “firmly announced to be for adults, and given the (for their time) graphic and violent scenes of sex and slaughter, it deserved to be.”

Rosemary Sutcliff is most famed for The Eagle of the Ninth, but there was much more to her than that. In the 1950s, historically-minded children found her books a magic carpet into the past. I began with Brother Dustyfeet (1952) and The Armourer’s House (1951), and never looked back an insatiable interest in history has remained the backbone of my life.

Sword at Sunset is, unusually for Rosemary Sutcliff, is a story told in the first person. Artos becomes the High King of Britain but his fate has been written ever since he was drugged and seduced by his half-sister Ygerna. Their child Medraut becomes a boy filled with hate by his mother.

…(Sutcliff) drew as much upon the archaeology of Celtic and Saxon Britain as on the ancient legends in Malory’s Morte D’Arthur and Guest’s Mabinogion. She also admired T. H. White’s four idiosyncratic Arthurian novels (now known as The Once and Future King), and the intensity with which she inhabits the mind of her hero Artos has echoes of White’s extraordinary characterisation of Arthur. ‘I have never written a book that was so possessive,’ Sutcliff said in an interview in 1986. ‘It was almost like having the story fed through me’. Writing as a man possessed her; afterwards, ‘I had great difficulty getting back into a woman’s skin.’

Her narrative amazes in the sheer vigour of its visualisation and its sure sense of purpose. Lanterns, sunsets, fires, the aurora borealis and other manifestations of light recur: Artos is holding back the coming of the dark long enough for there to be hope that the civilised light that was Rome will survive to be adopted by its conquerors. Battles are heart-stopping, tense and unpredictable, winter weather effects are frostbite-inducing, and Artos’s travels across Britain are confidently mapped …

No-one would dream from reading Sword at Sunset and Sutcliff’s other action-packed, fast-moving tales of Roman and Celtic warriors that she remained severely crippled all her life with the juvenile arthritis she contracted as a very small child. Once one is aware of this, a recurring theme of incapacitating wounds is better understood; as is the important role she gives to the hounds and horses in which she found such consolation.

Press cuttings about historical novel Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff in 1963

Press cuttings in 1963 on Sword at Sunset, bestselling Arthurian novel by Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92)

 

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James Beagon,  currently an undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, created this adaptation. (Thank you JB for the production and for link to this video). He was interviewed about the adaptation—by Sandra Garside-Neville— for The Historical Novel Society .


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Over at the Facebook page for Rosemary Sutcliff  readers have been robust about  the error of The Booktrust’s ways in excluding Rosemary Sutcliff from their attempt to list the 100 best children’s books of the last 100 years. I asked for help in compiling a broadside.

I’m not sure this will help, but the books I enjoyed when I was 11 still engage me at 63! I’ve never felt that Rosemary Sutcliff writes for children alone. There’s probably no more poignant tale than The Lantern Bearers. Also, she has a talent for dialogue in an historical context which is unsurpassed. Most children’s authors have nothing remotely like it. (Roy Marshall)

Rosemary Sutcliff’s books last in the mind and heart. I am 63 now and they stand out as Beacons from my childhood. I have reread many in mid and later life and they are even better. I am with Roy, The Lantern Bearers is my favourite – so evocative and of our own end times too. (Rob Patterson)

Rosemary Sutcliff’s Roman books, starting with the Eagle of the Ninth (but I read all the others – The Mark of the Horse Lord was probably the one that really inspired me), were one of the influences that led me to study archaeology.

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By profession a writer and editor herself, Hilary Phillips has found Rosemary Sutcliff’s books again, and has posted about the experience at the You Write tab. Thank you!

I rediscovered Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels this winter, having watched the film The Eagle. I remembered how much I had enjoyed reading a number of her books as a teenager, so launched in with The Lantern Bearers, as the first one that I came across on my eldest son’s rather disorganised bookshelves. I then read The Silver Branch and just for completeness, reverted to The Eagle of the Ninth which I had read repeatedly as a child and young teen, so it definitely felt like rediscovering an old friend. If you know the series you’ll realise this is completely reverse order, which just seemed to add to the charm. And I honestly thought that was it for the series. Although I knew there were plenty of other books, I didn’t realise that she had continued the story over so many generations, and in fact that, in many ways the climax was still to come. So how wonderful when my caring husband produced A Sword at Sunset as a Christmas present. Genuinely, the book I really wanted to exist, but had no knowledge of! I escaped into the dark ages for the Christmas holidays and thoroughly enjoyed the epic tale, the battles, the adventuring, the sad realness of the love story and the freshness of the storytelling, despite its roots in the Arthur legend.

Now, Dawn Wind came along at Easter, just republished and a very fine piece of writing. I really have no memory of reading this as a teenager and although the book may have been aimed at young adults, either that’s still the stage I’m at (I wish) or there’s really a great deal more there for the taking. The characterisation is convincing, the story enthralling as each new stage of Owain’s life opens up. The descriptions of place, of time, of conflict, of dogs and horses, loyalty, love and commitment are as engaging as ever. In case you’ve not read it, I’ll not spoil the ending, but go on the adventure and discover what happens in Owain’s long journey across dark age Britain for yourself!

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This article about how historians’ perceptions of the ‘legendary figure’ have changed over recent times is behind a pay wall: I am trying to access it. Meanwhile…

Forty years ago both scholarly histories and historical novels had a common view of Arthur: as a historical warrior, whose leadership enabled his people, the native inhabitants of post-Roman Britain, to halt the advancing tide of Anglo-Saxon conquest for about half a century. Nobody was exactly sure when this was, because it had been in the obscure period between 410 and 550, which has left almost no contemporary documents. Nonetheless, there was general agreement that Arthur had flourished somewhere in that time and had been the greatest British personality in it, establishing a fame which laid the basis for the later, more romantic and fantastic, medieval Arthurian legend.

This happy consensus had mostly been produced by the new discipline of archaeology, which had excavated some of the main sites associated with Arthur in that later and fully-developed legend, such as his birthplace at Tintagel and Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which local tradition held had been his court of Camelot. In each case, amid great publicity, spectacular remains had been found of occupation by wealthy people at just the right period. For many, this was enough to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the legend was rooted in historical truth and books such as Geoffrey Ashe’s The Quest for Arthur’s Britain  and Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain carried this message to a wide readership. It was taken up by historians, who now felt encouraged to reconstruct a story for the years around 500 by combining the meagre early medieval sources with a wealth of much more dubious data from later periods; this approach was epitomised by John Morris’s fat, exciting book, The Age of Arthur . The interest stirred up by scholars resulted in a flood of historical fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. Most was produced by Englishmen, though Englishwomen such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart were among the most prominent authors. All treated Arthur as a historical character in a post-Roman setting, with realistic British landscapes and careful use of historical and archaeological data.

Source: Signposts: King Arthur | History Today.

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Original Hardback cover Rosemart Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset Arthurian historical novelSome two decades ago, Rosemary Sutcliff, author of best-selling historical novel Sword at Sunset, suggested that :

“The Arthurian legend contains an essential truth, and I think at present we’re awfully uncertain of our future.Therefore we feel a kind of kinship for the Dark Ages; and I think for this reason we feel in a way the need for something to back us up, in the same way as Arthur ‘lights up’ the Dark Ages. We have a need for an archetype of some sort to pull us together, to get us through this, to spread light into the darkness until we can get through to a better world.”

Perhaps true of our times now as much as twenty years ago?   (more…)

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