Rosemary Sutcliff, ‘Sword at Sunset’

Spouse and I were having a conversation in a pub recently about what makes a nation: is it linguistic, geographical, religious, cultural, or some sort of historical stew composed of all of the above? I realised during the course of the discussion that my view of what makes England England is largely derived from my childhood exposure to Rosemary Sutcliff.

I always get irritated with people who bang on about their ‘Englishness’, by which I mean the perceived importance of describing yourself as ‘English’ rather than ‘British’. This is mostly because in my experience such people tend to be annoying bigots, but it’s also because it’s such a meaningless distinction, if you look at the history. I’m therefore firmly of the belief that in order to reduce the number of annoying English-centric bigots in our midst what’s needed is for key Rosemary Sutcliff novels to be on the school curriculum.

Put simply, what she had was a clear view of what it meant to be Romano-British, and what happened to that world and those people once the Roman Empire broke down and the legions left. The characters in her novels may be Roman Italians, people from elsewhere in the far-flung Empire, Pictish tribesmen, Celts, Saxons, or the old people of the hills who were there long before the Celts came and the Romans after them. Most common are characters who whatever their or their family’s origin have come to make up the people of Roman Britain; that mingling of the native Celts with people from all over the Empire who came to Britain as administrators, soldiers and traders and stayed. The defining culture of Sutcliff’s Roman Britain comes from the Roman way of life, never obviously or bluntly defined, but characterised as order and the rule of law against barbarism. When the legions have left and the Empire is embattled and far away, the symbols of the ‘light’ of civilization that the characters fight to preserve are the forum with grass growing between the paving stones, the smoke-blackened basilica, the disused hypocaust in a bath house, the dusty courthouse pressed into service for the king’s war council, the cracked and fading mosaic pavement, the overgrown road.

Given that there is this recurring theme of the light against the dark, referring to the defence against the Saxon invaders, you might think that the Saxons were in danger of being sterotyped as Germanic barbarians. Somehow, Sutcliff manages to avoid this. Saxon characters in books such as ‘Dawn Wind’ (set maybe a hundred years after the events of ‘Sword at Sunset’) are clearly human beings, some sympathetic characters and some less so, and the whole presence of the Saxons (and Angles, Jutes, Norsemen etc etc) in Britain is given the context of a people who come from a harsh, unyielding land and are understandably lured by fertile fields. In ‘Sword at Sunset’ itself, the Saxons are always recognised as brave enemies with comprehensible motives. Even when their savagery towards British communities is being reviled, there’s never a sense that they are less than human, albeit humans with a violent and reprehensible way of war. A key moment in the book comes at a parley between the two sides, when a British boy and a Saxon boy, accompanying their respective leaders, warily accept each other as companions for the day and return in the evening having formed a temporary bond. The story’s hero realises that even though in the end the British forces will be overwhelmed, there is still hope, because the two sides are not so different that they cannot form alliances and learn from each other, foreseeing a time when there will be a mingling of the two cultures.

I’ve managed to get this far through this post without mentioning that ‘Sword at Sunset’ is a retelling of the story of King Arthur. This is deliberate. Put aside any thoughts of shining armour, Merlin lurking in the wings, Round Tables and magic swords. This is Sutcliff’s attempt to portray a man on whom the legend might have been based: a war leader, using a cavalry force to harass and drive back the invaders. He belongs to a royal family descended from men who tried to establish themselves as emperors in Britain and western Europe and thus represents the last vestiges of Roman imperial power in Britain. Two elements of the legend have been retained: the love triangle (though she chooses to use a character other than Lancelot, given that he’s a much later addition to the story), and the theme of the unwitting sin of incest leading to eventual disaster. But this is intended as a historical novel, not a fantasy, and the magical elements of the story have been left out. The hero is Artos the Bear, a charismatic leader, who manages to hold back the Saxon tide for a few more years, not a mythical king. Interestingly, Sutcliff did write a more traditional version of the Arthurian legend twenty years later in a trilogy of children’s novels, but here she is more concerned with how the history could have given rise to the legend, not only in terms of events but also in terms of how a real man could have become a mythical figure. This is a story of how one man can affect history in a time of change, and how a leader with a vision can leave a legacy even if he ultimately fails.

‘Sword at Sunset’ is one in a linked series of novels, including possibly Sutcliff’s best-known trilogy: ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’, ‘The Silver Branch’ and ‘The Lantern Bearers’. ‘Dawn Wind’, mentioned above, is also part of the same series and I think should be better known than it is (for more details on all the novels and how they fit together the Wikipedia article is a good place to start). Though ‘Sword at Sunset; is the only one of this series aimed at adults rather than children (today her books would probably be described as ‘young adult’), Sutcliff never shies away from the reality of hard choices in a dangerous world. I think they’re all compelling and moving stories, and would be worth the read for anyone who’s interested in the ebb and flow of history and how people can survive changing times with their own brand of courage.


0 Responses to “Rosemary Sutcliff, ‘Sword at Sunset’”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 9 other followers

Share this blog

Bookmark and Share

%d bloggers like this: