Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘Sword at Sunset’

Rosemary Sutcliff's 'Sword at Sunset'.

For Christmas, I got a shoeshine kit and Rosemary Sutcliff’s sprawling rendition of the King Arthur’s myth, Sword at Sunset (1963). The latter is unique in that Sutcliff takes out Camelot and the Round Table, and presents Arthur as a stress riddled, impotent king trying to rally argumentative Celts and fend of Saxon barbarians. The book opens with him on his deathbed, having been mortally stabbed in the groin by his son.

Sutcliff was a best seller in the Fifties and Sixties, writing more than sixty books, including the best selling Eagle of the Ninth series. This was released as a film last year, which possibly explains why Sword at Sunset has been re-published.

Incidentally, there’s a delightfully camp interview with the director, Kevin MacDonald, here:

Most of Sutcliff’s fiction was aimed at children. The oddity is her work is devoid of cliché or fantasy, offering instead a grimly realistic image of the English prior to 1066. This doesn’t necessarily sound like it would be popular amongst Tweens, but I first read it when I was ten and loved it.

Mother gave me Sutcliff’s The Witch’s Brat when I was ten. I remember it well: the story of a crippled boy whose grandmother is declared a witch and lynched by the local villagers, setting off a chain of events whereby he becomes a monk.

I thought it was great and spent a year wanting to become a monk. I gave up because I couldn’t find religion, but retained my interest in Roman and Celtic Britain. In Year Six we had to play Celebrity Head and my contribution was Richard the Lion Heart, which the other kid didn’t guess.

You can imagine most of the cast of Time Team probably read Sutcliff’s books when they were young. Notably, that’s one of my favourite shows. They actually did an episode on King Arthur, which you can watch here:

Would My Mother Enjoy This Book?: No. Too grim, too long, a dog gets killed at one point.

On My Mother’s Taste in Literature

When my mother got into her mid-thirties she decided she’d read enough books by men, and has almost exclusively read women’s writing ever since.

When I turned thirty-four last year, I was thinking about this. I counted through my bookshelf and it was about 70% books by men. They were mostly good books (mostly Wodehouse), but I did start to wonder if maybe I too had now read enough books by male authors.

Accordingly, last year I decided to reign back a little. By the end of the year, I’d got it down to about 40%. That moderate decrease led to a substantial discovery of female writers I’d never read before and subsequently loved: Madeline St John, Deborah Levy, Jessica Mitford, Elizabeth von Arnim, Romy Ash and a whole bunch of others.

Also, last year I noticed a lot of online complaints by ‘Men’s Rights Activists’, mostly writing about women’s work in a fairly hostile tone.

With that in mind, I thought I’d extend upon my mother’s example and only read novels by women this year.

Taking a leaf out of the Men’s Rights Movement handbook, I thought I’d write up little online reviews, applying the same enthusiasm for writing about women’s work as they do, but without the underlying assumption that such work infringes on my ‘rights’.

Moreover, my mother is a fairly selective reader, so I thought posting some book reviews might be useful for her. I’ll include a little summary ranking as to whether I think she’ll enjoy each book or not.

I’ll post the first review shortly. I’ve chosen to start with Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset.  I know Mother was a big Sutcliff fan as a child. She introduced me to her books during my own youth, leading to an unfortunate enthusiasm for Pre-Saxon British history.