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: