The King Arthur Trilogy by Rosemary Sutcliff

The first book I read last year was Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset. From there, I went through the full Eagle of the Ninth and ended with the King Arthur Trilogy. I read a lot of great books last year, and books aimed for my own age group, but rediscovering Sutcliff’s historical fiction was a bit of a highlight.

In her King Arthur Trilogy, written to introduce children to the Arthur myth, she writes:

Some time early in the fifth century AD […] the last Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain to defend Rome itself, and the British were left to hold off the invading Saxons as best they could. In the end, they failed, but they put up such a fight it took the Saxons around two hundred and fifty years to complete their occupation; and they never did take over all of the Western country. But none the less, the withdrawal of Rome was the beginning of what we call the ‘Dark Ages’…

The Eagle of the Ninth trilogy opens with this withdrawal, with the last legions shipping out from Rutupiae, their fort on the coast of Kent. In their wake came the invading Saxons, including a particular tribe called the Angles; now better known as the English.

At that point, the country was still occupied largely by Celts; descendents of the Iceni, Brigantes, Trinovantes and Catuvellauni, who had been Romanised for the better part of five hundred years. They fought the invaders tooth and nail. This is where the Arthur legend comes from; a Romanised Welsh king fighting to keep the English out of modern day England.

For a children’s author, Sutcliff does a remarkable job of unravelling the inherent multiculturalism of British and English identity. I was reading her books in Suffolk, one of the first place the Angles invaded, in a house next to a former Iceni hill fort. 1500 years earlier it would have been the front line of Saxon/Celt conflict.

Iceni Hill Fort with Hortse
                     The view from an Iceni hill fort in Suffolk.

Around the same time former Prime Minister Tony Abbott had declared “Aboriginal people have much to celebrate in this country’s British Heritage.” Asides from the obvious dubiousness of this statement, there’s an underpinning question as to what ‘Heritage’ Australia has actually inherited Britain. In London I went to a conference in which the British were discussing the various class and regional distinctions of their accents. Another Australian noted they had trouble understanding the divisions because “You all sound British to me.”

Certainly, it’s much harder in Australia to pick the distinctions between the Welsh, English, Scottish, Irish, Cornish and so on. Most of us are an amalgamation of all of the above, and various other ethnicities. Yet our debates on multiculturalism or the legacy of ‘White Australia’ still tend to assume a dominant, common racial identity. Reading through Sutcliff’s various children’s books, it becomes obvious that most of our ancestors spent longer killing each other than sharing any common heritage. I thought it was an interesting lesson to take from a children’s book.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book?

Possibly. The font is a good size, she does like Rosemary Sutcliff, it’s good holiday reading. All the main characters are mail though.

 

Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar

Last year my esteemed publisher, John Hunter, recommended Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. In return, I’ve so far failed to produce a second book and most of my writing is now absorbed into the thrills and spills of local government.

Hadrian was, of course, one of the great emperors of Ancient Rome. Today’s he’s most famous for building a wall, but Edward Gibbon wrote of him:

Under Hadrian’s reign the empire flourished in peace and prosperity. He encouraged the arts, reformed the laws, asserted military discipline, and visited all his provinces in person. His vast and active genius was equally suited to the most enlarged views, and the minute details of civil policy.

He was a brilliant policy wonk, dedicated to urban planning, administration, and good governance. Indeed, he was most renowned as the first Roman emperor who stopped invading places; who actually withdrew from the territories conquered by his predecessor, Trajan, to focus on better administration.

To that end, he’s a surprisingly good hero for lowly bureaucrats such as myself. Hadrian wrote an actual autobiography, which has unfortunately been lost. Yourcenar’s book aims to replace it; written as if on his death bed to his adopted grandson Marcus Aurelius, he explains:

Laws change more slowly than custom, and though dangerous when they fall behind the times are more dangerous still when they presume to anticipate custom.

It then takes what could be considered a quasi-feminist turn:

The condition of women is fixed by strange customs: they are at one and the same time subjected and protected, weak and powerful, too much despised and too much respected. In this chaos of contradictory usage, the practises of society are superposed upon the facts of nature, but it is not easy to distinguish between the two.

It’s almost a reiteration of Arendt’s claim that “thought and reality have parted company,” and it drives the book. In Yourcenar’s rendition, Hadrian spends most of his time trying to impose something beautiful, in the form of urban design, monuments and social policy, on something illogical, namely the Roman Empire, gradually wearing himself out in battles with Christian extremists, a Senate that hates him, and the death of his boyfriend.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book?

No. It’s about a dead old white owning class man. Also, the font is very small.

Between Past and Future by Hannah Arendt

I read Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem right before I stared working in the fast paced world of local government and her analysis of institutionalization was pretty terrifying. There’s a great interview with her here, opening with a particularly stupid question about whether it’s possible to be both a woman and a philosopher.

In Between Past and Future, written in 1961,  Arendt cheefully announces “thought and reality have parted company”, before beginning a history of Western thought from the Romans through to the Nazis. Of the Romans, she writes:

Before the Romans such a thing as tradition was unknown; with them it became and after them it remained the guiding thread through the past and the chain to which each new generation knowingly or unknowingly was bound to its understanding of the world and its own experience.

From there, she makes the argument that people’s concept of who they are has increasingly come from where they think they came from, rather than where they are now, leading to a situation whereby the current is overwhelmed by fairly dubious ideas about origins, tradition and authenticity.

She puts this down to Rome’s obsession with its origins, writing:

…the most deeply Roman divinities were Janus, the god of beginning, with whom, as it were, we still begin our year [i.e January], and Minerva, the goddess of remembrance.

Lately I’ve been reading a few Australian histories and, arguably, the same argument makes sense of some of the more comedic moments of the Abbott legacy. You could probably make a case that the myth of Australian origins tended to eclipse a more pragmatic policy framework – for example, having a Minister dedicated to ANZAC, but no Minister for Science, climate change, cities or creative industries.

 

Would My Mother Like This Book?

She’d probably agree with it ideologically, but the font is pretty small and it’s pretty grim, and there’s not much on either dogs or gardening in it.