Tag Archives: Rosemary Sutcliff

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Some time early in the fifth century AD […] the last Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain to defend Rome itself, and the British were left to hold off the invading Saxons as best they could.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.

 

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.