Rosemary Sutcliff 1920–1992
Rosemary Sutcliff 1920–1992
English novelist, autobiographer, and author of juvenile novels and nonfiction.
The following entry presents an overview of Sutcliff's career through 1999. For further information on her life and career, see CLR, Volumes 1 and 37.
Sutcliff is the creator of a rich tapestry of juvenile historical novels and retellings of classic mythology, making her among the most respected and well-read English children's authors. Her canon includes recreations of the Arthurian legends, as well as re-interpretations of Robin Hood, Beowulf, and The Odyssey, but it is for her historical novels of England, set within the pagan, Roman, and Renaissance eras, for which she is perhaps best remembered. Known for its interplay of historical detail with themes of choice, sacrifice, and personal responsibility, Sutcliff's work remains widely read, particularly in her native England. Her juvenile novels have won several awards, among them, the 1959 Carnegie Medal for best children's book for The Lantern Bearers (1959) and the first Phoenix Award from the Children's Literature Association in 1985 for The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965).
Sutcliff was born on December 14, 1920, in East Clandon, Surrey, England, to Elizabeth Lawton and George Ernest Sutcliff, a naval officer. As a young child, she was diagnosed with Still's Disease, a painful and incurable form of juvenile arthritis that struck her joints, leaving her with permanent disabilities that would require many operations to allow her increased mobility. Nonetheless, she was confined to a wheelchair for much of her life. This private pain combined with the regular movements associated with being the daughter of a military officer as well as a private education contributed to a lonely childhood. Her family continued to travel abroad regularly until Sutcliff turned ten, at which point the family settled in Devonshire, England. To compensate for her lengthy periods of rehabilitation, Sutcliff's mother, an accomplished actress, would read to the young Sutcliff from a breadth of works, providing her daughter with a diverse literary education at a young age. Sutcliff developed a special passion for the great works of European mythology, particularly, for those stories of the early Britons, Celts, and Romans. In Devonshire, she began attending classes with other students and proved to be an able student, though she would leave school at the age of fourteen to attend art school. When her father was recalled to serve in World War II, she began writing for the first time, efforts which ultimately led to the publication of her first books, The Chronicles of Robin Hood and The Queen Elizabeth Story, in 1950. She began her Roman-Briton series, among her most popular works, with The Eagle of the Ninth in 1954, which helped establish her reputation as among England's best-known writers of historical fiction. Although now a successful author, Sutcliff continued to live with her parents, in part due to the difficulties of her disabilities. Upon the passing of her mother in the 1960s, she moved with her father to Sussex, where they remained until his death in the early 1980s. Despite her steeply declining physical condition, in part due to her childhood illness, Sutcliff remained a productive writer and even managed to travel to Greece to research material for her books. In addition to her many awards and accolades, Sutcliff was named to the Order of the British Empire in 1975 and as a Commander of the British Empire in 1992. At the time of her death on July 22, 1992, she left a legacy of over fifty novels, including several fantasy books for adults, a biography of Rudyard Kipling, a play, and the autobiography Blue Remembered Hills: A Recollection (1983).
Sutcliff's canon is largely divisible into two categories: retellings of classical works of legend—like her re-imaginings of Beowulf in Dragon Slayer (1961), the Cuchulain legend in The Hound of Ulster (1963), the Queen Boadica legend in Song for a Dark Queen (1978), the Welsh Goddin myth in The Shining Com-pany (1990), and Arthurian legends in her "Arthurian Knights" trilogy, beginning with The Light beyond the Forest: The Quest for the Holy Grail (1979)—and her own original novels that fictionally document the history of England, ranging from examinations of its pagan origins in Sun Horse, Moon Horse (1978) to the Civil War settings of Simon (1953). Generally intended for strong readers in middle- to high-school, her novels explore the clash of intersecting cultures, flowing with overarching themes relevant to such turbulent periods and detailing both the philosophical and the practical. Her books identify historical conflict, regularly illustrating the interplay between barbarianism and peaceful civilizations, often with disastrous consequences. These stories display motifs of light versus darkness, personal choice and inevitable sacrifice, and exile and freedom—themes which reoccur constantly throughout Sutcliff's novels. However, despite her young readership, Sutcliff rarely tones down her depictions of tragedy and death. "I don't believe one should make allowances for young readers, feed them pap," wrote Sutcliff in her well-regarded essay "History Is People," "Children should be allowed the great themes, which they can receive and make use of better than most adults can." Among her best received works is her Roman Briton trilogy—The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch (1957), and The Lantern Bearers,—which charts the lives of members of the Aquila family, including Marcus, Justin, and Ambrosius. In The Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus Aquila arrives in England after his dismissal from the Roman legions due to an injury. Searching for his father, whose legion mysteriously vanished in the untamed wilds of Briton, eventually he discovers his father's sad fate with the help of a freed Briton slave named Esca and seeks balance between his Roman allegiance and his growing appreciation for the strange, untamed land in which he finds himself. Ultimately deciding to stay in Briton, Marcus becomes heir to a line of ancestors who watch English history evolve and develop—his descendent Justin is witness to the Saxon occupation in The Silver Branch, while Ambrosius Aquila must contend with the invading Juts even as the Hengist and Vortigen people wage their own conflict in The Lantern Bearers.
A fourth novel, The Dawn Wind (1961) features the tale of Owain and links the Roman epoch to the Christian era. As with the best historical fiction, Sutcliff's works are characterized by accurate period details and a refusal to settle upon historically or emotionally dishonest conclusions. Answers are colored in shades of grey, seemingly apropos given Sutcliff's recurring motifs of shade and light. In Sutcliff's texts, the intrinsic battle is as often the war waged between light and dark portrayed within conflicts between men, with larger themes of nationhood, religion, and personal choice highlighted. Song for a Dark Queen, for instance, relates the legendary story of Queen Boudica in AD 60, whom, in the eyes of narrator-bard Cadwan, evolves over the course of the story from savior of her people to a dark figure whose violent sacrifices of defeated enemies become increasingly sickening before her eventual suicide. Her antithesis is found in the figure of Lubrhin Dhu, the reluctant leader of his Iceni people, in Sutcliff's Sun Horse, Moon Horse. A fictional recounting of the creation of the White Horse of Uffington carving, Sun Horse, Moon Horse follows the personal evolution of Lubrhin, a man who is more artist than warrior. Nonetheless, his construction of a ceremonial figure of a horse to appease the Attribates tribe must ultimately end with his own willing death to sanctify the sacredness of the carving. Through such vital retellings over such a broad course of English history, Sutcliff demonstrates an appreciation for human fortitude and the constant renewal of cultural legacy, despite a seemingly endless cyclic pattern of conflict and destruction.
Sutcliff's works of historical fiction for children have maintained a broad critical appreciation and a constantly renewing readership, particularly in her homeland of England. In addition to her recognition by the British Crown for her contribution to the arts, Sutcliff's historical novels have been regularly feted by British critical circles. Following her presentation with the 1959 Carnegie Medal, she was further honored with four Carnegie Honor Medals, an Other Award in 1978 from the Children's Workshop of London for Song of a Dark Queen, and the international recognition of a Hans Christian Andersen Award nomination in 1974. Her fusion of historical detail with resonating themes has won Sutcliff continued praise from critics, among them, Margaret Meek, who has commented that, "the vital spark of Rosemary Sutcliff's books, from The Eagle of the Ninth onwards, is the total imaginative penetration of the historical material. The books seem to be written from the inside, so that the reader's identification with the chief character carries him further into the felt life of the time than many other books which are made up of the skilful but detached articulation of the fruits of research." M. Sarah Smedman has concurred, calling Sutcliff's works "rich in language and symbol, in vivid creation of place … All of Sutcliff's works attest to her mastery of language, not only, as already alluded to, in the particularizing of places so lovingly and unforgettably, but also in her talent for using the rhythms and figures of Old English in her recreations of the period's ethos." Sutcliff has regularly been included in critical discussions of the most accomplished historical writers, and Rosemary Weber has opined that Sutcliff remains "unparalleled today by writers of historical fiction—English or American."
"Roman Britain" Trilogy
The Eagle of the Ninth [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile novel) 1954
The Silver Branch [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile novel) 1957
The Lantern Bearers [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile novel) 1959
*Three Legions: A Trilogy [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile novels) 1980
"Arthurian Knights" Trilogy
The Light beyond the Forest: The Quest for the Holy Grail [illustrations by Shirley Felts] (juvenile novel) 1979
The Road to Camlann: The Death of King Arthur [illustrations by Shirley Felts] (juvenile novel) 1981
The Chronicles of Robin Hood [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile novel) 1950
The Queen Elizabeth Story [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile novel) 1950
The Armourer's House [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile novel) 1951
Brother Dusty-Feet [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile novel) 1952
Simon [illustrations by Richard Kennedy] (juvenile novel) 1953
Outcast [illustrations by Richard Kennedy] (juvenile novel) 1955
The Shield Ring [illustrations by C. Walter Hodges] (juvenile novel) 1956
Warrior Scarlet [illustrations by Charles Keeping] (juvenile novel) 1958
The Bridge-Builders (juvenile novel) 1959
Houses and History [illustrations by William Stobbs] (juvenile novel) 1960
Knight's Fee [illustrations by Charles Keeping] (juvenile novel) 1960
Dawn Wind [illustrations by Charles Keeping] (juvenile novel) 1961
Dragon Slayer [illustrations by Charles Keeping] (juvenile novel) 1961; republished as Beowulf, 1962; republished as Dragon Slayer: The Story of Beowulf, 1980
The Hound of Ulster [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile novel) 1963
Heroes and History [illustrations by Charles Keeping] (juvenile novel) 1965
The Mark of the Horse Lord [illustrations by Charles Keeping] (juvenile novel) 1965
A Saxon Settler [illustrations by John Lawrence] (juvenile novel) 1965
The Chief's Daughter [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile novel) 1967
The High Deeds of Finn MacCool [illustrations by Michael Charlton] (juvenile novel) 1967
A Circlet of Oak Leaves [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile novel) 1968
The Witch's Brat [illustrations by Richard Lebenson] (juvenile novel) 1970; republished, illustrations by Robert Micklewright, 1970
Tristan and Iseult [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile novel) 1971
The Truce of the Games [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile novel) 1971
†Heather, Oak, and Olive: Three Stories [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile novels) 1972
The Capricorn Bracelet [illustrations by Richard Cuffari] (juvenile novel) 1973
The Changeling [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile novel) 1974
We Lived in Drumfyvie [with Margaret Lyford-Pike] (juvenile novel) 1975
Blood Feud [illustrations by Charles Keeping] (juvenile novel) 1976
Shifting Sands [illustrations by Laszlo Acs] (juvenile novel) 1977
Song for a Dark Queen (juvenile novel) 1978
Sun Horse, Moon Horse [illustrations by Shirley Felts] (juvenile novel) 1978
Frontier Wolf (juvenile novel) 1980
Eagle's Egg [illustrations by Victor Ambrus] (juvenile novel) 1981
Bonnie Dundee (juvenile novel) 1983
Flame-Coloured Taffeta (juvenile novel) 1985
The Roundabout Horse [illustrations by Alan Marks] (juvenile novel) 1986
‡The Best of Rosemary Sutcliff (juvenile novels) 1987
Little Hound Found (juvenile novel) 1989
A Little Dog Like You [illustrations by Jane Johnson] (juvenile novel) 1990
The Shining Company (juvenile novel) 1990
Black Ships before Troy: The Story of the Iliad [illustrations by Alan Lee] (juvenile novel) 1993
Chess-Dream in a Garden [illustrations by Ralph Thompson] (juvenile novel) 1993
The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup [illustrations by Emma Chichester] (juvenile novel) 1993
Lady in Waiting (novel) 1956
The Rider of the White Horse (novel) 1959; published in the United States as Rider on a White Horse, 1960
Sword at Sunset [illustrations by John Vernon Lord] (novel) 1963
The Flowers of Adonis (novel) 1969
Blood and Sand (novel) 1987
Sword Song (novel) 1998
Blue Remembered Hills: A Recollection (autobiography) 1983
The Wanderings of Odysseus: The Story of the Odyssey [illustrations by Alan Lee] (juvenile nonfiction) 1996
*Collects The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers.
†Collects The Chief's Daughter, A Circlet of Oak Leaves, and A Crown of Wild Olive.
‡Collects Warrior Scarlet, The Mark of the Horse Lord, and Knight's Fee.
Margaret Meek (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: Meek, Margaret. "The Historical Novelist: The Light and the Dark." In Rosemary Sutcliff, pp. 31-50. New York, N.Y.: Henry Z. Walck, Incorporated, 1962.
[In the following essay, Meek examines themes of light and darkness in Sutcliff's Roman-era historical juvenile novels, suggesting that the level of historical detail and literary quality is on par with adult works from the same genre.]
One of the benefits of a classical education in days gone by was a working familiarity with life in ancient Rome. Sometimes one wonders what Dr Johnson would say about the modern schoolboy's ignorance of Pliny and Horace and his familiarity with the towns, villas and heating systems of Roman Britain. In the last decade, novelists have made the young free of the camps and fortifications the legions built, especially the settlements in the south and along Hadrian's wall, so that one finds in a succession of children's books the same streets, wineshops, cooking facilities, military arrangements, threatening Picts, Saturnalia, and baths. The writers have evoked all the hustle of effective colonization and military conquest with enough skill to revive the drooping fortunes of Latin and to bring to life the period between the leap into the sea of Caesar's standard-bearer and the sailing away of the last Roman galley.
The interest provided by the details is linked to the adventure of a hero, as in Henry Treece's Legions of the Eagle, which deals with the friendship of the son of a Belgic chieftain with a Roman soldier. It is interesting to compare tales dealing with this period, as the same sources are used while the methods differ greatly. Word to Caesar (Geoffrey Trease), They Fought for Brigantia (Marjorie Rowling), The Mistle-toe and the Sword (Anya Seton) show the variety of the authors' skill and approach, while The Eagles Have Flown (Henry Treece), The Last of Britain and Merlin's King (Meriol Trevor) indicate the attraction of the twilight period when the Romans were evacuating Britain. On the whole the emphasis is on action, the narration of incident, a mission accomplished, a march, a battle, although the desire to recreate the Roman virtus is also prevalent. Not unnaturally it bears a recognizable resemblance to the sportsmanship of our own day.
An exceptional book in this category is Stephanie Plowman's To Spare the Conquered (1960) which depicts Rome as an occupying power in Britain, troubled with the responsibilities the conqueror has for the victims. The hero, Quintus, and others see the mission of Rome as an exercise in preserving the dignity of man at a time when Rome itself was losing imperial stature and the colonies were being exploited to maintain the crumbling façade. The story covers the rising of the Iceni ruler, Boudicca, and gives the author scope to examine the motives of the Roman commanders, centurions and procurators. It is a book worth comparing with those of Miss Sutcliff on this period, as both writers are concerned with the mainsprings of action and the temperamental differences of personality, as well as the thronging life of the legions.
Rosemary Sutcliff has written four books which deal with this period: The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Silver Branch (1957), The Lantern Bearers (1959) and Outcast (1955). The first three form a sequence in that they deal with the fortunes of the family of Marcus Flavius Aquila, the centurion who came to Britain in the hope of finding what happened to his father's legion, the legendary Ninth, when it marched beyond the Wall and was never heard of again. Outcast is about the life of a slave in the galleys which brought the legions to Britain. Dawn Wind (1961) is the chronological sequel to The Lantern Bearers. It links the books of the first Roman period with the coming of the Christian missionaries to Kent.
These books enjoy widespread popularity both here and abroad and have contributed most to Miss Sutcliff's reputation. The Eagle of the Ninth has been reprinted four times, broadcast twice in its entirety, and has even found its way into a textbook in which it is used as a model for writing for children.1 The imaginative scope and power of these books were barely hinted at before Simon, and the artistic maturity of The Lantern Bearers scarcely even glimpsed. Reviewers, detecting the Kiplingesque overtones, have accused or praised the heroes according to their prejudices about Kipling (‘young Britons at outposts of Empire rather than young Romans on the Wall’), but they have freely admitted that the books make challenging reading for adults as well as children.2 The thematic material repays close study if one is concerned to know the author as an artist and a personality, and from the outset we cannot fail to be persuaded that here is a body of work which satisfies, without modification or concession, the claim that this writer for children is an artist in her own right.
The root of the matter is no secret, yet it defies exact interpretation beyond saying that the vital spark of Rosemary Sutcliff's books, from The Eagle of the Ninth onwards, is the total imaginative penetration of the historical material. The books seem to be written from the inside, so that the reader's identification with the chief character carries him further into the felt life of the time than many other books which are made up of the skilful but detached articulation of the fruits of research. One feels that Rosemary Sutcliff is less concerned to write historical narrative than to reconstruct, in the child's response to her creative imagination, a strong feeling for and involvement with the people of this mist-bound, huddling, winter-dark island at the periods when the invaders came, Romans, Saxons, Norsemen.
This magic has certain recognizable elements; the names of the characters are chosen with a poet's care, the dogs have a central place and are characterized with the loving attention children recognize and approve. The villains, such as Placidus in The Eagle of the Ninth and Allectus in The Silver Branch are acidly etched, although there is more reliance on traditional enmity and feud than on personal evil to provide the dark side. Episodic characters, singly or in groups, have a miniaturist's clarity of outline. Pandarus, the gladiator with his rose in the battle, Galerius the surgeon, the garrulous household slaves, soldiers at a firelit cockfight or warriors at a feast, all are equally memorable. Others more involved in the developing action, commanding officers, wise men of the tribes, outcasts, especially Guern the Hunter, Evicatos of the Spear and Brother Ninnias, have a legendary quality. Tradui the Chieftain at the making of New Spears, Bruni, dressed in the war gear of a Jutish hero dying as the wild geese fly south, blind Flavian, killed at the hands of marauding Saxons, all carry a dignity and heroism that link this series of tales with the legends Miss Sutcliff loves to tell. Indeed, part of the difficulty in evaluating the achievement of these books comes from the thickly woven texture which is as closely wrought as in many adult novels of quality.
Now that the standard of accredited detail is so high in historical novels, writers have their research material carefully scrutinized by critics. It is one thing to be accurate about costume and cooking pots, and quite another to make an organic whole in which the accumulated research is assimilated by the reader because of its essential rightness in the situation. Here is Wroxeter when the Romans had left it and later the British warhost had finally been defeated.
‘Owain found himself at the Forum Gate, with its proud inscription to the Emperor Hadrian, and halted there, staring dazedly about him, while Dog stood watching him expectantly and wagging his tail. It was growing dusk, and he thought suddenly—it was a thought that made the sick laughter rise in his throat—that he could sleep in the Basilica tonight, he could sleep in the Palace of Kyndylan the Fair, if he chose, he was free of all Viroconium. But the little low-browed shops in the Forum colonnade seemed to offer a deeper and darker refuge to crawl into. One or two near the gate still had their roofs on them and he turned into the nearest of these. It looked to have been a basket-maker's shop; everything that could be of use to marauders had been stripped from it, but a broken pigeon basket and a bunch of withies still lay in one corner. The light was going fast, and the back of the shop was already lost in the shadows of the rainy twilight.’3
Weather and the ruined town all serve to increase Owain's desolation. The scholarship is transmuted into artistry.
Each plot is full of incident and suspense, the construction is taut but supple. Each book has a unified theme, yet they are linked together. In The Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus Flavius Aquila is invalided out of his legion after his first battle in Britain. When his wound has healed, he goes with his freed slave, Esca, to look for the eagle of the lost Ninth Legion and to learn his father's fate. The Silver Branch tells how the torn eagle, many years later, goes into battle again at the head of a ragged band of men loyal to Rome at a time when her power is being undermined by rival emperors and Britain is being invaded by Saxon war bands. The heroes are Justin and Flavius, descendants of the first Marcus, whose farm, which is now Flavius's, serves as a meeting place for men secretly in the service of Rome. The arrival of Constantius establishes the Roman peace once more, although we feel it cannot be for long. The Lantern Bearers deals with the period when the Romans have left Britain to the warring Hengist and Vortigern and the young Roman-British Ambrosius. Aquila, racked with bitterness against the Saxons for his father's murder, his sister's disappearance and his own thralldom in Jutland, spends years of hardship fighting the Saxons before he learns to be at peace within himself. Dawn Wind begins with the last defeat of the Britons by the Saxons at Aquae Sulis, and covers the twelve years that follow. The British hero, Owain, becomes the thrall of a Saxon farmer and his case seems even more hopeless than Aquila's, until the Welsh envoy at the court of the Saxon king tells him that there is a ‘dawn wind stirring’ in the arrival of the Roman monk, Augustine, at Canterbury.
In narrative, The Eagle of the Ninth is the most workmanlike; each incident has a bold outline, fire-clear details, and is told with passion and skill. The others cover larger stretches of time and the canvas is more crowded. As the subtlety of plot and theme grows more complex, so the author looks to older readers. The publishers say that the expected age-range is eleven to sixteen, which is, roughly, the main period of adolescence, and part of the author's success lies in the skill with which she interprets the complex emotional responses of this phase of her readers' development.
The theme of each book is the light and the dark. The light is what is valued, what is to be saved beyond one's own lifetime. The dark is the threatening destruction that works against it. The heroes are serious young men schooled in the Roman virtues of pietas and gravitas which demand loyalty to family, country, friend and cause, exactly those things which call out the idealism of adolescents whose inner world is full of this kind of thinking. Marcus goes to look for his father's eagle as an act of piety and also that he may compensate for the loss of his own command. In so doing, he learns other loyalties, to the land of Britain as well as to Rome, to his slave who becomes his friend, and about the nature of loyalty itself, how it grew hollow in the lost legion, how men mistake the true for the false, that honour must be paid for many times, that freedom is not simply manumission. To become adult is to learn these things in different ways. As in Simon, public excellence is seen as the extension of private virtues. It is recognized by men of all tribes, by those who move in the darkness beyond the Wall as well as by those to whom duty is the clear call of a military trumpet. This is what the young want to know about in an age when they are faced by equivocal adult standards and general cynicism.
This theme is extended in The Silver Branch with increased subtlety, for the creativeness of the Roman peace is now threatened by the wanton destructiveness of the Saxons and the darkness at the heart of those who threaten the order that Rome brought to the barbarians. Justin and Flavius are impelled by Carausius's words to risk all for him, even after he is dead:
"If I can make this one province strong—strong enough to stand alone when Rome goes down, then something may be saved from the darkness. If not, then Dubris light and Limanis light and Rutupiae light will go out. The lights will go out everywhere." He stepped back, dragging aside the hanging folds of the curtain, and stood framed in their darkness against the firelight and lamplight behind him, his head yet turned to the grey and silver of the starry night.
The chances of saving the light are no stronger than the little silver branch carried by the Emperor's fool, ‘shining drops distilled out of the emptiness’. This may be a partial view of the Pax Romana, but it speaks to the young who are constantly reminded of past glories when these are now so obviously lacking, and who have no firm assurance that their world will emerge from the darkness that threatens it.
The Lantern Bearers is the most closely-woven novel of the trilogy. The committee of the Carnegie Award did well to wait for the third volume before honouring Miss Sutcliff. In it the hero bears within himself the conflict of dark and light, the burden of his time and of himself. When he fires the beacon of Rutupiae light for the last time ‘as a defiance against the dark’ and goes wilful-missing to stay in Britain, to which he feels he belongs, Aquila is carrying the Roman virtus into the next age. At the end of the book he says, ‘I wonder if they will remember us at all, these people on the other side of the darkness’. To this theme there is a rich counterpoint of personality and event, motive and action, more intricately interwoven than in any novel so far.
After his thralldom with the Jutes, Aquila's darkness is at his heart, for loyalties betrayed and vengeance sought. All gentleness is shut out. At moments of the greatest turbulence when the darkness is closing round, Aquila realizes that the light men carry within them, which is the only safeguard against the greater darkness of despair, is their concern for each other and what is dear to them. Gradually from his wife, Ness, and Brother Ninnias, Aquila learns that love and loyalty are more than the quickly-lost ideals of youth. A man may serve a cause so that his public excellence can be recognized, and yet one who remains untouched by family love and warmth for others is still in darkness, for all his virtus. The glory that was Rome is no longer; all that remains is an ideal in the hearts of men who have risen above common vengeance, and the races must learn to be at peace together.
This theme is continued in Dawn Wind. Owain has more than served his time as a thrall, yet he does not leave the family he has lived with because he made a promise to his master that was more binding than his thrall ring. Einon Hen, the Welsh envoy, explains to Owain his vision of the light and the dark since the departure of the Romans and during the between-time that followed:
Owain, hasn't it ever seemed to you that a strange thing is happening between the British and the Saxon kind? It is three generations since Artos died, and the years between have been lost and dark and very bloody, so that if one looks backward it is as though one peered through the night and storm to catch the last brave glimmer of a lantern very far behind … Now this Beornwulf turns to you, a Briton, in his last and sorest need of a friend, and for four years of your life, and maybe more to come, you have shouldered the weight of a Saxon household, and you sit there and ask me … "What else could I do?"—And that, do you know, is a thing that I find more filled with promise than any treaty between Aethelbert and the Princess of the Cymru. Almost it is as though, looking forward this time, one might perhaps make out another gleam of light very far ahead.
This intricacy of theme is kept jewel-clear in all the books by an adept handling of symbolic material, a ritualism which young readers appreciate. It is full of surcharged emotion which need not be uttered: Marcus setting up his little altar to Mithras and sacrificing the bird of carved olive wood, symbolizing his childhood and former life, the Dolphin ring which links the family through the ages, the fish symbol drawn in the ashes of the hearth by the legionary, the tattooed dolphin on Aquila's shoulder, the recurrent symbolism of flowers, herbs, colours, and the ritual return of seasons, blossom and fruit, sowing and sacrifice.
Remembering the gentle cosiness of Miss Sutcliff's early books, one might be surprised to find the uncompromising cruelty of the battles portrayed with equally uncompromising clarity. The white heat of Aquila's controlled emotion in The Lantern Bearers, its total rejection of comfort and gentleness, has no precedent in her work. Treachery, hardship, the ferocity of friend and foe are set down with an intensity of imaginative passion, as if the author were concerned to prove the lasting qualities of the virtues that are tried in the fire of conflict.
The darkness of The Eagle of the Ninth is of a particular quality, the magic and the ritual of the primitive tribes, which Miss Sutcliff conveys with distinctive success. These are monumental powers evoking primeval impulses:
A figure stooped out under the low lintel into the torchlight. The figure of a man, stark naked save for the skin of a grey dog-seal, the head drawn over his own. The Seal Clan greeted his coming with a quick rhythmic cry that rose and fell and rose again, setting the blood jumping back to the heart. For an instant the man—Seal-priest or manseal—stood before them, receiving their acclamation, then with the clumsy shuffling motion of a seal on dry land, moved to one side of the doorway; and another figure sprang out of the darkness, hooded with the snarling head of a wolf. One after another they came, naked as the first had been, their bodies daubed with strange designs in woad and madder, their head-dresses of animal pelts or bird-feathers, the wings of a swan, the pelt of an otter with the tail swinging behind the wearer's back, the striped hide of a badger shining black and white in the torchlight.
Adults may admire the skill with which the chapter ‘The Feast of the New Spears’ is written. Young read- ers respond to the excitement of the ceremonial darkness and fiery torchlight because they can feel rather than discuss its significance. When the early books put feelings into words they were lost in sentimentality. Here the emotion is all the stronger for the symbolical representation. This book, by its combination of swift narrative and varied episodes, remains the readers' favourite as it is the author's.
When we examine these particular instances of Miss Sutcliff's craft we see that the effectiveness of the whole, which moves with the speed and sweep of the narrative to the climax of each episode, is nevertheless composed of minute attention to detail: the colour of the sky, the shape of the hills, the mane of a horse, a bowl of apples or words carved on a rock, all are invested with meaning.
In these Roman stories the problem of dialogue has been solved by the invention of timeless cadences in a slightly shifted word order, the surest safeguard against stilted archaism or colloquialism, even though the fall of the phrase is sometimes unreal, or occasionally the modern speaker peeps out. Also the girls, who were not so well-drawn as the boys, have gradually assumed more weight. Ness, Aquila's wife, is a character of quality, whereas Cottia, Marcus's friend, is altogether too babyish. As her characters mature, so does the author's handling of dialogue.
In between the books of the trilogy are three others: Outcast (1955), The Shield Ring (1956) and Warrior Scarlet (1958) and a short story of life on the Roman Wall, The Bridge Builders, which although published in 1959 seems from the author's note to have been written before The Shield Ring was completed. Although Miss Sutcliff has developed into a story-teller who is at her best in a long narrative, this short sketch has her unmistakable individuality.
Outcast, the story of Beric, can be mentioned here as it has a link with the others discussed in this chapter, and it throws light on an important aspect of the novels. Beric is washed up on the shores of Britain and adopted by a tribe which later casts him out. He is carried off to Rome as a slave. In making a bid for freedom he is recaptured and sent to the galleys where, after unspeakable treatment, he attacks an overseer, is lashed and dropped into the sea for dead. The sea casts him up again, this time on Romney Marsh where he falls into the hands of Justinius, the ‘Builder of Roads and Drainer of Marshes’, who adopts him as his son. Together they fight the great gale that threatens the dyke and the work to which Justinius's life is dedicated.
This is another fast-moving story, yet the plot depends to a greater extent than usual on coincidence, legitimate as this is, and is more loosely episodic. The two outstanding features are the descriptive reality of the life of a galley slave and the dark misery of the outcast, which anticipates Aquila's torments in The Lantern Bearers. Beric belongs nowhere; he has no tribe, his Roman master give him another name, a galley slave has no identity. Finally Justinius seems to have mistaken him for someone else, the son he had never seen.
To the adolescent the theme of ‘Who am I?’ is a compelling one. In his desire to be accepted for the person he is, to establish his identity in the adult world, to find a role he can play, he identifies himself with the outcast, a part which, for all its misery, he fully understands. The characterization of Beric might well have fallen into sentimentality, but this is avoided. It is debatable, however, whether it avoids altogether an excess of self-laceration that is more than the realistic cruelty conventional in the Roman tales of other writers, notably those of Henry Treece. Adult reviewers have objected to the scenes of lashings, while young people have told Miss Sutcliff that they enjoyed them. They are neither excessive nor distasteful, but they hint at something deeper in the plight of the hero, which the other three Roman books also illustrate.
After his first battle Marcus, in The Eagle of the Ninth, endures rough-and-ready doctoring and later penetrating surgery to search his wounds which leave him with a limp and exclude him from regular military service. He undertakes his special mission with a handicap. Justin, in The Silver Branch is a disappointment to his father as he is a surgeon, not a fighting man. He stutters and lacks self-assurance in his dealings with people. Aquila, in The Lantern Bearers, has withdrawn from close human relationships and is something of a maimed personality. The scar on his brow is the merest outward sign of his inward scars. Beric distrusts all kindness as the result of the treatment he has undergone:
There was no place for him there, after all, no place for him anywhere in the world of men that had cast him out, and made him a slave and sent him to the galleys. He would go to the wild and be done with men!
Only in their relationship with others, the ideal companion, the blood brother, the wise man, do these wounds heal. The cautery is sharp and stinging. Marcus must submit to searching knives in his leg and also to finding out the bitter truth about the Ninth Legion. He learns too from Esca the uneasy relations between slave and freeman when these are complicated by pride. Justin has to learn to forget himself, to lose himself in the cause where arms are useless weapons until the end. Aquila keeps his inner darkness as a kind of protection so that he need not be touched by feeling; he recovers when he lets emotion in again.
One feels in reading these books that the inner life of the hero is as important as any outward action. The heroic man is of a certain cast of temper, a mould, a balance, which is no more and no less than we learn in the Iliad and the tales of Arthur. The conflict of the light and the dark is the stuff of legend in all ages. Miss Sutcliff's artistry is a blend of this realization in her own terms and an instructive personal identification with problems which beset the young, problems of identity, of self-realization. Children see in stories of maimed and hurt children struggles with conscience rather than with the outside world. Extended into adolescence these struggles increase in intensity. The young respond with imaginative sympathy to those who are in any way handicapped and they do not shy away from the didacticism or moralizing implicit in these figures. As the heroes come to see that one must learn to carry one's scars lightly by acceptance and concern for others, so do the readers.
Being an outcast may mean that one feels rejected, different, but it is also an attitude of mind by which one takes revenge on others. One is less of a person if one is preoccupied with one's own hurts. Only by being involved in something creative, the search for the Eagle, the maintenance of law in a disordered world, the building of a wall against the sea, the farming of the land, does one find oneself.
In Dawn Wind one sees that internal battles in England solve fewer and fewer problems. The different tribes and races must learn to live with each other. The last conquest is still to come, but the lesson holds good.
1.Creative Writing in English. Gordon Taylor. Allen and Unwin (1960).
2.The Eagle of the Ninth is in both children's and adults' sections of many public libraries.
3.Dawn Wind, p. 29.
Joan V. Marder (essay date autumn 1968)
SOURCE: Marder, Joan V. "The Historical Novels of Rosemary Sutcliff." Use of English 20, no. 1 (autumn 1968): 10-13.
[In the following essay, Marder highlights themes of overcoming handicaps within Sutcliff's historical novels, noting that the "novelist's imagination illuminates and brings to life periods and ways of life that are remote and difficult to understand."]
‘… a stimulus to the imaginative and critical faculties and an education in human sympathies.’1 These are the qualities which Professor Helen Cam finds in the best historical novels for adults; the qualities which adults seek in the books they choose to place before children; and the qualities which are to be found in the historical stories of Rosemary Sutcliff. Much has already been written about her work, and her books have set a standard by which contemporary historical novels for children are judged. Her books are praised for the quality of historical imagination which they reveal, for the language in which they are written, and for their excellence as novels. They are not, in the main, easy books, and the children who enjoy them are those with considerable reading ability and enthusiasm for books, but, to these children, they give a deep and lasting enjoyment.
Miss Sutcliff's first book, a retelling of the Robin Hood legends, and the three which followed, are written for younger children and, while they give pleasure, they do not suggest the range and power of the later books. Signs of this developing potential came with the publication of Simon in 1953, a story with a Civil War setting, whose hero fights for the Parliamentary cause. Teachers welcome this book as a counter-weight to the over-romantic view of the war seen from the Royalist camp which is commonly propounded in historical novels; but to the child reading the book, it is very much more than a ‘roman à thèse’, it is a story about timeless and enduring problems. Simon, the name character, has to resolve the rival claims of friendship and loyalty to a cause, to grow up and to move from the protection of his family to an adult life with public responsibilities. This blending of historical setting and timeless problems is the mark of all Rosemary Sutcliff's later work, and one of the main reasons for its popularity with children. Professor Kenneth Charlton suggests that ‘the primary urge of children to read any book is for the gratification of their emotional needs, a satisfaction based largely on their being able to identify with one or the other of the characters of the book’.2 This pos- sibility of identification, this externalisation of the preoccupations of young people growing up in a troubled and dangerous world makes a very direct appeal, ensuring that the books are relevant to their readers, not mere escapist literature.
In the year after Simon appeared, Eagle of the Ninth was published, and marked the beginning of a sequence of novels which explore many aspects of Roman Britain from the full flush of Roman power until long after the legions had departed, and Rome was only a memory and a hope in the hearts of a few men—a civilisation, a way of life, ‘the last brave glimmer of a lantern very far behind’. In each of the novels, the hero has his personal conflict, his particular quest. Aquila in The Lantern Bearers, has to overcome the bitterness left by the destruction of all he held dear in his youth and to learn the importance of personal relationships and the value of family love. Owain in Dawn Wind, keeps his ideal of Roman civilisation before him through all his years as a Saxon thrall and he, too, discovers the importance of his obligations to his fellow-men. Phaedrus, in The Mark of the Horse Lord, wins his freedom in the arena and, with Roman fortitude, gives his life for the safety of the tribe which had made him their lord. These and other heroes, express the adolescent's need to work out a code of behaviour, to discover his public loyalties, and to establish his personal integrity.
Beside the Romano-British sequence, there are three novels which explore similar personal problems in different historical settings. These are: The Shield Ring, a story of the Norse community in Lakeland which maintained its freedom and way of life for a generation after the Norman Conquest; Knight's Fee, set in Norman Sussex; and Warrior Scarlet, set in Bronze Age Sussex. Perhaps even more strongly than in the Romano-British novels, the reader is aware of the theme of quest, of overcoming handicap, of the adolescent's urgent need to play his part in the life around him. Drem, in Warrior Scarlet, has the handicap of a crippled right arm. Society's demands are uncomplicated and uncompromising. To take his part in the life of the tribe, he must kill his wolf in ritual battle and be able to take his place in the warrior band; if he cannot fulfil these demands, then he must be banished to live with the conquered Neolithic people, the shepherds and servants of the tribe. Randal, in Knight's Fee, is physically whole but spiritually crippled—abandoned as a baby, he has learned to keep alive by lying and stealing—and he has to learn a more ordered way of life. For both Drem and Randal, the major problem is to conquer their handicap, to learn not to allow resentment to colour their relations with their fellows, and to give and accept friendship.
To the history teacher, Rosemary Sutcliff's novels are a valuable teaching aid. The novelist's imagination illuminates and brings to life periods and ways of life that are remote and difficult to understand. Norman land-tenure is a complex study, but the rights and duties of knight-service are the very stuff of the plot of Knight's Fee, as is the Romanisation of Britain in such books as The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, and Dawn Wind. We are today cushioned from the elements, but Rosemary Sutcliff can make us feel the famine that lurked at winter's end, the threat of wolves making each winter night dangerous. We can feel the narrow boundaries, the constriction of the tribal world, or the stretching of the known world under the Roman Empire. The impression of space, of the difficulties of journeying from one settlement to another, and the time consumed in doing so, come with a shock of surprise to the child of today's world of easy transport; to one growing up in this overcrowded island.
In recent years, we have come to demand, as a matter of course, that historical novels should be free from anachronisms; but teachers who wish to make use of such books need a more positive quality than mere absence of error. In Rosemary Sutcliff's work, they should find this positive contribution. A study of local history, an investigation of the tangible remains of the past, are both ways in which history can be invested with a feeling of reality for children, but the good historical novel also has a part to play. Historians can follow a closely reasoned argument and can emerge with a coherent picture, but this is asking for a mature judgement and an already awakened feeling for history. For children, the novelist's imagination, transmuting the minutae of daily life and the political arguments of long ago, can strike the spark which may lead to further investigation and understanding.
‘An education in human sympathies’—these novels certainly provide this. We may, in carping mood, wish that some things were different—the male characters are much more memorable than the women in the books (but, on the whole, men did take most of the adventures for themselves), and the books are of a complexity which puts them out of the reach of many children. This is an ungrateful complaint, for no book can be all things to all men, and we should be glad of books which will extend and, at the same time, delight our more intelligent children.
1. Cam, H.: Historical Novels. Historical Association, 1961, p. 3.
2. Charlton, K.: Recent Historical Fiction for Secondary School Children (11-15 years). Historical Association, 1960, p. 4.
Catherine J. Montgomery (essay date fall 1988)
SOURCE: Montgomery, Catherine J. "The Dialectical Approach of Writers of Children's Arthurian Retellings." Arthurian Interpretations 3, no. 1 (fall 1988): 79-88.
[In the following essay, Montgomery explores three juvenile adaptations of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, including Sutcliff's The Sword and the Circle, which is praised for its humanization of Arthur.]
The story of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table drawn from Sir Thomas Malory's fifteenth century Morte Darthur has been retold for juvenile readers in a variety of ways since the middle of the nineteenth century. Some early retellers of the legend such as Sidney Lanier and Charles Morris compose a reading of Malory by omitting much of his text while, to a great extent, maintaining his own language. Turn of the century retellers Mary MacLeod and Millicent Potter are more generous in their omissions of Malory and, thereby, more selective than is either Lanier or Morris. MacLeod and Potter also use a lexicon and syntax which is at times more contemporary than the language used by their male peers and at times fabricated to give an aura of antiquity, particularly in conversations. However, it appears that the artistic vision of the Arthurian retellers becomes more eclectic as the present time nears. Some retellers, such as Sir Humphrey Milford publishing in 1937 and Alice Hadfield publishing in 1953, filter their readings of Malory to some extent through the language used by Alfred Lord Tennyson in The Idylls of the King, Milford drawing more heavily on Tennyson than Hadfield does. Milford speaks with a tiny voice while hushing Malory and allowing Tennyson to dominate the text. Hadfield speaks quite clearly throughout her text, hovering over both Malory and Tennyson while giving them turns to alternately speak and keep still. The contemporary writer, Rosemary Sutcliff, allows Malory, Gottfried von Strassburg, and writers of The Mabinogian and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to combine with her own voice and that of others in The Sword and the Circle to present an interesting eclecticism. In an introductory note to that text Sutcliff writes that "no minstrel ever follows exactly the songs that have come down to him from the time before. Always he adds and leaves out and embroiders and puts something of himself into each retelling" (8). Therefore, it is difficult to formulate a definition of "retelling" because it is the domain of literature which is written by writers whose intention it is, in the words of Alfred W. Pollard, to introduce "not more than one hundred words of his own" (xi) as well as by writers such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Constance Hieatt who announce that their intention is to combine their sources with their imagination. But despite the intentions of such writers as Pollard, Lanier, and Morris, they cannot escape the dialectic, the struggle seen in the text which at once evokes the spirit of the source or sources and which elicits a sense of self, a sense of the artist's creativity.
This sense of self is manifested in many ways—sometimes appearing as an interruption in the narrative, sometimes through a description of a scene, sometimes with overt philosophizing and moralizing, and sometimes by a change in point of view. But the author's sense of self is not only manifested by way of additions to a text but also by way of silences, by the things left unstated. As one might guess, writers of children's literature are generally, but not always, very quiet about complicated love relationships. Retellers seem to struggle most with the relationship between Lancelot and Guenevere because their relationship is so extremely important to the downfall of the Round Table, requiring the squeamish writer either to gloss over the affair rather quickly—something which obscures the focus—or to create a new story line. But the writer may not be squeamish entirely from some puristic sense of propriety but perhaps from the sense that either these scenes deal with complexities of human nature that children are not able to understand or deal with, or children lack the maturity—if they do understand—to grasp the seriousness and ramifications of such matters. This may also apply to power struggles. One may want to be king in order to be at the top with all that this implies. The immature reader may not see the elements of ego, self-satisfaction, and pleasure in controlling others that go into the adult "wish to be king."
The retellings of three writers—Sidney Lanier, Alice Hadfield, and Rosemary Sutcliff—contain a synchronic-diachronic dialectology which allows the examination of each writer's text individually as well as the historical change over time which occurs in the genre of Arthurian retellings for children. A close reading of children's Arthurian literature produces a diachronic view of the legend as its authors seek to define and to limit the linguistic and the cultural context for their juvenile audience. This shows the subtle and the not so subtle ways adult literature is excluded by or assimilated in literature for children.1
In 1880 in the United States, Sidney Lanier published The Boy's King Arthur, an outstanding success for Scribner's which issued five reprints before the turn of the century and at least twenty-one thereafter. In his work, Lanier refers to himself as an editor of Malory, and he preserves, except for an occasional lapse, the language, syntax, and rhythm of his source, placing his own additions to Malory's text—which are either an abbreviated version of a particular part of the legend, a word change, or a definition of a word or phrase—in brackets. Below is an example. The first excerpt is from Sir Edward Strachey's edition of Malory, first published in 1868. The precise edition or editions Lanier uses cannot be determined. Strachey writes:
And when matins and the first mass was done, there was seen in the churchyard against the high altar a great stone four square, like unto a marble stone, and in the midst thereof was like an anvil of steel a foot on high, and therein stack a fair sword naked by the point, and letters there were written in gold about the sword….
And when the first mass was done there was seen in the church yard, against the high altar, a great stone four-square, like to a marble stone, and in the midst thereof was an anvil of steel, a foot of height, and therein stuck a fair sword naked by the point, and letters of gold were written about the sword….
Notice that in the passage Lanier's most significant changes are the omissions which he does not note—such as "matins and" and the second "like," as well as the change in syntax from "letters there were written in gold" to "letters of gold were written." Given this passage as "typical" of Lanier's style, it seems fair to say that one of his aims is, indeed, to present an accurate edition of Malory.
From this explanation of Lanier's style in composing a text which allows Malory to speak quite clearly and forcefully, one may assume that little or nothing is left to say about Lanier, since he is so insistent on a close adherence to the source. But Lanier is important for what he does not say, the way he muffles and silences Malory, and also for one very important thing he adds, a footnote in which he attempts to direct the reader's interpretation.
For the most part, Lanier tones down the affair between Lancelot and Guenevere, but he is not silent, leaving the reader unsure about the status of their relationship, an uneasiness Malory also gives his own audience more than three-quarters of the way through the Morte Darthur. Lanier seemingly feels that this business of extramarital affairs is too sensitive an issue for children, or "boys" in this case; on the other hand, Lanier is not backward about including the adventure of Lancelot being captured by the four married queens who "strive for" him and declare that each "would have him to her love" (27). So why is Lanier very quiet about the love between Lancelot and Guenevere? Lanier composes this reading because a passionate love relationship between Lancelot and Guenevere would be a bad reflection on Arthur, Lanier's idealized king, descended from a noble line—"noble" being a word slipped in by Lanier to describe Uther while silencing Malory when it comes to the unpleasantries. Add to this a squeamishness and a sense of propriety along with the complex notion that even good people commit acts which society defines as evil. Evinced here is Lanier's dialectic, his desire to maintain the story presented in Malory yet compose a reading which limits the cultural context based on his perception of what is appropriate, tasteful, and, perhaps, least complicated.
Having diminished the passionate love interest between Lancelot and Guenevere, Lanier needs to precipitate the final break of the Round Table some other way. He does this overtly by way of a footnote inserted into the poison apple scene in which Gawain accuses Guenevere of attempting to poison him. In the footnote Lanier writes:
We have here the beginning of that series of quarrels which presently arrays Sir Gawain and King Arthur (who with many protests allows himself to be guided by Sir Gawain) on one side, against Queen Guenevere and Sir Lancelot (who has taken the queen's part) on the other, and which ends with the great battle in which Arthur is slain and the Round Table broken up forever.
Although the poison apple scene in Lanier is not substantially different from the one in Malory, Lanier accomplishes an added sense of significance by the inclusion of this footnote and the interpretation that it is a quarrel between Gawain and Guenevere rather than the love between Lancelot and Guenevere which figures most importantly in the ending. Through this footnote, Lanier speaks in a loud voice, demonstrating his dialectic by being faithful both to Malory's version of the poison apple story and to himself, a move which maintains Arthur's nobility.
Moving from Lanier's text to Alice Hadfield's King Arthur and the Round Table, first published in London in 1953, one notices that the dialectic becomes more complicated as authors compose readings of the Arthurian legend by including more and varied sources. In addition to Malory and Tennyson, whose voices are heard alternately throughout the text, Hadfield also draws on The Mabinogian, the writings of Wace and Layamon, and The High History of the Holy Grail. Although she basically follows Malory's story, she uses quotations of Tennyson's poetry at certain points in the text to highlight the action. This is first seen in the recounting of the secret of Arthur's birth, as Hadfield calls it. In Genesis-like fashion she tells us two stories of his beginning. One involves the story of his birth to Uther and Igraine which adheres to the decorum Hadfield considers appropriate for her young readers; another involves Tennyson's version of Arthur's birth from out of the sea after Uther's death. When Uther dies, Merlin and Bleyse walk out on the beach and see "a ship shaped like a winged dragon and outlined in fire" (18) which vanishes. They stand watching eight huge waves roll in. Then the ninth comes and carries with it a baby which Merlin catches in his arms. Hadfield then quotes Tennyson directly writing, "And all at once all round him rose in fire, / So that the child and he were clothed in fire" (18). But whenever anyone asks Merlin about the events of that night his only response is Tennyson's riddle: "Sun, rain and sun! and where is he who knows? / From the great deep to the great deep he goes" (18). In this way Hadfield allows both Malory and Tennyson to speak in her text.
But Hadfield is in no way absent. What makes her text unique is the way her voice hovers over it continually with overt religious philosophizing and moralizing and by limiting and defining Arthur's kingdom as a place of holiness. In her introduction Hadfield writes of Arthur's world: "It is a religious world, where Jesus Christ is a real Person to the knights, and His service is as clear and real as that of the King, a world where every one moves naturally in and out of church, and where mercy, forgiveness, and generosity with money are part of a knight's daily duty" (n.p.). Following this thinking, Arthur becomes for Hadfield the savior of Christendom in Britain. Long before Arthur's appearance, Merlin prophesizes to Vortigern, the heathen ruler ("heathen" being a word Hadfield uses liberally) that Uther's heir will reign as befits a Christian king by driving back the unbelievers. This comes to pass when Arthur becomes king and drives the heathens to the perimeter of Britain, wins back Christian order, and establishes his government. For Malory, Arthur is certainly a Christian king, but he is not the idealized, Christian saint on earth.
To Hadfield's Arthur the Round Table serves as a symbol of Christian unity the way his marriage to Guenevere also serves as a symbol of Christian unity. Hadfield writes:
He meant to have the knights who sat at it [the Round Table] sworn to the highest standard of thought and living, a life in Christ in thought and action. It was to represent a perfect world, where love and goodness should move in a power which should spread out through every vein of life in Britain. As his marriage was to be this in the King's own life, so the knights of the Round Table were to be that power throughout his kingdom.
Wales is described as a fitting place for the wedding and the public coronation of the king and queen since it has never been besieged by heathens.
Alice Hadfield's religiosity very stringently limits and defines the situation she creates in her text, making her sources bear on her own concerns. Not surprisingly, Hadfield provides no intimation of a love triangle and credits Lancelot with being Arthur's best friend. The deterioration of the Round Table comes after the Holy Grail is taken up into heaven because men, except for Galahad, have proved themselves unworthy. From this point, Gawain and his brethren begin to spread unfounded rumors that Lancelot and the queen are plotting together against the realm.
Lanier and Hadfield have one element in common: they attempt to maintain the narrative style of their source with an event driven sequence containing little or no psychological development of the characters. Therefore, the reader of these retellings becomes an observer of what is said and what is acted but not of what is thought. Rosemary Sutcliff, however, adds this dimension. In The Sword and the Circle, an amalgamation of sources already mentioned, she gets inside Arthur's mind to present him as forgetful, contemplative, and human. Although Sutcliff continues the story of Arthur in two more books, The Light beyond the Forest and The Road to Camlann, the discussion here is restricted to the first book.
There seems to be a lack of memory in Sutcliff's Arthur who forgets or almost forgets things that one would not imagine him forgetting. In Malory, Arthur is not portrayed as remembering or forgetting the significance of the drawing of the sword but as never knowing about it until Ector explains the significance to him. But in Sutcliff, at the moment when Arthur remembers there is a sword in the stone at the churchyard, he forgets why it is there, something which was discussed in his presence in Sir Ector's household. Sutcliff writes that this might be due to Merlin, the man with the strange golden eyes, the eyes Arthur seems to remember seeing before on various occasions in his youth. Also when Arthur sees Guenevere for the first time, Sutcliff writes that "something of him was changed from that moment. Something in him that had been asleep before, began to stir and to ache, longing for—he did not know what. Almost he forgot, as time went by, but never quite, until the time came for him to remember fully once again" (35). But when the time comes for him to fully remember once again, he does not immmediately think of Guenevere first. Sutcliff writes:
And Arthur thought. And his thoughts touched in passing upon the fair faces of many maidens, and upon the dark ripe beauty of Queen Margawse, and flinched away from that memory to that which lay beyond. And so his thoughts came to rest upon a girl with smooth dark hair and shadowy grey-green eyes, making a garland of honey-suckle and columbine and Four-Seasons roses in a high-walled castle garden.
Arthur flinches from Morgawse, his half-sister, because she bore the child, Mordred, by him, something which Sutcliff's text frankly admits. For Sutcliff as well as for Malory, Arthur is flawed.
But Sutcliff presents a more human picture of Arthur than Malory does because she reveals his thoughts and feelings. This is particularly evident when it comes to the relationship between his wife and Sir Lancelot. In Malory, one may assume that since the affair between Lancelot and Guenevere persists for so many years and because so many people are aware of it that Arthur is aware of it too. But one is never sure if Arthur actually knows the nature of the situation until Agravaine spells it out to him. In Sutcliff, Arthur knows the situation. After Guenevere learns that Lancelot has fathered Galahad, she attempts to keep her grief and anger hidden. However, Arthur, Sutcliff writes, is "forced to stand by and pretend even to himself—above all to himself—that she was but grieving for the loss of a friend, came near to breaking his own heart without anybody noticing" (158). And after Elaine dies because Lancelot says he could not love her, Sutcliff writes, "‘Love comes as it chooses, or does not come; nor can it be fettered,’ said the King, half as though he answered Sir Lancelot, and half as though he spoke to his own heart…." (165) In this way Rosemary Sutcliff speaks louder than Malory, composing a reading of the Arthurian legend which fills in some of the blanks left by her source but which her source may have had in mind.
Sutcliff, whose work was published in 1981, is the most liberal, the most frank about issues of incest and adultery. But she is also sensitive, drawing the reader into sympathy with Arthur who lies with a woman he does not know to be his step sister and who knows of his wife's affair with his best knight. Hadfield's text presents no complicated ideas with most of the action focused on christianizing the heathens and achieving the Holy Grail. Hadfield goes out of her way to explain the spiritual significance of the Round Table and its knights as well as the significance of the Grail. Both Hadfield and Sutcliff maintain unity by connecting all otherwise loose ends and by drawing all inferences and conclusions for the reader. But Lanier does not write "in conclusion." He provides both a challenging linguistic environment by maintaining Malory's language, including to a significant degree his lexicon and syntax, as well as by complicating the story in making allusions to the love of Lancelot and Guenevere but never qualifying in specific terms the nature of that love. Lanier, either consciously or unconsciously, leaves blanks in his text, allowing the reader more room to compose an individual reading which pushes at the perimeter and to fill in the blanks based on a knowledge of the Arthurian legend and the reader's own inferences. Thus, Lanier produces a tension which is not present in the works of Hadfield and Sutcliff. But Lanier's text may also produce too many blanks, too much tension for the unsophisticated modern reader impatient to grapple with Malory's language, the very thing which seems so precocious. Sutcliff, however, produces a tension of another kind by explaining the situation of the love triangle bluntly and by drawing the reader into sympathy with Arthur. Authors of retellings for children seek to define and to limit the linguistic and the cultural context of the legend for their juvenile audiences in a dialectic which at once struggles to maintain the spirit of their sources while eliciting a sense of their own creativity. The large number and variety of Arthurian retellings for children lead to an understanding of the way the Arthurian legend has created both writers and readers who play an important role in the generation and the re-generation of the Arthurian legend.
1. I wish to acknowledge the debt I owe to Professor Gary Waller from whose language I draw upon here and elsewhere in this paper. See Gary Waller. English Poetry of the Sixteenth Century. London: Longmans, 1986. 1-12.
Hadfield, Alice M., reteller. King Arthur and the Round Table. Ill. Donald Seton Cammell. London: Dent, 1953; New York: Dutton, 1954.
Lanier, Sidney, ed. The Boy's King Arthur: Sir Thomas Malory's History of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table. 1880. Ill. Alfred Kappes. New York: Scribner's, 1916.
Malory, Sir Thomas. Le Morte D'Arthur: Sir Thomas Malory's Book of King Arthur and of his Noble Knights of the Round Table. 1868. Ed. Sir Edward Strachey. London: Macmillan, 1907.
Pollard, Alfred W. The Romance of King Arthur and His Knights of the Round Table: Abridged from Malory's "Morte D'Arthur." Ill. Arthur Rackham. New York: Macmillan, 1917.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. New York: Dutton, 1981.
Waller, Gary. English Poetry of the Sixteenth Century. Longmans Literature in English Series. London: Longmans, 1986.
Lois K. Hanson (review date December 1988)
SOURCE: Hanson, Lois K. Review of The Light beyond the Forest: The Quest for the Holy Grail, The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and The Road to Camlann: The Death of King Arthur, by Rosemary Sutcliff, illustrated by Shirley Felts. English Journal 77, no. 8 (December 1988): 74.
Dare I disturb the universe or at least the EJ editors by recommending not just one abridgement of a classic but a trilogy which brilliantly retells the stories and tales of King Arthur? For in this decade of sorcery video, fantasy novels, and simulation games, the reworkings of the Arthurian stories by Rosemary Sutcliff speak convincingly and heroically to today's adolescents.
In The Sword and the Circle Sutcliff retells Arthur's birth, the sword in the stone, and the early adventures of the knights of the Round Table. The quest for the Holy Grail is highlighted in the second volume, The Light beyond the Forest. The final book, The Road to Camlann, includes Lancelot and Guenever's (these are Sutcliff's spellings) love, the collapse of the brotherhood of the knights, and Arthur's death.
This trilogy is not just a reworking of Malory's Morte d'Arthur. As Sutcliff writes, "I have followed Malory in the main, but I have not followed him slavishly—no minstrel has ever…." So there are also tales from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History, the Welsh Mabinogion, French romances, and medieval ballads.
It is appropriate that Sutcliff refers to herself as one of the many minstrels who sings of Arthur, because the language in her books is both contemporary and poetic. She achieves a heroic cadence without resorting to archaic "thee's" and "thou's."
Meeting the Arthurian ensemble for the first time in literature can be overwhelming. Too often the language sets up a linguistic barrier, or the plots are so bowdlerized as to be pap. Sutcliff's books avoid both problems and so are brilliant introductions to King Arthur.
Winifred Whitehead (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: Whitehead, Winifred. "A Dream of Heroes." In Old Lies Revisited: Young Readers and the Literature of War and Violence, pp. 24-7. London, England: Pluto Press, 1991.
[In the following excerpt, Whitehead praises Sutcliff's ability to symbiotically combine elements of war and place in her historical novels, particularly The Sword at Sunset.]
One writer of historical fiction able to enter thoroughly into the warlike culture she is describing, and yet leave room for questions of contemporary relevance to arise, is Rosemary Sutcliff. Her series of novels about Britain through the ages reflect with remarkable sympathy the tribal culture of the Bronze Age in Warrior Scarlet, the matriarchal culture of the third century in Mark of the Horse Lord and Song for a Dark Queen, the martial ethos of Roman Britain in Eagle of the Ninth, and, in succeeding stories, the perpetual unease generated by Viking, Saxon and Norman invasions. In all these books there is, naturally, a warlike spirit, both in invaders and defenders, which is nevertheless portrayed with a greater awareness and sympathy for both sides, and also for the more peaceful and caring communities which persisted in the intervals of war despite the ever-present threats from without.
One of the most complex and rewarding of her books is Sword at Sunset, a novel set in the fifth century, in King Arthur's Britain. But the narrator and main protagonist, Artos the Bear, is not the idealised hero of Arthurian legend, nor are his Companions chivalrous knights riding out gaily in search of adventures and damsels in distress. Artos is a man of his times, a tough, seasoned campaigner, who has spent his life with a group of men dedicated like himself to the task of defending Britain against the incursions of the Saxons. He tells his story in retrospect, as he lies at the point of death, looking back with a mixture of pride and clear-sighted regret at his achievements and his failures both in the campaign and in his personal life. Of the campaign he can now say: ‘We have scattered the Sea Wolves so that it will be long and long before they can gather the pack again. Together we have saved Britain for this time, and together we will hold Britain, that the things worth saving shall not go down into the dark!’ But though Artos does not question the necessity for his life-long dedication to battle, he does see that his success has been limited; and has been achieved at a severe cost in life and in happiness.
The story of his campaigns against the Sea Wolves is told with a spare stern realism, which accepts the slaughter as a necessary evil; but it is never seen as an exciting boys' game, though we are given a clear sense of the attraction Artos finds in the fighting life.
I carried a heavy heart with me down the war-trail that spring, and yet there was relief in the familiar feel of my battle harness. I have always been a fighting man, and for me there was the release, the small sweet death of forgetting, in the clash of weapons and the dust cloud of battle, that other men find in women or heather beer.
But when Gault dies under the surgeon's knife we are not spared the cruelty of war; the grim details of Gwalchmai's vain attempt to extract the arrow in a ‘hundred to one chance’ of saving Gault's life, or the anguish of Levin at his friend's death. It is interesting to compare the ‘stiff upper lip’ exhortations of Sir Hugo in Knight Crusader with the practical way in which Artos tries to help Levin by setting him immediate tasks to fulfil, and by the harsh yet essentially sympathetic response to his grief.
‘I cannot do it,’ he said pitifully. ‘Artos, have some mercy on me—I can't. It is all true as you say, but I can't go on!’
But already, though he was not aware of it himself, I could feel him strengthening under my hands, bracing himself to take up the intolerable burden.
‘Oh yes you can.’ Artos tells him sternly. ‘One can always go on. And as to mercy, I keep that for when and where it is needed.’ And unsparingly Artos contrasts Levin's present weakness through his grief for Gault with the courage of Gault's own final moments, in which he got ‘the rags of you out of ambush and back to camp with a mortal wound in him’. As Levin responds to Artos's therapeutic scolding, and painfully pulls himself together to take up the struggle again we see that there are no heroics in this scene, only a clear knowledge of what must be done.
The sense conveyed of stern necessity in the business is reinforced by the knowledge that Artos and his Companions are fighting not for personal power or glory, but to preserve some quality of life for their descendants. This is an important theme in the story, and an example of a further dimension to war which is more readily available to writers of historical fiction than to those dealing with the confusing, unfinished business of the wars taking place in their own time. Sutcliff distances the war experience in her books not merely because it lies in the past, but also because she is able to ‘place’ it in a specific context which permits certain definitive judgements to be made about the ultimate consequences of war and about its role in history. In this story its relevance for us today lies partly in the vision of the links between past and future which Artos can still perceive as he watches the lighting of the Beltane fires in the age-old Midsummer Eve ritual, fires which symbolise ‘the Need Fire, the Fire of Life’.
They made the fire at last, after the usual long drawn struggle, the curl of smoke and the sparks that fell on the waiting tinder, the sudden miracle of living flame. A great cry of joyful relief burst from the watching crowd—odd how one always has the fear: ‘This year the fire will not come and life will be over.’ To me it was this year—this year the dark will close over our heads, this is the black wilderness and the end of all things, and the white flower will not bloom again … The small licking flame so easily to be quenched, was a promise, not of victory maybe, but of something not lost, shining on in the darkness.
The fear, lying deep inside Artos, that ‘this year the fire will not come and life will be over’, is one that will be recognised by many readers in this atomic age. But whereas the present fear is of a threatening darkness without hope of survival, Artos expects that the hardships and defeats in the end will prove to have been worthwhile. For the modern reader there is in many of the books written about this period of British history a comforting and relevant theme; the awareness that though the indigenous people fought bitterly against Romans, Vikings, Saxons and Normans they eventually became reconciled to their invaders, and were able to live with them as one nation. Artos says:
‘I remember once, long ago, Ambrosius said to me that if we fought well enough we might hold back the dark for maybe another hundred years. I asked him, seeing that the end was sure, why we did not merely lie down and let it come, for the end would be easier that way. He said, "For a dream" …’
For Artos this dream has become a vision of hope. It has come from the sight of two boys, one British, one Saxon, beginning their day in mutual suspicion and hostility but ending it ‘sharing the same broth bowl and … picking bramble thorns out of each other's feet’.
And suddenly I knew, watching them—Ambrosius never knew it—that the longer we can hold off the Saxons … even at the cost of our heart's blood, the more time there will be for other boys to pick thorns out of each other's feet and learn the words for hearth and hound and honeycake in each other's tongue … Every year that we can hold the Saxons back may well mean that the darkness will engulf us the less completely in the end, that more of what we fight for will survive until the light comes again.
One may doubt the logic of the argument, but this sense of the continuity between past and present is what distinguishes the genuine historical novel from the exciting adventure story that is set in the past mainly for the opportunity of nostalgic empathy with the glories of ‘battles long ago’. In Knight's Fee, a story of Norman Britain, Rosemary Sutcliff brings clearly into focus her strong sense of the continuing relevance of the past, when the old shepherd, Lewin, shows Randal an axe-head he has found buried on the downs. As Randal holds it he ‘sees’ the man to whom it once belonged—whom readers of this author's other books will recognise as Drem, the Bronze Age hero of Warrior Scarlet.
He had an extraordinary sense of kinship with the unknown man who had first closed his fingers over that strange weapon, who had perhaps seen the wolves leaping about the lambing folds as he, Randal, had almost seen them for an instant tonight; an extraordinary feeling of oneness with Dean, of some living bond running back through the blue, living flint, making him part of other men and sheep and wolves, and they a part of him.
Randal's awareness of ‘oneness’ with the past was first awakened by Ancret, an old woman whose ancestors pre-dated both Normans and Saxons. She had told him:
‘We, who are an older people still, who were an old people when they raised the grave mound on Bramble Hill in the days when the world was young, we see the conquerors come and go again, and marry and mingle, but we know that all things pass, like a little wind through the bramble bushes.’
This crystallises in Randal's mind into an understanding that the real life of ordinary people can persist in spite of the surface fluctuations of successive invaders.
‘And all the time, the wind blows over,’ he thought. ‘Ancret's people, and the Saxons, and Harold dead at Hastings over yonder, and now the Normans: and all the while the wind blowing over the downs, just the same.’ Half asleep as he was, he was suddenly aware of the new life in the lambing pens, the constant watchful coming and going of the shepherd and dogs and lantern, as of something not just happening now, but reaching back, and forward and forward, into the very roots of things that were beyond time.
M. Sarah Smedman (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: Smedman, M. Sarah. "Dawn Wind and Knight's Fee: Two Medieval Novels by Rosemary Sutcliff." In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1985-1989, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 21-5. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993.
[In the following essay, Smedman compliments the resilience of Sutcliff's characters in Dawn Wind and Knight's Fee as well as the author's mastery of time, place, and humanism.]
In her essay "History Is People," Rosemary Sutcliff says that "the reading child is liable to absorb ideas from books which may remain with him for the rest of his life, and even play some part in determining the kind of person that he is going to become. I do try to put over to the child reading any book of mine some kind of ethic, a set of values beyond the colour-television-two-cars-in-the-garage variety" (Haviland 306). Though Dawn Wind and Knight's Fee are set at very different times, at opposite ends of medieval England, they convey similar values: bravery under duress, reliability, and loyalty to one's friends and one's principles.
Dawn Wind is set in sixth-century Britain at Aquae Sulis (Bath, as we know it). It covers twelve years in the life of Owain, who is, with the exception of the war hound Dog, the sole survivor of the battle at Aquae Sulis, the battle which killed his father and brother and severely wounded himself.
Unaware that the Saxons have destroyed his native land, Owain makes his way toward home, on the way collapsing on the doorstep of an elderly country couple, who nurse him back to health. Once well again, Owain is compelled to continue his quest to the burnt-out city of Vironconium, where he finds only one other living creature, a ragged waif named Regina. Planning to make their way together to Gaul, they start for the coast. When Regina falls ill, Owain carries her, eventually, into a Saxon settlement where he gives himself as a thrall in exchange for the nursing of Regina. A visitor to the village buys Owain for a piece of silver and takes him to Seals Island, repaying the boy's faithful service with trust and kindness. At first regarding the Saxons as enemies, Owain gradually feels the affinity between himself and them more strongly than his hatred. When Beornwulf, his master, is killed in battle, Owain, now freed, agrees to return to care for Beornwulf's family until the latter's hot-headed young son, Bryni, reaches fifteen. Then once again Owain agrees to extend his time for a year to save Lilla, one of Beornwulf's daughters, from marriage with a cruel, tyrannical older man, Vadir, a long-time enemy.
Throughout the novel good and evil are interlocked in physical and psychic battles. Good finally triumphs when Owen attempts to save his archenemy, Vadir, from being trampled by the great white horse, Teitri, at whose birthing both had assisted. Owain is gradually transformed from a boy driven only by the instinct for survival into a strong, noble young man who voluntarily postpones his own freedom to honor the request of a dying master. Owain's last act of mercy toward Vadir is his redemption: finally he is free to return to Regina.
Dawn Wind is so rich in language and symbol, in vivid creation of place that it is hardly justifiable to have to comment on it here so briefly. Perhaps as meaningful as any analysis of Sutcliff's power of language is the poetic response of one of my students to Dawn Wind : "If I were to think of one sound that best typifies this book," she wrote, "it would be that of a pulsing heart as the only sound in the world. That heart would beat, slow and steady, and be surrounded by silence in a world destroyed at the battle of Aquae Sulis. The Saxons have beaten the British, yet that one British heart continues to beat, and Owain crawls out of the rubble to become the protagonist who is symbolic of the British race. In his fight for survival amidst hunger and wounds and slavery and heartbreak, Owain becomes emblematic of the British spirit itself" (Rainey).
Like Owain, Randal, the protagonist of Knight's Fee, set in twelfth-century Britain, is also a child on his own, nine years old now, going on ten, and officially a dogboy:
His name was Randal, Randal the Bastard, Randal the Thief. His father was a Breton Man-at-Arms, and his mother a Saxon lady. She, having nothing to live for, had died when he was born; his father had been killed when he was four years old, in the constant warfare along the Welsh Marches, and neither among his father's people nor his mother's was there any place for Randal. The only person who had ever shown him any kindness was Lovel the Huntsman, who had taken him over from the time when the woman who sold cheap wine to the men-at-arms had thrown him out like an unwanted nestling because with his father dead there would be no more money for keeping him. Lovel had brought him up, or rather, allowed him to bring himself up in the kennels along with the hound puppies, and treated him as he treated all the rest of his charges, thrashing him mercilessly with the same long oxhide whip when he was wicked, purging him with buckthorn in the spring, and sitting up with him when he had the colic.
In the story's initial incident, Randal, watching the arrival of the new Lord of Arundel Castle from the gatehouse roof, drops a fig he is eating on the nose of the lord's black stallion and thereby changes his whole life. Saved from the Lord's beating by Herluin the Minstrel, who wins the child in a chess game, Randal is given over to Sir Everard d'Aquillon to be raised with his grandson Bevis. The two boys eventually become great friends as together they are trained as squires. The plan is that Bevis will be knighted and Randal will remain his squire. However, here, as so often, the plans of men "gang aft aglay."
Knight's Fee is not only an absorbing story but an accurate account of the processes and rituals of knighthood. Before Bevis dies of wounds in the Battle of Tenchebrai, which ended Norman resistance to the English for years to come, he knights Randal, who inherits the stead of his friend and benefactor. Knight's Fee, because of its detailed and vivid depiction of place, its historical accuracy, and its immediacy, is much more than a formulaic Horatio Alger story in medieval costume. It is a sublime story of kinship, brotherhood, and friendship among human beings.
Several qualities common to both Dawn Wind and Knight's Fee stand out. First, the bond between the young characters begins in an episode in which both parties exhibit a sensitivity to and appreciation of nature. The incipient love between Owain and Regina is cemented by a blue tit which "sprang upward, hung for a moment on vibrating wings that were like tiny fans of blue green mist against the low sunlight" (61). Similarly, delight moves both Randal and Bevis when, running the hounds, their attention is caught
by very beautiful little birds, and as they flittered from thistle head to thistle head, [the boys] saw the golden bars on their wings, and the patch of chestnut crimson on their foreheads. And then a gleam of sunlight woke under the apple trees—it was a grey, drifting day of broken lights and shadows—and suddenly they were feathered jewels.
The characters from both novels also understand the wisdom of silence in the presence of such natural beauty as birds, or the sea, or "one small white star [which] looked down at them through the charred beams and the bramble sprays, [and] which was somehow comforting" (Dawn Wind 82).
A second characteristic common to these novels is the close association of people—the cruel and wicked as well as the gentle and good—with animals, particularly dogs and horses. Scenes involving animals frequently anticipate and prefigure conflicts, even violent fights, among their owners, as the attack of the hounds upon the boar foreshadows the savage fight between Bryni and Vadir (Dawn Wind 257, 294).
Certain recurrent themes bind Sutcliff's novels together: the conflict between barbarism and humane civilization, between the forces of light and darkness; the capability of humans beings for sublime and loving self-sacrifice; and the recovery of mythic time, that sacred time when new beginnings are possible, through reenactment of mythic models and rituals.
All of Sutcliff's works attest to her mastery of language, not only, as already alluded to, in the particularizing of places so lovingly and unforgettably, but also in her talent for using the rhythms and figures of Old English in her recreation of the period's ethos. When Owain, for example, stands among the Saxon warriors welcoming St. Augustine to Kent, "it seemed to him that a glorious and shining thing was happening; he had a feeling of great wonder, and the shadows of the clouds over the marsh were the shadows of vast wings." But Owain's "winged moment" slips away, and he laughs ruefully. "The taste of one's own foolishness is just as sour [as the taste of sloes]. I thought this morning, just for a wingbeat of time, that—that something wonderful was happening. And all the while it was no more than a piece of statecraft being played out." Reminded by an elder that "even a piece of statecraft might hold your ‘something wonderful’ at its heart," Owain feels the "dawn wind stirring" (279, 289-90).
As real as Sutcliff's stories are, as immediate as she makes early British history, I as a reader do not participate in them as I do in most modern novels. I enter them in a different, a more reverent, way. And I come away from each awe-inspired, as if I too have witnessed a "glorious and shining thing" happening. Much of my response is due to the author's majestic use of language, which though it may occasionally turn purple, is often close to mystical. Sutcliff's novels are, for me, from start to finish novels of renewal; they depict what she explains in an afterword to Knight's Fee as the Old Faith of all Europe, which existed long before the Christian era but which coexisted with Christianity through the Middle Ages: "a God-King had to die every so often, and be born again in a new God-King, just as the year dies in the winter and is born again in the spring, and that only so could life go on" (240). In Sutcliff's novels, in the face of all odds, life does go on.
Haviland, Virginia, ed. Children and Literature: Views and Reviews. Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, 1973.
Rainey, Martha. "The Thematic Relationship of Character and Place in Rosemary Sutcliff's Historical Fiction." Unpublished paper for a graduate course in The Worlds of Juvenile Fiction. University of North Carolina—Charlotte, 1985.
Alethea Helbig (essay date 1993)
SOURCE: Helbig, Alethea. "Heroic Literature by Rosemary Sutcliff." In The Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association, 1985-1989, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 27-31. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993.
[In the following essay, Helbig hails Sutcliff's ability to vividly recreate history through her retellings of classic mythology, arguing that Sutcliff's "highly pictorial, euphonious, vigorous style produces a strong storytelling quality that captures the occasional mischief, the dramatic conflict, and, in particular, the deep tragedy of these old stories."]
Among Rosemary Sutcliff's books are several retellings of heroic literature from oral tradition. Although at least one of her recent versions of the Arthur stories has received commendation, they and Song for a Dark Queen, the starkly dramatic account of the ill-used and fiercely determined Queen Boadicea of the British Iceni, are variously classed as fiction rather than old story. Tristan and Iseult, in Sutcliff's hands a tenderly told love story, seems to me curiously disjointed and lacking in impact. More skillfully and memorably retold, since they aptly catch the tenor of the originals and the spirit of their times, are Beowulf and The Hound of Ulster. Their highly pictorial, euphonious, vigorous style produces a strong storytelling quality that captures the occasional mischief, the dramatic conflict, and, in particular, the deep tragedy of these old stories.
The first published of these, Beowulf, concentrates upon the three major episodes of the great Anglo-Saxon epic: how Beowulf slays Grendel, then Grendel's mother, and then, after ruling for fifty years as King of the Geats, gives his life in slaying the fierce fire dragon that ravages his land. Sutcliff early establishes the sense of an actual storytelling situation with a little old sea captain narrator whose tale to the assembled Geats in their great hall hints of terrible and magnificent deeds to come. High in atmosphere, this initial scene sets the serious and somber note that persists throughout the book:
And their Captain sat in the Guest Seat that faced the High Seat of the King, midway up the hall, and told the news of the coasts and islands and the northern seas.
He leaned forward in the great carved seat, a small man with his hands on his knees, and his long-sighted seaman's gaze coming and going about the smoky hall, and told, among lesser matters, how Hrothgar, the great warrior king of the Danish folk, had built for himself a mighty mead-hall where he and his household warriors might feast and make merry, and give a fitting welcome to any strangers and wayfarers who came among them.
"A great hall, a most fine hall!" said the Sea Captain, while the rest of his crew on the mead benches nodded and muttered their agreement. "Longer and loftier even than this in which my lord Hygelac has feasted us so royally tonight. And Hrothgar set up high on its gable end the gilded antlers of a stag, and called the place for that reason, Herorot the Hart. Aye, but he might have done better to have lived out his days in a shepherd's bothie; for small joy has the Danish King of his mead-hall." And he drank deep from the mead horn as it was handed to him, and shook his head, and waited to be asked why.
And we, like the listeners of yore, also wait to be told why.
Appeal to sight, as well as to ear, continues, in passages keen with descriptive language:
[Grendel] heard the laughter and the harp-song from the King's high hall, and it troubled him in his dark dreams, and he roused and came up out of the waste lands and snuffed about the porch.
And in action scenes:
Grendel prowled in, hating all men and all joy, and hungry for human life. So swift was his attack that no man heard an outcry; but when the dawn came, thirty of Hrothgar's best and noblest thanes were missing, and only the blood splashed on walls and floors, and the monster's footprints oozing red, remained to tell their fate.
The theme is struck: clearly this is no commonplace monster, no ordinary evil that Beowulf, valiant hero, goes to face.
One continues to sense the storytelling situation through the occasionally harsh, at other times gently melodious diction and the carefully patterned phrases that portray, repeat, ebb and flow like a voice set to the accompaniment of deeper harp string, eloquently employing alliteration and kenning-like language to catch the spirit and poetic grandeur of the original:
Then they set the four slow yoke of oxen straining up the steep slope to the headland, where the pyre stood waiting against the sky. They laid the body of Beowulf on the stacked brushwood and thrust in the torches, and presently all men far and wide saw the red fire on the Whale's Ness, and knew that Beowulf had gone to join his kindred.
All night long the fire burned, and when it sank at dawn they piled about the ashes the precious things of the dragon's hoard, and upreared the golden banner over all. Then they set themselves to raise the barrow as the old King had bidden them … on the tenth day the great howe of piled stones stood finished, notching the sky for all time on the uttermost height of the Whale's Ness, where the cliffs plunged sheer to the sea.
Then twelve chieftains of his bodyguard rode sunwise about it, singing the death song that the harpers had made for him. And when the song was sung, all men went away, and left Beowulf's barrow alone with the sea wind and the wheeling gulls and the distant ships that passed on the Sail-Road.
The story ends, as it began, on a brooding note.
Sutcliff herself speaks as poet, bard, teller of high and far off tales to begin The Hound of Ulster, another story rich in epic and tragic values, addressing the reader directly: "This is the story of Cuchulain the Champion of Ulster, the greatest of all the heroes of the Red Branch. Listen, now" (9). Setenta, son of a mortal maiden and Lugh, the god of the sun, earns his hero name of Cuchulain when he kills a monster guard dog with his bare hands while yet a boy. He performs thereafter valorous deeds against Ulster's foes, struggling against both men and magic, and still young, perishes nobly, overwhelmed by hordes of enemies while defending his people, a death whose poignancy is rivaled in heroic literature only by that of Roland of French story.
Pictures abound, sharp with color and other imagery, as Sutcliff pulls together to form a unified story the disparate narratives that revolve around the hero and his friends and foes. His bride-to-be, the beautiful, assertive, and self-assured Emer, daughter of the Wily Forgall, is
dark-haired almost as himself, and her skin white as mare's milk, and her eyes wide and proud and brilliant like the eyes of Fedelma, his favorite falcon. Her gown was green, dark as the leaves of the hill juniper, and balls of red gold hung at the ends of her long braids and swung a little as she moved among the warrior benches to keep the mead cups filled.
Figures rich in suggestive language adorn the description of Cuchulain himself as he rides to court her:
A small man—a boy—no, a man, dark and sad but best to look upon of all the men of Ireland. He wears a crimson cloak clasped at the shoulder with a brooch of gold, and it flies from him like a flame in the wind of his going, and on his back is a crimson shield with a silver rim worked over with golden figures of beasts.
This passage not only is vivid with descriptive detail that evokes the sense of a long-gone time and its nobility but also hints of the darkness that lies ahead for the hero.
Supernatural aspects lend to the story a dimension that is absent from the more realistic Beowulf. In battle, a characteristic frenzy seizes Cuchulain, which over the years becomes a
thing that all men knew and trembled at; and the way of it was this: from head to heel he quivered like a bullrush in a running stream, and the muscles of his neck stood out like the coils of a writhing serpent. One eye sank deep into his head, and the other thrust out, full of flames, and foam burst from his mouth like the fleece of a three-year-old ram and his heartbeat sounded like the roars of a lion as he rushes on his prey. A light blazed upon his forehead, and his hair grew tangled as the branches of a thorn bush. And from the crown of his head sprang a jet of dark blood that shot tree-high towards the sky and spread into a rolling murk that cast its shadow all about him.
Cuchulain slays his own only son, not knowing who the youth who challenges him is, for a particularly heart-rending episode, defeats a valiant woman warrior, Aifa, in one filled with much direct action and conflict, wins Emer in a humorous passage, also action-filled, while irony characterizes the scene of Bricrieu's Feast and sweet and sad romance that of Deirdre and the sons of Usna. With all this variety, the storytelling remains rich in the lilt and cadence we associate with old Ireland. Says Cathbad the Druid, his seer power come upon him,
The boy who takes up the spear and shield of manhood on this day will become the greatest and most renowned of all the warriors of Ireland, men will follow at his call to the world's end, and his enemies will shudder at the thunder of his chariot wheels, and the harpers shall sing of him while green Ireland yet rises above the sea; but his flowering-time shall be brief as that of the white bell-bine, opening in the morning and drooping before night. For he shall not live to count one grey hair at his temples….
The strong storytelling voice relieves the melodrama at the romantic, sorrowful, yet intensely heroic conclusion:
So Conall laid … [Emer and Cuchulain] in the same grave, and raised one pillar stone over them, and carved their names upon it in the Ogham script. And all Ulster wept for their loss: because of the story of Cuchulain the Hound of Ulster, there was no more. No more.
Sutcliff's muse, if sometimes fulsome, is appropriate for Cuchulain's tale.
Famed storyteller Ruth Sawyer said good storymaking should create pictures in the hearers' minds and by scenes and sounds carry the listeners back to yesteryear and give them the flavor and feel of the times and happenings that once were (Sawyer in a recording). If Sawyer is right, and that constitutes good storytelling, then Sutcliff's is good storytelling indeed, for that is precisely what she does in these books, and superbly so. She carries the listener and reader back to the times that once were.
Sawyer, Ruth. "Ruth Sawyer Comments about Storytelling." Ruth Sawyer, Storyteller. Weston, Conn.: Weston Woods, n.d.
Barbara L. Talcroft (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Talcroft, Barbara L. "The Themes in Celtic Settings." In Death of the Corn King: King and Goddess in Rosemary Sutcliff's Historical Fiction for Young Adults, pp. 34-57. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1995.
[In the following essay, Talcroft studies the source material—particularly the overlying themes of kings and goddesses—in Sutcliff's juvenile novels set within early Celtic history, including Warrior Scarlet and Sun Horse, Moon Horse, among others.]
In its historical setting, Warrior Scarlet, published in 1958, is the earliest of the Celtic novels, taking place in the ninth century B.C. when the first of the waves of Celtic peoples came to Britain. Although Sutcliff has made extensive use of myth and ritual in this book, it is mostly concerned with the making into a warrior of her handicapped protagonist Drem, and the initiation rites which follow. As she says in her Historical Note to Warrior Scarlet, "this story is not about Kings or heroes or battles."1 Consequently, the three kingship themes do not appear to any noticeable extent.
The one example is of the sacrificial king in his ancient role of the Corn King. The Little Dark People of the Downs remember the Corn King at harvest time:
One of the young men danced the dance of the Corn King until he fell twitching to the ground. ‘Once we killed the Corn King every year, that the next year's harvest might be good, but now there are not enough young men among the Dark People, and we kill him only once in every seven harvests,’ old Doli said to Drem.2
This clearly reflects the many beliefs and customs surrounding the killing of the corn spirit as a sacrifice for future harvests reported by Frazer in The Golden Bough.3 Although this evocation of the sacrificial king is peripheral to the action of Warrior Scarlet, its early presence shows Sutcliff's awareness of the theme, which she developed to its fullest extent in later books.
Sun Horse, Moon Horse
Next, in time of its setting, is Sun Horse, Moon Horse, published in 1977, although Antony Kamm reveals that it was written much earlier, shortly after The Mark of the Horse Lord, 4 which would place its writing in about 1966. This short novel is about the posssible origin of the White Horse of Uffington carved into the chalk of the Berkshire Downs. Historians have no real idea of how or when the horse was made, although Sutcliff mentions in her Author's Note to the book that it was probably about 100 B.C.5
The plot concerns a tribe of the Iceni, horse breeders and Goddess worshippers, who are defeated by a stronger tribe, the Attribates. Lubrin Dhu, son of the dead chieftain, is forced to take his father's place in dealing with the victors, even though in this matrilineal society, his sister Teleri's husband should assume the role of chief. But Lubrin is a talented artist, and so is able to make a bargain with the Attribates' chief to cut a giant horse into the chalk hillside as a totem and frontier marker. In return, Cradoc the chief will allow the few surviving Iceni to take some horses and set out for a new breeding ground. As Lubrin plots the figure of the horse and begins to carry out the work, he realizes that he will have to be sacrificed on the site of the sculpture in order to sanctify his creation. Cradoc agrees to the terms and, in the end, performs the ritual.
Sutcliff states that she got her idea for the story from T. C. Lethbridge's book, Witches (1962), in which he speculated that a branch of the Iceni, an Iron Age tribe who lived in East Anglia, may have lived in the Down Country until they were forced northward to Scotland by invaders from the south.6 The Attribates, or Atrebates, are known to have lived in southern Britain shortly before the Roman conquest and Sutcliff has used them as the restless warriors who conquer the Iceni. Despite their ferocity, they later sold out to the Romans under Claudius, and Roman bases were built on their lands.7
Although Sutcliff does not mention in her Author's Note Lethbridge's other book, Gogmagog: The Buried Gods (1957), it seems probable that she found some inspiration there. Lethbridge himself had uncovered a group of hillside figures at Wandlebury near Cambridge and, in his book, discusses the meanings, construction techniques, and possible artists of these giant effigies, including the Uffington horse.8
Horses were very important to both the Iceni and the Attribates, in trade and warfare and as symbols of power and prestige. Numerous coins have been found which picture horses quite similar to the hillside horse.9 The chalk horse itself may have been a cult object, perhaps of the Belgae, from the late Iron Age.10 There is also a tradition (probably false) that soldiers of King Alfred cut the horse to celebrate their victory at nearby Ashdown.11 Archaeologists have discovered a small bronze horse from Silchester which is remarkably like the Uffington horse, so Sutcliff's interpretation may have some validity. The idea is intriguing since, as one writer remarks, "It is difficult to conceive how the original shape could have been laid out with such accuracy."12
Epona—Celtic scholar Anne Ross believes that the White Horse is a symbol of Epona, the Celtic horse goddess.13 Epona was a powerful deity worshipped in Gaul as well as in Britain where she was a fertility goddess and patroness of horse breeding and of foals.14 In northern Ireland, a white mare as mate of the king was important in inauguration ceremonies as late as the twelfth century.15 In ancient Greece the barley goddess was worshipped as a white mare, Leucippe, while Demeter the barley mother, as a mare goddess, was probably the origin of Epona in Gaul.16
Appropriately, the first strong image in Sun Horse, Moon Horse occurs when Lubrin Dhu, as a small child, visits the mares of the tribe and watches them run:
Then out from the rest, one took the lead, mane streaming, tail streaming, white against the gathering storm, whiter than thorn blossom…. And then, from out of the heart of the piled clouds, came a licking tongue of lightning. For an instant the mare seemed made of white fire, and the fire of her burned into the inmost self of the Chieftain's youngest son.17
The white dream-mare is surely Epona.
Symbols of the Goddess—The tribe worships Epona, whom Sutcliff calls "the Lady of the Foals, the Great Mother,"18 as well as the moon, traditionally sacred to the Goddess. There are several examples of moon symbolism in the book. The priests sound a "Moon Call on the sacred ox-horns,"19 and Teleri's wedding is scheduled for the beginning of the waxing moon.20 Graves compared the new moon to the "white goddess of birth and growth,"21 while Frazer cited many instances of primitive peoples who regulated their ceremonies by the waxing or waning moon.22 Teleri herself wears a "high moon head-dress" with silver decorations and has moon designs painted in chalk on her forehead.23
The tribe keeps a grove of nine sacred apple trees where the priest goes to seek a vision from the Goddess in times of need. Sutcliff evokes the Goddess in the priest's description of her as the Mother who sits beneath the apple trees with her mares and foals grazing about her and eating apples from her lap.24 The number nine, or three times three, was sacred to the Celts with examples abounding in Welsh and Irish literature. Rees and Rees mention references to nine weapons, nine parts of the body, nine magic branches, nine beds of bronze, and the games of ninepins and nine-men's Morris, among others.25
The apple and its tree were associated with immortality all over Europe, apples being sacred to the love goddess. An ancient stone carving from Cirencester, for example, shows a mother goddess with three apples.26 As Graves explained, if an apple is cut into halves, each half reveals a five-pointed star representing the goddess in her five stations from birth to death. The fruit stands for the planet Venus "adored as the evening star on one side of the apple and as the morning star on the other half."27
Matrilineal descent—In addition, Sutcliff has made this a matrilineal society. Lubrin's mother is the representative of the Goddess as "Woman of the Clan" who gives her husband, Tigernann, the right to be chieftain. When Lubrin's sister Teleri is born, she will carry on the line one day by marrying a warrior who will lead the tribe.28 The priest Ishtoreth proclaims, when Teleri's future husband is chosen, that Dara shall be "lord of all your spears when the strength fails from the spear arm of Tigernann." The matrilineal descent is specifically implied, since Dara can be lord of the clan only in his position as husband to the Woman of the Clan.29
The Sacrificial King
Role of the king—The identification of king with god is apparent at the wedding feast when Tigernann appears in a crested mask and sacred arm rings that only the god-chief can wear.
Always at the greatest ceremonies it was so, the Chieftain ceasing to be a man to become something more, priest-chief, god-priest, god-chieftain, standing between his people and the Lords of Life and Death.30
Whether this tribe actually kills its chief or not, he is soon called upon to sacrifice himself when the dreaded Attribates attack. After the Iceni are defeated in battle, Lubrin sees the sickening evidence of his father's death: "The wheels of the chariot were juicy-red, and a severed human head hung by its own bloodstained hair knotted to the chariot bow. He looked at it, and saw that it was his father's."31 As Cradoc, chief of the Attribates, says to Lubrin, "always it is for the Chief to stand between his people and the gods. Between his people and Fate, we both know that, you and I."32
The severed head was an important cult object to the Celts. They frequently took the heads of enemies for display and sometimes cured them with smoke as aids to prophecy. Literature and art are full of these grisly trophies.33 Lubrin later sees his father's head in the new chief's hall, by this time cured by the smoke rising to the roof beams.34
Although in a matrilineal society Lubrin could not inherit the chieftainship of his conquered and depleted people, he is forced to take on the role of king since Dara, now married to Teleri, has been severely wounded and is unable to function until he recovers. Lubrin is therefore called upon to make the sacrifice that will eventually save the tribe.
Symbolism of the horse—Sutcliff has portrayed the Attribates as sun worshippers, so they see the horse as a Sun Horse. Their god is Lugh, the Sun Lord, who was believed to have introduced horses in battle. In Gaul, Apollo was identified with horses and was even given the Celtic name Atepomarus, or "great horseman"35 and, of course, there is the association of Apollo with the sun chariot. Lubrin, however, sees it as a Moon Horse sacred to Epona: "It will be their horse, the Sun Horse of the Attribates, yes. But it will be the Moon Horse also, the horse of our people, so that so long as the Downs rise above the forest, and men make their prayer to Epona the Mother of Foals, they will know that the Iceni were here."36
The sacrifice—After Lubrin has worked out the design and proportions of the horse and marked it out on the hillside, he comes to realize that the horse must be sanctified by a sacrifice, and he is the only one who can make it. He knows that it is the chief's right and duty to mediate between his people and the gods and to die if necessary.37 There is precedent for such a sacrifice among the Celts. According to Ross,
the lives of the pagan Celts … were hemmed in and embued with superstitious feelings and petty ritual observances, propitiatory rites, and evil-averting spells and practices. No bird could settle, or fly overhead, without some significance being attached to its movements; the flesh of certain animals could not be eaten on account of religious taboo; buildings may not be constructed without some sacrifice, animal or human, taking place, the remains being buried in the foundations.38
Whether a human sacrifice of dedication was always or even frequently done is hard to say,39 but Sutcliff makes it understood as a necessity. When Cradoc tells Lubrin that the priests have not asked for his life, Lubrin replies, "They know that the thing is for the chief-kind. They know that it is in the pattern between you and me; and between the people and the gods."40 The Iceni also accept the fact that the sacrifice must be made, although Dara, now recovered, offers to be the victim. But Lubrin accepts his fate as the maker of the horse. Epona herself has revealed to him that the great chalk horse will require his death to be truly numinous.41
The Iceni plan to leave for a new home after the feast of Lammas (August 1) which was the Celtic Lughnasad, sacred to Lugh, the sun god. Significantly, Lubrin's death takes place near the horse's head at high noon when the sun is at its peak of power. Although Lubrin is not a chief, Sutcliff skillfully evokes the image of a king about to be sacrificed. His body has been painted with red and yellow patterns, and he walks between two priests to meet Cradoc in his blood red ceremonial mantle. "The mare's arched neck was like a royal road, and Lubrin walked up it like a king going to his king-making."42 The last strong image is of the sun's flash on the descending blade of the polished stone ceremonial knife.43
The novel is short but very effective—especially in the added dimension of Lubrin not only as the king who is sacrificed for his people, but as an artist who must die to sanctify his work. The starkness of the ending shows that Sutcliff is not prepared to compromise in her use of the themes, even in a book which could be read by younger readers. She undoubtedly felt that the survival of the clan as Lubrin's resurrection offered a sufficiently hopeful note to offset the harshness of his death. The sacrifice theme is, of course, central to the story, but Sutcliff has also emphasized the role of the Goddess, personified when necessary by the Woman of the Clan, as the life-giving power who nourishes and legitimizes both artist and king even as she demands their deaths.
Song for a Dark Queen
Sutcliff's next novel in a primarily Celtic setting is Song for a Dark Queen, a fictional retelling of Boudica's revolt against the Romans in A.D. 60. This book is unusual for Sutcliff in that it has a woman as a leading character. Neil Philip has observed that "her female characters, though fiery, are generally little more than cyphers,"44 and Antony Kamm comments:
The language is simpler than usual and its effect is heightened by the way colours are picked out for special emphasis, but the historian appears to overshadow the novelist, and the author seems partially hamstrung by the need to introduce satisfactory motivation to fit the historical facts.45
Whether Sutcliff was successful or not in bringing her heroine to life, her effort, as we have seen, was rewarded in 1978 with the Other Award, bestowed by the Children's Rights Workshop of London "as an alternative children's book award for non-biased books of literary merit."46
The known historical facts are few, and Sutcliff has not violated them. In her memoir, Blue Remembered Hills, Sutcliff recalls her first encounter with Boadicea: "I had a smattering of child's-version history from Our Island Story [H. E. Marshall] in which Queen Boadicea rebelled against the Romans because they had beaten her and been rude to her daughters."47 According to Antonia Fraser in her Warrior Queens, "this work provided formative images of history for many British children in the first half of the twentieth century, including the author."48
As for other, more reliable sources, Sutcliff again mentions T. C. Lethbridge's books Witches and, this time, Gogmagog for the idea that the Iceni may have been a matriarchy, although in the book, their system seems to be matrilineal rather than strictly matriarchal, as Boudica is not the ruler while her husband lives. Sutcliff also credits Lewis Spence's Boadicea as a resource for details of the revolt, and A. R. Burn's Agricola and Roman Britain for the information that Gneus Julius Agricola, later to be a Roman governor of Britain, was there at the time as a young tribune on the staff of Suetonius Paulinus, the governor and general who fought the decisive battle against Boudica.49
It should be mentioned here that the spelling of the queen's name is controversial. "Boadicea" has been discarded by modern writers. Tacitus gives it as Boudica, which spelling Sutcliff has followed. The most recent writers (like Fraser, Graham Webster, and Ian Andrews) prefer "Boudica," seemingly more accurate according to a study of Celtic philology which derives the name from a word for "victory."50 In the rest of this discussion, Sutcliff's spelling will be used to refer to her character.
Spence's account of the revolt, published in 1937, is extremely partisan in that he was absolutely antagonistic to the Romans. He found no good whatsoever in their conduct or civilization. Speaking of the slaughter of Roman citizens at Camulodunum, Spence decreed, "It is, of course, impossible to sympathize with the doomed Romans. By their lust, cruelty and arrogance they had sown the wind and were now about to reap the whirlwind which all tyrants must sooner or later experience."51 He called them a "Mediterranean people" who existed in an "atmosphere of torture and lechery,"52 in contrast to the noble British Boadicea,
a personality informed by a great and natural dignity, tenacious of her position, proud of her lineage and affectionate in her family assoc- iations, … just and frank in her opinion; not very tolerant, perhaps, of weakness, loyal and modest [modest?] … a character, in short, made up of those elements which are familiar to us in British womanhood in all ages.53
Fortunately, Sutcliff did not find it necessary to follow Spence's lead in making her Boudica a British saint. She did, perhaps, take something from his emphasis on Boadicea's obsession with revenge,54 but not his glossing over of the ghastly sacrifice of captured Roman women, which he dismisses as fiction.55 From A. R. Burn's measured and sympathetic account of Agricola's participation in the events of the revolt,56 Sutcliff introduces the Roman point of view in interspersed fictional letters from Agricola to his mother, describing the events from his perspective as an assured, intelligent product of the Roman upper class.
The only near-contemporary descriptions of Boudica's revolt which are available to historians are those of Tacitus and of Dio Cassius. Tacitus was actually the son-in-law of Agricola, so he may have had access to firsthand information, although his accounts are very terse. He wrote a biography of his father-in-law in A.D. 97-98 and an Annals from about A.D. 112 to 120.57 Both accounts omit many details and leave one wishing that Tacitus had told more of what he may have learned from Agricola.
Dio Cassius was a historian born about a hundred years after the revolt. His work has survived only in "epitomes," selections meant to be declaimed or performed at fashionable dinner parties.58 Graham Webster believes that Dio "accepted his sources uncritically" and that the speeches attributed to both Boudica and the Roman general are figments of Dio's imagination.59 Archaeological finds have not contradicted the basic facts given by Tacitus and Dio, and have definitely confirmed the destruction by fire of three Romano-British cities—Camulodunum, Londinium, and Verulamium—at the appropriate time.60
The Historical Boudica
Sutcliff has taken the few available facts and has elaborated on them to write her novel of Boudica's life and death. Dio Cassius gives the only description of the queen, although scholars have no idea where he found it. He describes the historical Boudica as follows:
In stature she was very tall and grim in appearance, with a piercing gaze and a harsh voice. She had a mass of very fair hair which she grew down to her hips, and wore a great gold torque and a multi-coloured tunic folded round her, over which was a thick cloak fastened with a brooch.61
Fraser, in The Warrior Queens,62 and I. M. Stead, in Celtic Art,63 offer an alternative translation, "the tawniest hair," which is closer to Sutcliff's description of golden hair. The rest of Sutcliff's portrait follows Dio's quite closely:
She was tall; taller than many boys of her age; and held herself that day like a Queen; … Her mane of strong straight hair sprang from her head as though with a life of its own, yellow as autumn birch leaves.64
Sutcliff includes the "great gold torque" when she describes Boudica as wearing "her best gown of saffron wool, her hair braided and shining, the gold torque of the Royal Daughter circling her long neck."65 No doubt, the necklace was similar to the famous Snettisham gold torque found in an Iceni settlement in Norfolk in the late 1940s.66
Just as she did in Sun Horse, Moon Horse, Sutcliff has the Iceni (although these are in East Anglia) worship Epona. A sacrifice is made to her as "the Lady of the Horse Herds, the All Mother without whom there can be neither children to the tribe nor foals to the herds nor barley to the fields."67
Boudica as Goddess—As the royal daughter through whom the succession will pass, Boudica is closely identified with the Goddess. Fraser points out that the contemporaries of the real Boudica must have related her to their goddess as they "teemed after her."68 Celtic society was extremely religious and quite receptive to the leadership of women. Fraser believes that "Boudica's ability to summon up the character of priestess—or even goddess—on the eve of battle was to be an important factor where her war leadership was concerned."69 Sutcliff has clearly employed this concept in many places in the book. When her father the king is killed in battle, Boudica is acclaimed by the tribe and crowned with the moon headdress of the Goddess. She becomes not only the Queen but the representative of the Goddess on earth with the very life of the tribe in her keeping.70 After her humiliation and the rape of her daughters by the Romans, Boudica sees herself as the voice of the Goddess. Cadwan the harper describes the scene as Boudica listens to a voice only she can hear:
And when she spoke again, it was in a cool, crooning voice that stirred the hair on the back of my neck. "There shall be no harvesting in the fields of the Horse People, this year. There shall be no sowing of the seed corn…. This, says the All Mother, who is the Lady of the Corn as well as the Lady of the Foals."71
Cadwan notices that Boudica's eyes are different, that the queen he knows is no longer looking out of them, and he is afraid. He reflects the Celtic acceptance of the pervasiveness of the Goddess in all aspects of life as noted by Ross in The Pagan Celts,72 and the possibility that Queen and Goddess may be one when he speaks of the Great Mother "who gives all things in life and takes back all things in death…. She is in all living things, even in the Queen of the Iceni who wears her godhead upon earth."73
Sacrifice to the Goddess—One unpleasant aspect of the bloodthirsty tradition of Celtic warfare surfaces in the story of Boudica, both the real and the fictional queen. After the conquest and burning of Camulodunum by Boudica's army, a ritual or sacrificial killing of the surviving women of the town seems to have taken place. Tacitus says, "nor did the angry victors deny themselves any form of savage cruelty."74 Dio Cassius describes the method of killing, and it is indeed barbarous. Sutcliff obviously did not feel it would be appropriate to include these details for young readers. She does, however, include the killings and hints at the horror. Again, the identification with the Goddess is linked to Boudica's actions. Cadwan observes her the night before, dancing naked to the Goddess in a sacred grove by moonlight and knows that something savage will follow.75 Later, he laments:
I will not tell, I will not remember, how they died, those women. But after all was over, I saw their bodies hanging there, like dreadful white fruit hanging from the branches of the dark and ancient trees, and I knew what Boudica had promised to the Great Mother.76
Webster says that the atrocities took place after the burning of Londinium and reports that the goddess invoked had been called Andrasta, according to Dio.77 There seems to be some doubt about exactly who Andrasta might have been, although she was supposedly a goddess of victory. Fraser offers her opinion that the killings had a ritual significance,78 and Ross, in a note to Dudley and Webster's book, The Rebellion of Boudica, explains that the unknown goddess may be Andarta, a Gaulish deity of battle or victory. Ross comments that Celtic deities often appeared under different names while fulfilling the same function. She believes that Dio's account of the sacrificial killings is probably true. "There are various classical references to the fierce ritual practices of the Celts in Europe, and it is known that the Celts hung people up in trees and sacrificed them to their deities."79 It is very hard to make this palatable to a modern reader, but Sutcliff does engage our sympathies for Boudica somewhat by emphasizing the many injustices perpetrated by the Romans and the brutality of their unprovoked attack on Boudica and her daughters. To modern sensibilities, the ability to treat prisoners in such a barbaric way may seem like a psychological or moral flaw, and could thus put Boudica in the position of being a "maimed king" which, in turn, could justify the reprisals and revenge later taken by the Romans against the Iceni.
Although Boudica survives the last fatal battle, she returns to the Royal Dun and ends her life by taking poison. Sutcliff uses one last image to link the Queen with the Goddess. As Boudica goes to her death, we see in the twilight, "little white moon-moths fluttering star-pale among the branches."80 The Queen has sacrificed herself.
The Goddess and prophecy—Two other brief incidents in the story serve to reinforce the association of Boudica with the Goddess. One is the appearance of the hare on the field before the final battle. Graves, in The White Goddess, mentioned that the queen released a hare during the battle hoping that the Romans would strike at it and be deprived of their courage, since the hare was a sacred animal and killing it was forbidden for most of the year.81 Fraser says that Dio is the origin of this story, although his interpretation is that Boudica released the hare as a method of divination and it fortunately (but mistakenly) ran in a favorable direction.82 Sutcliff has the hare appear accidentally, running along the battle line and encouraging the tribesmen. Cadwan observes that the hare is an animal sacred not only to the Iceni but to all the Celtic tribes. At the omen, Boudica cries out, "The Mother is with us! All our gods are with us!"83 and urges her warriors to the attack.
The other incident is more sinister, but more correctly prophetic. After the burning of Camulodunum, Boudica believes the water of a stream is running with blood. Although Cadwan assures her it is only the red reflection of the sunset, Boudica insists she sees the Washer by the Ford washing bloodstained clothes.84 This refers to an ancient Celtic belief, often found in Welsh and Irish literature, that seeing a woman washing bloody linen before a battle foretells death. This ghostly woman is associated with the Goddess in her role as crone or prophetess.85
The Sacrificial King
In this novel, the king is not important, since the action of the story really begins with the death from illness of Boudica's consort, Prasutagus. She had conferred legitimacy on him as king, and his successor, who would be the husband of her elder daughter, Essylt, is killed, too, in the melee after the Roman outrage. Boudica is forced to take on the leadership herself; she does it willingly as the representative of the Goddess. When the Britons are finally defeated, the question of the succession is unimportant as the tribal area is absorbed into the Roman occupation.
The only example of the sacrificial-king theme occurs in the chapter called "The Corn Dancing." While the British war host is encamped before the final confrontation with the Roman army, they harvest whatever corn is left in the ravaged fields around them. The women prepare for a harvest festival of sorts and Cadwan comments on the custom of the Iceni when a living man was named the Corn King at harvest time and killed in a sheaf of grain. "But in these softer days it is most often only the shock of corn that is lauded and called King and then hacked to pieces by the women and ploughed back into next year's furrows."86
The Corn King on its turf throne is hacked and torn apart, scattering the grain in "a golden shower."87 When later, in the frenzy of the celebration, two of the young warriors show a lack of respect to the royal daughters, Boudica is quite prepared to reinstate the sacrifice in earnest with the young men as the victims. Fortunately, the men are saved at the last minute by the need to meet the Romans, but their sacrifice will still be required in the battle, since Boudica gives them the impossible task of bringing her the head of Suetonius Paulinus, the Roman general.88
The Goddess theme is central in this novel. Boudica as the Royal Woman first confers sovereignty on her husband, Prasutagus, and, after his death, not only takes on his role, but becomes the Goddess as well. As pointed out earlier, she can be seen as the maimed king, thus taking the leading parts in all three of the themes. This interpretation is consistent with the Celtic love of such strong queens as Mebdh of Irish legend and Cartimandua of British history.
Graves had some interesting things to say about the British affinity for queens and goddesses, believing that there is an inherent goddess-worshipping strain in the British psyche. He noted that Queen Elizabeth I was popularly regarded as a deity and referred to as a moon goddess, and that the "extraordinary hold that she gained on the affections of her subjects was largely due to this cult."89 Queen Anne and Queen Victoria both assumed the role of war goddess, inspiring their armies and becoming effective substitutes for a male thunder god. According to Graves, the British are always happier with a queen than with a king, whose main function, they believe, is to be the queen's consort. "Such national apprehensions or convictions or obsessions are the ultimate source of all religion, myth and poetry, and cannot be eradicated either by conquest or education."90 Clearly, Boudica is part of that myth.
The Mark of the Horse Lord
In The Mark of the Horse Lord, published in 1965, Sutcliff placed the action further into the Roman period, but still almost wholly within a Celtic society. The period is the second century A.D., some time between the building of the Antonine Wall, which was begun in A.D. 143, and its final abandonment about A.D. 180.91 According to Geoffrey Boumphrey, the kingdom of the Dalriads was founded in the third century A.D. He mentions its headquarters at Dunadd in Argyllshire with its "sombre pagan stones"92 which Sutcliff used as a setting. She preferred to believe evidence that there were earlier settlements of Gaelic Scotti in the Western Isles of Scotland, as she explained in her Historical Note.93
Sutcliff once commented on her perception of the Celts of the period, saying, "the Celts were at a very much earlier state of civilization. They were tribesmen and they worshipped much more primitive gods. They had much more faith in magic and ritual and in the dark sort of secret side of things than the Romans had."94
A critic in the Times Literary Supplement has pointed out the protagonist Phaedrus's affinity with the heroes Arthur, Cuchulainn, and Beowulf, and Sutcliff's preoccupation with "the leader whose divine right is to die for his people."95 Sutcliff, of course, had already retold the stories of those heroes in 1961 and 1963. Hilary Wright saw the book as related in theme to Mary Renault's Theseus stories, The King Must Die and The Bull from the Sea.96
Basic to the pattern of the story is the conflict between the Caledones with their matrilineal society and their worship of the goddess Cailleach, and the Dalriads with a patriarchal system and their worship of Lugh, the Sun Lord. Here Sutcliff has drawn on Lethbridge's Gogmagog, which presents a vivid picture of the Cailleach, an important deity in the west of Scotland, where, Lethbridge tells us, her people were the Caledones, or Kaledonioi.97 She was the black hag goddess of the dark side of the moon, the old woman who rides a horse and controls the winds, the seas, and the seasons. She was said to keep a beautiful maiden, possibly spring or the new moon, captive in a cave.98 Lethbridge also mentions the "wild tide rips of the Dorus Mhor and the whirlpool of Corryvreckan where the Cailleach was wont to wash her blanket,"99 clearly a variant of the Washer at the Ford legend. A related point is that her husband was said to be a sea god. Manannan was the Celtic sea god, the equivalent of Poseidon, who was always associated with horses.100 Rees and Rees add that the Cailleach was thought to be the creator of numerous mountains, lakes, and islands, and "cairns are said to be stones that have fallen from her apron."101 In ancient Celtic legend she had seven periods of youth, so that each of her husbands had "to pass from her to death through old age, and so that her grandchildren and great-grandchildren were peoples and races." She was sometimes represented as the wife of Lugh himself, "a model of kingship,"102 who, not so incidentally, was said to have been the first to use the horse in battle.103
An earlier historical parallel to the sacrifice of Phaedrus has been related by Peter Connolly. The Roman Longinus was a personal friend of the emperor Trajan as well as commander of the Roman garrison forces in Dacia. When he was captured by the Dacians, their king, Decebalus, held Longinus as a hostage to gain concessions from Trajan. Rather than hamper his friend the emperor's negotiations, Longinus, "with selfless courage," killed himself and left Trajan free to act.104 This decision is similar, in reverse, to Phaedrus's dilemma and sacrifice.
The three kingship themes are not just important in this book, they inspire the entire plot. Midir, a maimed king of a northern Horse People, is unable to assume his kingship, which has been usurped by a queen-goddess figure, Liadhan, who kills her king-consort every seven years. Midir's tribe, the sun-worshipping Dalriads, finds a suitable impersonator for the king in the person of the hero, Phaedrus, a former gladiator and slave. With his help, they take back the leadership of the tribe and crown Phaedrus sun king and Horse Lord, marrying him to Murna, daughter of the moon queen. Liadhan and her tribe, the goddess-worshipping Caledones, battle the Dalriads for supremacy until both peoples are spent. As Liadhan flees to the Romans for protection, the maimed king Midir makes his sacrifice and takes his vengeance by dragging Liadhan, the moon queen, to death with him. Phaedrus, now truly the sun king, sacrifices himself to save the Dalriads from being destroyed by the Romans. There is obviously much mythic material here.
Antony Kamm believes that The Mark of the Horse Lord is Sutcliff's finest work, commenting:
The struggle and differences of outlook between the Horse people and their neighbors, the Caledones, are staged against rites and dark mysteries, marvellously evoked and described. And in the last stark paragraph, which provides a totally unexpected ending, Phaedrus becomes what he really is, a tragic hero in the epic mould.105
The Cailleach. Many of the attributes of the Cailleach are reflected in the characters and events of The Mark of the Horse Lord. Queen Liadhan is obviously the Cailleach. She is variously compared to a "she-wolf in a famine winter,"106 a spider who devours her mates,107 and "corn that is heavy in the ear."108 Her daughter Murna, asked if she once believed her mother to be a goddess, replies, "I did not have to believe it. She was the Goddess-on-Earth."109 While Liadhan reigned, no man of the tribe, not even her consort, could be her equal.
Symbols of the Goddess—The Queen-Goddess was identified with the moon, wearing a tall silver moon headdress, carrying a branch made of bronze hung with nine silver apples, and wearing a blood-red gown,110 related to her role as the goddess of love and battle in the red phase of the moon. In Gogmagog, Lethbridge points out the connection between horses and the moon. The lucky horseshoe is a symbol of the moon, and so was the white horse. "Stories of ghosts of white horses still appear to cling to places where worship must once have taken place."111 This connection, of course, would be very important to a Horse People.
Two natural features in the story are also associated with the Cailleach. One is the whirlpool, Corryvreckan, mentioned before, and called by a tribesman in the book the "Old Woman Who Eats Ships." Sutcliff uses it to prefigure Phaedrus's fate when his companion says that a coracle can pass safely at slack water but when the tide turns, danger threatens, which is why the tribesmen say the Old Woman calls. "The sound of death is in her calling," Phaedrus replies.112 At the same time he recalls that an old woman who used to tell fortunes outside the circus once told him he would not die until he held out his own hands to death. His companion is startled, since he is surely aware of the Cailleach's association with prophecy.
The other symbol taken from nature is the Glen of the Black Goddess, where the last fighting takes place. It is described as steep, with bare rocky sides,113 no doubt formed of the rocks that spilled from the Cailleach's apron.
Related, too, is Sutcliff's use of Conory's half-tamed pet, the Scottish wildcat Shân, with her dark stripes and moon-green eyes. Ross says that the Celts feared and respected cats. Fierce wildcats, common at the time, were believed to have psychic power. To the Celts, "the cat symbolized dark supernatural powers, tyranny and death."114 The link with the Goddess is found in the story of the monster Cat Palug, a child of the Welsh sow goddess Cerridwen, who is a counterpart of the Cailleach. This cat was so fierce that it did great damage to the land and people of Anglesey.115 Conory's cat is also a fiery fighter who goes into battle with her master. Lethbridge comments that the Celtic wildcats were impossible to domesticate and that "of all the Cailleach's forest creatures, the wild cat gives the best representation of her murderous ferocity."116
Epona—As Liadhan is the Cailleach, so Murna represents Epona, the horse goddess in her younger, new-moon phase, whose mother was a mare and whose father was a god in human form. Lethbridge says that Epona is probably
the figure seen riding on numerous coins of the British Iron Age, together with a crescent moon symbol. She should be compared with the young girl imprisoned by the Cailleach in the cave on Ben Nevis who escaped and ran away with Diarmid, the young phase of the Gaelic Sun God.117
This is significant because Murna has indeed been kept a prisoner by her mother, as she reveals to Phaedrus when she tells him how much she feared her mother's love after watching her suck the life out of her two husbands. She explains: "I learned to go away small inside myself where she could not reach me. I made walls to keep her out … Only to be strong enough to keep her out—they had to keep me in."118 She does finally escape through her marriage to Phaedrus, who is of course the young Sun King. On the ritual hunt before the wedding, Murna rides a black mare and wears a mask of red mare's skin (Epona again), only to be captured by the king and brought triumphantly back to the Dun. Later, when she fights alongside Phaedrus and finally sleeps with him, she could be thought of as Graves's red goddess of love and battle.
King and Goddess—Liadhan's husbands are doomed, just as were the Cailleach's. Sutcliff must have chosen the number seven for their term as kings from the Cailleach's seven youths in which she outlived her husbands. Murna remembers her father as a warm, vital, golden man until Liadhan drained away his life just as she did with Logiore, the present king. The queen has already chosen another young man to be her mate and to kill the old king. One of the warriors explains that the king dies every seventh year in a fight to the death with the new candidate who, in his turn, will be killed in another seven years. Fortunately for Conory, the chosen man, the queen is overthrown and the Horse Lord once more made king of the Dalriads.
The marriage of Phaedrus and Murna, symbols of the sun and the moon, is analogous to the much desired wedding of the Sun and Moon, which from ancient times was thought to confer fertility on the land and the people. The Dalriads had done much the same thing when they first came to the Scottish coast and conquered the Epidii, an indigenous Goddess-worshipping people. Gault recalls that long ago, "our King mastered and mated with their Queen, as the Sun Lord masters and mates with the Mother who is both Earth and Moon; and we and the Epidii became, in some sort, one."119
When Murna becomes pregnant, Phaedrus sees that the old pattern is repeating itself. In spite of the change to a patrilineal system, "I killed the Old King and married the Royal Woman, and my son will draw his right to rule after me from his mother." Conory replies, "It is in my mind that maybe all the gods men worship blur into each other a little at the edges. It is in my mind also that there must be Earth Lady as well as Sun Lord, before the barley springs in the furrow."120
The Maimed King
The maimed king in this novel is of course Midir, who was blinded by Liadhan so he will be forever barred from the kingship. When Phaedrus first meets Midir, he sees only scarred hollows where Midir's eyes should have been and a puckered forehead where the mark of the Horse Lord had been slashed away. Phaedrus knows that "among the tribes no maimed or blind or crooked man could hold the kingship, lest his rule bring disaster on the People."121 Midir knows this, too. He later tells Phaedrus, "The Sacred King must always be young and strong, lest the harvest fail and the mares grow barren. It is maybe a fine thing for the Queen, but the needs of the harvest come first."122 Sutcliff made Midir curiously flawed in other ways, too. He is obsessed with vengeance, and the needs of the tribe gradually fade from his mind. As a boy, he had carelessly, without a thought for Murna, killed her pet otter, the only thing she had to love. "Too easy," he had said, "there was no sport in it."123 Phaedrus realizes that Midir had been morally maimed by the constant fear of Liadhan in which he lived. Perhaps as long as Midir lived, the Dalriads could never prosper.
The Sacrificial King
The sacrificial king appears again and again, like a theme with variations. In the ancient cave where Phaedrus first meets the tribal council, he sees traces of animals and birds drawn on the walls and the painting of a huge gaunt man with the head and branching antlers of a stag. This primitive figure is reminiscent of the horned shaman or god that appears in the Paleolithic cave of Trois Frères in France. The tribesmen know that the figure is "the Lord of Herds and the Hunting Trail, and something strange about his dying for the People whenever the Sacrifice was needed."124 At the time, Phaedrus hardly gives the horned god another thought, nor does he understand when Midir tells him of his father the King's death while boar hunting. Later, Phaedrus remembers
that giant horned figure on the back wall of the Cave of the Hunter, and Midir's voice saying of his father, "He went out to meet his boar. There had been much fighting and the Red Crests had burned off all the pasture that they could reach, and then a wet autumn and the cattle died. It was famine time, you see …"125
The ritual killing of Logiore, Liadhan's Old King, is planned for midwinter, a traditional time of sacrifice when the sun is at its weakest. Sutcliff builds the scene to a climax with the torchlight, the drugged king, the priests in their animal masks, and the hypnotic flute music. Of course, the Dalriads are planning to stop it with their revolt, but in the end Phaedrus, the new king, fights and kills Logiore, the old king, exactly as the age-old pattern has been woven.126 "They made their last desperate stand, while before the flamelit gateway Old King and New fought the ancient ritual fight that was ritual no longer."127
Other echoes of death and resurrection occur in the rituals surrounding the crowning of the new king, the Horse Lord. Phaedrus finds that he must sleep a drugged sleep in an ancient tomb chamber for three days and three nights, simulating death before "coming back to life" for his coronation. As his companions dress him in the regalia of the kingship, it crosses his mind that "he stood to be decked out for his King Making—like a sacrificial bull for the slaughter … and had a moment's insane desire to laugh."128 More distasteful to him is the necessity to kill a sacred white stallion as a sacrifice before he can be crowned. Sutcliff drew on a number of precedents for a horse sacrifice. Frazer has described the yearly October horse sacrifice in Rome;129 Davidson tells of the prevalence of horse sacrifices in Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden;130 and Miranda Green mentions horse skulls found in a votive pit at Newstead in Britain.131 The emphasis on resurrection is in the sentence, "Tomorrow there would be a new Lord of the Sacred Horse Herd."132
Symbols of king and god—Sutcliff included numerous examples of emblems of and allusions to the sun god Lugh and, therefore, to the king. The first gift given to Phaedrus by the Dalriads is a fine new cloak made of saffron wool. Frazer suggested an association of saffron, from the crocus, with "the golden flower of Zeus" used in the resurrection of a dead Lydian hero.133 Later, Phaedrus is described wearing "the beautiful cloak flung back now from his shoulders giving him a kind of tall, disreputable splendor like a corn-marigold,"134 a flower cut down with the harvest and identified with the sacrificed Corn King.
Phaedrus's red hair may also have a symbolic meaning. Graves has recorded that red was the color of death in Greece and Britain during the Bronze Age.135 In Egypt, Osiris as the corn spirit was annually represented at the harvest by a stranger "whose red hair made him a suitable representative of the ripe corn. This man … was slain on the harvest field and mourned by the reapers, who prayed at the same time that the corn-spirit might revive and return."136 It should be noted that Dionysus and Osiris, both corn kings, were also identified with the sun.137
Gold, the metal sacred to the sun,138 is prominent in Phaedrus's coronation regalia, which includes a golden circlet; an ancient necklace of gold, amber, and carnelian; a beautiful gold-trimmed dagger; and the huge crested headdress of the Horse Lord with swinging golden discs.
Later, when the fighting with the Caledones has become desperate, Phaedrus devises the plan that will save the Dalriads by setting the dry furze afire.139 The furze, with its golden blossoms, "typifies the young Sun at the Spring equinox; the time when furze fires are lighted on the hills."140 The association of fire with the sun is obvious.
Having been king only a short time, Phaedrus encounters a chief of the Old People, who also worship the Goddess, although they call her the Lady of the Forests. With his ancient magic, the chief almost makes Phaedrus see a golden plover's feather in a crust of barley cake. He is able to resist, but the chieftain uses the occasion to prophesy that when Phaedrus sees a golden plover's feather again, he will truly be the Horse Lord. The next time turns out to be the moment before his death, when a feather rests for an instant on the parapet beside his hand. Ross comments on the vital role birds have played in Celtic religion and imagery. She says that "water-birds of every kind are associated with the cult of the sun in its healing aspect,"141 thus relating the plover of the estuaries to Phaedrus, the sun king, as he stands on the parapet in the rising sun.
Birds are also associated with the Otherworld, where they are said to be "sweet-singing, pain-killing, conveyors of all delight. They are often portrayed … as belonging to some radiant goddess, a goddess of sexual powers, a being to be wooed and won by gods and heroes alike."142 One is reminded of the magic birds of Rhiannon, the Welsh aspect of Epona. Rees and Rees mention that the early Irish poets, who were also prophets, wore cloaks of bird feathers, "as do the shamans of Siberia when, through ritual and trance, they conduct their audiences on journeys to another world."143 Thus, from many strands relating to both king and Goddess, Sutcliff weaves the symbolism of the plover feather as one of the last images before Phaedrus kills himself.
The sacrifice—By the end of the story, Phaedrus has come to accept the inevitability of his death for his people. He has become a danger to them since his capture by the Romans. Their demand for a thousand warriors from the tribe in return for his release will make the depleted Dalriads completely vulnerable to their enemies. Although Midir has jumped to his death and taken Liadhan with him, this does not turn out to be the sacrifice that is needed. Phaedrus has only one night to think, but his choice is that of the true king. He realizes that, "growing into the kingship through this past year, Red Phaedrus the Gladiator had grown into this other thing, too, because without it, the kingship would not be complete."144
His tribesmen accept the inevitability of his choice. Looking down at them from the Roman rampart, Phaedrus sees in the upturned faces of the pitifully small band of warriors that they know and accept his right to choose death in order to save them from extinction. The golden feather drifts down; the sun, appropriately, rises dazzlingly above the hills, as Phaedrus, Sun King and Horse Lord, drives the heavy brooch pin between his ribs. "The taste of blood rushed into his mouth. He plunged forward into the sun dazzle and felt himself falling. He never felt the jagged stones in the ditch."145
Phaedrus has been the king from midwinter to the end of summer, almost the traditional time for the reign of the oak king Hercules, and he has died for his people at the height of his powers and of the sun's power for the year. The time may very well be Lughnasad, August 1, the great festival of Lugh of the Shining Spear. Phaedrus's immortality is assured in the life of his unborn son, who will be the future Horse Lord, child of both the sun and the moon.
Of the four novels examined in this chapter, it is in The Mark of the Horse Lord that Sutcliff made the fullest use of the kingship themes. All three are present, and each has its major and minor variations. She has set up a pattern of antithesis and synthesis on several levels. The reader sees the opposition in many pairs—sun and moon, male and female, Lugh and Cailleach, sky god and earth goddess, patrilineal succession and matrilineal succession, preordination and free will, ancient pattern and individual choice. The pull between opposing forces is personified by varying sets of characters: Liadhan and Midir, Liadhan and Logiore, Logiore and Phaedrus, Liadhan and Phaedrus, Murna and Phaedrus, Dalriads and Epidii, Dalriads and Caledones, Dalriads and Old People. The god has his set of symbols—king, stallion, furze, sun, fire, spears, gold, saffron cloak; while the Goddess has hers—queen, mare, moon, cat, whirlpool, bird feather, silver, blood-red gown. The synthesis is prefigured in the merger of the Epidii and the Dalriads, and achieved in the marriage and fertility of Phaedrus and Murna, a "mimetic observance by human beings of the Sacred Marriage of the god and goddess."146 When Phaedrus gains legitimacy for his kingship, he is both obligated and free to make his sacrifice. Sutcliff is contrasting the sacrifice of the agricultural god, based on submission to the eternal pattern of the earth and seasons, with the sacrifice of the herdsman-warrior king, based on the exercise of his own free will.
She demonstrated again her fidelity to the sacrifice theme even though some adults think that the ending of The Mark of the Horse Lord is too harsh for young readers. In her acceptance speech for the Phoenix Award, given for The Mark of the Horse Lord in 1985, she reflected:
I twisted and turned and tried all ways I could think of to find another way out; one that would save Red Phaedrus. But none of the endings I thought up rang true. They were all just manufactured happy endings that had really nothing to do with the story; and the tragic one, coming on its own accord, was the only one which belonged, which was organic to the story, completing the pattern which I had begun on the first page.147
The many mythic elements in The Mark of the Horse Lord are all part of Sutcliff's pattern. She was not writing a novel of modern times in which one must strain to find symbols and parallels. She was writing of people who believed in the presence of the gods and who lived the ritual in their daily lives. Or at least, in the novel, she was giving us her version of their lives from her deep conviction of the continuity of history and the persistence of belief and ritual over millennia. Her use of myth was not allegorical, but very nearly literal. She was not so much attempting to present myth as metaphor as to present myth as reality, and to imagine what effect a pervasive belief in that reality would have had on the actions and destinies of those who believed. This distinction is made by William Righter in Myth and Literature when he speaks of distinguishing between "the more traditional sense of the sacred … tale, linked in whatever fashion [in Sutcliff's case, by historical fiction] to ritual practices and the prehistory of a society, and the utterly modern sense of simply a significant story as expressive form."148 Sutcliff's use of the kingship themes reflects the intensity of her perception of history as the eternal death and resurrection of the people and the land.
1. Sutcliff, Warrior Scarlet (1958; Harmondsworth, Middx.: Puffin, 1984) 5.
2. Sutcliff, Warrior Scarlet 169.
3. Frazer, GB V, 1: 216-69.
4. Kamm 940.
5. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 7.
6. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 7.
7. Laing 10-12.
8. T. C. Lethbridge, Gogmagog: The Buried Gods (London: Routledge, 1957) chaps. 4, 5, 6.
9. Ian Andrews, Boudica against Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987) 7; Bruce Robinson and Tony Gregory, Celtic Fire and Roman Rule (North Walsham, Norfolk: Poppyland, 1987) 11-12; Graham Webster, Boudica (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978) 66.
11. L. DuGarde Peach, King Alfred the Great (Loughborough, Leics.: Ladybird, 1956) 12.
12. Isaacs and Monk 81.
13. Ross, Druids 122.
14. M. Green 93.
15. Graves 382; Ross, Druids 99.
16. Graves 66, 382.
17. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 18.
18. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 41.
19. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 19.
20. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 48.
21. Graves 69.
22. Frazer, GB IV, 2: 132-37.
23. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 50.
24. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 43.
25. Rees and Rees 192-93.
26. M. Green 86.
27. Graves 256.
28. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 19.
29. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 43.
30. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 49.
31. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 60-61.
32. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 62.
33. See M. Green 29-32 and Ross, The Pagan Celts (Totowa, NJ: Barnes and Noble) 51-52.
34. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 71.
35. M. Green 172.
36. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 78.
37. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 91.
38. Ross, Pagan Celts 132.
39. Martin Henig, Religion in Roman Britain (New York: St. Martin's, 1984) 23.
40. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 94.
41. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 96.
42. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 111.
43. Sutcliff, Sun Horse 112.
44. Philip 23.
45. Kamm 940.
46. Children's Book Council, Children's Book Awards and Prizes (New York: Children's Book Council, 1979) 158.
47. Sutcliff, Blue Remembered Hills 53.
48. Antonia Fraser, The Warrior Queens (New York: Knopf, 1989) 96.
49. Sutcliff, Song for a Dark Queen (London: Pelham, 1978) 175.
50. Donald R. Dudley and Graham Webster, The Rebellion of Boudica (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1962) 143.
51. Lewis Spence, Boadicea: Warrior Queen of the Britons (London: Robert Hale, 1937) 215.
52. Spence 229.
53. Spence 166.
54. Spence 189.
55. Spence 160.
56. Andrew Robert Burn, Agricola and Roman Britain (London: English Universities Press, 1953) 38-50.
57. H. Mattingly, trans., Tacitus on Britain and Germany (Baltimore: Penguin, 1969) 8.
58. S. Ireland, Roman Britain: A Source Book (New York: St. Martin's, 1986) 2; Webster 17.
59. Webster 16.
60. Dudley and Webster 101-4; Robinson and Gregory 31; Webster 19-20.
61. Ireland 64.
62. Fraser 62.
64. Sutcliff, Song 19.
65. Sutcliff, Song 24.
66. Andrews 5; Stead 34.
67. Sutcliff, Song 17.
68. Fraser 13.
69. Fraser 52.
70. Sutcliff, Song 27.
71. Sutcliff, Song 91.
72. Ross, Pagan 128.
73. Sutcliff, Song 92.
74. Mattingly 66.
75. Sutcliff, Song 111-12.
76. Sutcliff, Song 116.
77. Webster 94-95.
78. Fraser 87.
79. Dudley and Webster 152.
80. Sutcliff, Song 174.
81. Graves 402.
82. Fraser 71; Ireland 66.
83. Sutcliff, Song 153-54.
84. Sutcliff, Song 123.
85. Mac Cana 66, 86; Rees and Rees 326.
86. Sutcliff, Song 141.
87. Sutcliff, Song 143.
88. Sutcliff, Song 144.
89. Graves 404.
90. Graves 405-6.
91. Peter Clayton, ed., A Companion to Roman Britain (London: Dorset, 1985) 164.
92. Geoffrey Boumphrey, ed., Shell Guide to Britain (London: Ebury, 1969) 690.
93. Sutcliff, The Mark of the Horse Lord (New York: Walck, 1965) x.
94. Jones and Way 148.
95. "Search for Selfhood" 498.
96. Wright 97.
97. Lethbridge, Gogmagog 102.
98. Lethbridge, Gogmagog 73.
99. Lethbridge, Gogmagog 74.
100. Lethbridge, Gogmagog 162.
101. Rees and Rees 135.
102. Mac Cana 92.
103. Graves 300; Mac Cana 25.
105. Kamm 940.
106. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 42.
107. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 111.
108. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 59.
109. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 217.
110. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 111.
111. Lethbridge, Gogmagog 123.
112. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 97.
113. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 202.
114. Ross, Druids 113.
115. Ross, Druids 116.
116. Lethbridge, Witches 113.
117. Lethbridge, Witches 163-64.
118. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 219.
119. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 41.
120. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 229-30.
121. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 47.
122. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 59.
123. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 220.
124. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 80.
125. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 295-96.
126. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 111-23.
127. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 124.
128. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 145.
129. Frazer, GB V, 2: 42-43.
130. Davidson 78-79.
131. M. Green 172.
132. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 149.
133. Frazer, GB IV, 1: 186-87.
134. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 20.
135. Graves 166.
136. Frazer, GB V, 1: 261.
137. Graves 166.
138. Graves 283.
139. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 240-43.
140. Graves 119.
141. Ross, Pagan 129.
142. Ross, Pagan 130.
143. Rees and Rees 17.
144. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 296.
145. Sutcliff, Horse Lord 305.
146. John B. Vickery, ed., Myth and Literature: Contemporary Theory and Practice (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1966) 304.
148. William Righter, Myth and Literature (London: Routledge, 1975) 14.
THE EAGLE OF THE NINTH (1954)
Ruth Anne Thompson (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: Thompson, Ruth Anne. "The Eagle of the Ninth." In Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Volume 1, edited by Kirk H. Beetz and Suzanne Niemeyer, pp. 378-83. Washington, D.C.: Beacham Publishing, Inc., 1989.
[In the following essay, Thompson emphasizes the themes of choice, free-will, and exile in Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth.]
About the Author
Born in West Clanden, Surrey, England, on December 14, 1920, Rosemary Sutcliff was educated privately and traveled widely until she was ten, when her father retired from the navy and the family settled in Devonshire. When she was young, Sutcliff suffered from an ailment that left her permanently disabled. She lists her interests as painting, needle-work, dogs, and travel.
She published her first book, The Chronicles of Robin Hood, in 1950 and began a literary career characterized by a wide range of historical fiction for both adults and children. She set her next three works in the Renaissance era and then began the trilogy about Roman Britain for which she is best known: The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers. The Eagle of the Ninth won the Phoenix Award of the Children's Literature Association in 1985, and The Lantern Bearers won the Carnegie Medal for the outstanding children's book of 1959.
Critics most often praise Sutcliff for the accuracy and detail of her historical settings and actions. Careful renderings of dress, food, custom, and place recreate vivid worlds of times past. Many critics have commented on the tragic themes in her books; Sutcliff responded to this in her acceptance speech for the Phoenix Award: "I don't believe one should make allowance for young readers, feed them pap…. Children should be allowed the great themes, which they can receive and make use of better than most adults can."
The Eagle of the Ninth is both a mystery and the story of a young man whose growth to adulthood forces him to acknowledge painful truths about his background and his career. Marcus, a young centurion, begins his service in the Roman army of the second century with dreams of glorious military success and a triumphant return to the Etruscan farm that his family has owned for generations. Instead, he soon confronts feelings of alienation when his mother marries again and he is assigned to far-off Britain. Isolated from his family and country, Marcus must establish his own place and accept the realities of a sometimes harsh world.
The world of first-century Britain is depicted in vivid detail. The contrast between the peace and order of the Roman way of life and that of the Celts, who lived in more direct harmony with nature, is one of the major themes of the novel.
The Eagle of the Ninth takes place in Britain in A.D. 117. Marcus, the protagonist, incurs a wound in his first battle and is forced to resign from the army. His father's legion, the Ninth Hispanic, marched north to Scotland nine years before on a mission to quell an uprising among the Caledonian tribes beyond the Roman wall. The legion disappeared, and rumors about this mysterious disappearance have tarnished the legion's reputation. With his freed slave, a Briton named Esca, Marcus sets off on a quest to find out what has happened to the Ninth Legion. Disguised as a traveling oculist whose medical skill makes him welcome among the enemy Celtic tribes, he roams the countryside in search of the standard of the lost legion, a bronze eagle. The narrative describes the scenery in colorful and romantic terms that contrast the Romanized southern part of England with the wilder, more dramatic mountains and lochs of the land that is now known as Scotland.
Themes and Characters
The major characters of the novel are all exiles in some way. The lessons they learn from one another about freedom, self-acceptance, loyalty, and interdependence constitute the novel's themes. His mother's remarriage and the sale of his family's farm exile Marcus Flavius Aquila from his home in Italy, and then a leg wound forces him out of the army. His uncle offers him a home in Britain, but he too is an ex-legionary and an expatriate. Marcus's traveling companion, Esca, is a captured British warrior who has been enslaved. Marcus's neighbor Cottia is an orphan who resists her aunt's attempts to turn her into a Romanized Briton, and Guern, who seems to be a Briton, proves to be a former member of the ill-fated Ninth Hispanic.
These characters must come to terms with exile before they can enjoy full lives. The wolf cub that Esca finds and brings home to cheer the ailing Marcus symbolizes the lives of all these exiles. Named Cub, a generic term of no particular culture, the wolf receives love from his protectors but ultimately must be set free to determine his own fate. Marcus realizes that to make real choices one must be free, and so he frees Esca before they leave on their perilous quest.
Marcus's painful growth toward adulthood also contributes to his relationship with his uncle's slave, Sassticca. When he is ill and wounded, he cannot bear her fussing over him, because this reinforces his fears of being helpless and dependent. As he grows stronger and more independent, he treats Sassticca with kindness and forbearance and accepts her care with good grace.
Marcus's adventures teach him to accept the limitations that circumstances place in his way and to courageously confront his worst fears. Along the way, he all but recovers from the painful wound that has cut short his army career, and he wins the loyalty and friendship of Esca, his former slave. Marcus and Esca's friendship reflects the blending of two cultures and the strength that arises from such a union. Marcus leads the expedition to the dangerous land north of the Roman wall, while Esca's knowledge of the land and people enable the two to pursue the lost legion. On their flight from the shrine at The Place of Life with the recaptured eagle, they rely on each other and on the help of the last surviving legionary for the success of their mission.
Sutcliff portrays Marcus's experiences against a backdrop of the historical events of the Roman occupation of the British Isles. Details concerning everyday life in Roman Britain lend an authenticity to the narrative that is heightened by Sutcliff's insertion of Latin terms whose meanings are evident from the context. The descriptions of clothing, food, houses, military and religious customs, and medical practices provide fascinating insights into the world Marcus inhabits. The author accurately describes the second-century characters' religious beliefs as well. For example, when Marcus and Esca enter the shrine of the Painted People, the tangible pressure of the gods of darkness almost overcomes them until Marcus calls on his own god, Mithras, in the Name of Light.
Symbols reinforce the narrative's themes. When Marcus begins the journey to find the lost eagle, he makes an offering to Mithras of a little olive-wood bird. The sacrifice of this memento that he has carried for years symbolizes the loss of his youth as he takes on the task of vindicating his father's memory. The one object that Marcus has from his father—the flawed emerald ring that Tradui returns to Marcus after telling him about the Ninth Legion's demise—represents the need to accept flaws, weakness, and limitation. The emerald's flaw does not lessen the gem's value in Marcus's eyes, just as the wound in his leg does not prevent him from acting bravely in his quest. Accepting limitations is the mark of the mature person.
The effectiveness of The Eagle of the Ninth depends on the suspenseful plot as Marcus unravels a tale of weakness and betrayal, and on the realistic details of life in those times. Effective descriptions of towns, villages, mountains, lakes and streams, ancient fortifications, and sacred shrines provide a vivid canvas on which the drama of the novel unfolds. But the novel's greatest appeal springs from the development of the main character, who with the help of his uncle, his friends, and the wolf cub, learns that self-acceptance and free choice are the most important human qualities.
The cross-cultural focus of the novel makes it socially relevant today. Sutcliff depicts the clash of the Celtic and the Roman cultures with sensitivity and appreciation for the unique strengths of each. The loyalty that the Seal People have to their gods of darkness and the power that the Druids have over the British tribes mirror Marcus's devotion to his god, Mithras. These warlike gods lead their followers to death and violence in the name of defending their ways of life, but the novel does not glorify war. Scenes of violence are minimal, and honor, courage, and loyalty are stressed. On an individual basis, the characters confront others as human beings whom they can respect despite their differences. Marcus learns to tolerate cultural differences, and in the end, he abandons plans to return to Italy and chooses to make Britain his home.
DAWN WIND (1961)
Rosemary Weber (essay date June 1979)
SOURCE: Weber, Rosemary. "A Second Look: Dawn Wind." Horn Book Magazine 55, no. 3 (June 1979): 335-36.
[In the following essay, Weber underscores Sutcliff's strong historical detail and universalism in Dawn Wind.]
Rosemary Sutcliff's novels of Roman and Saxon Britain have been highly praised and commended by critics. Her ability to describe other times and cultures is unparalleled today by writers of historical fiction—English or American. Perhaps it is her genius at bringing time and place to life that often makes her characters seem less memorable than her scenes and themes. But one of her novels, set at the time of the great final Saxon conquest over the Britons at Aquae Sulis—today's Bath—provides an exception. Dawn Wind introduces the reader to Owain, a lone human survivor of the battle, and to Regina, an orphaned waif.
We first encounter Owain as he regains consciousness after having been wounded in battle and follow him as he finds the bodies of his brother and his father. He lovingly claims his father's emerald ring, which goes back to the days of the first Roman legions in Britain. Although the ring plays a small, albeit vital, part in the story, it serves to link Dawn Wind with several other stories by Sutcliff whose settings predate this novel.
As Owain leaves the battlefield, he is alarmed by a shadowy, slinking shape, which he discovers to be one of the young war hounds, another survivor of the massacre. Owain determines to go north with Dog to the British hosting place, Viroconium, hoping to join other Britons. But fever and weakness overtake him at a small hillside steading, and Priscilla and Priscus, a childless couple, nurse him back to health. While Owain is grateful for their care and their offer of a son's place at their hearth, he feels compelled to press on to Viroconium; but he finds it a deserted ruin with only one inhabitant, the girl Regina. Owain, Regina, and Dog band together for survival; and when Saxon cattle raiders make their refuge unsafe at the end of the winter, they flee toward the coast, hoping to take ship for Gaul.
Exposure to the spring storms during the journey makes Regina fall gravely ill. To ensure care for her, Owain sells himself as a slave to a Saxon farmer and follows his new master Beornwulf many miles south. Before leaving Regina, however, he carefully buries his father's ring. Owain proves himself trustworthy, and six years later he earns his freedom by rescuing Beornwulf from a shipwreck. He chooses to fight with the Saxon border kingdoms and the Britons of Wales against the West Saxon king whose army killed his father. When Beornwulf is mortally wounded, Owain promises to oversee his homestead for four more years, until his only son and heir is fifteen. At the end of the fourth year, Owain stays yet one year more, this time to protect one of Beornwulf's daughters from being forced into marriage.
Owain is present at Cantiisburg (Canterbury), where the High King has called a council, when Augustine and his fellow monks arrive to bring Christianity to Britain. Finally free of his obligations, he makes his way north to find Regina, of whom he has had no word for eleven years. He reaches the farm where he had left her, but she is gone. Gone also is his father's ring, and in its place he finds some strands of her black hair. Eventually, he finds her waiting for him in Viroconium. The two set out together for the hill farm of Priscilla and Priscus to make a new life. The young people have hope for the future and a feeling that the dawn wind, which precedes the dawn, is rising: The Saxons and the Britons have declared a truce, and Christianity—teaching love rather than hate—has a toe hold on British soil. The dark is doomed; the light must dawn.
While incident and accident abound, the story is fully centered upon Owain. Events are described from his point of view, and his feelings are explored in depth. It is impossible not to empathize with his helplessness in the face of Regina's illness, with his loneliness during his days as a Saxon thrall—especially after the death of Dog—and with his inability to betray those who trust him. The strength of the bond between Owain and Regina attests to an unspoken love that is deep and strong and self-sacrificing. The point of the story is not lost upon children. I still remember the sixth-grade boy who discussed it with me and asked, "Do you think he really would do all that, just for a girl?"
Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a book filled with ideals that are as enduring today as they were in Owain's time: loyalty, love, and hope. Reading it, we gain confidence in their eternality in the life of humankind.
DRAGON SLAYER (1961)
Joyce Elizabeth Potter (essay date fall 1985)
SOURCE: Potter, Joyce Elizabeth. "Eternal Relic: A Study of Setting in Rosemary Sutcliff's Dragon Slayer." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 10, no. 3 (fall 1985): 108-10.
[In the following essay, Potter discusses the symbolic merit and maritime settings of Sutcliff's retelling of the Beowulf legend in Dragon Slayer.]
A first reading of the Old English Beowulf may evoke for even world-worn and -weary scholars a glad world of childhood. There is the solitary, idealistic hero for whom the poem is named, always pure, always in action what he declares himself to be and what he appears to be, always honest and always consistent with himself. There are his monster enemies, as wondrous in their appearances and actions as they are totally evil, natural antagonists of the virtuous hero. There are the simple and true friendships born of shared deeds rather than psychological involvement. And, above all, there are vistas of sky and sea which wake in the heart a joy so exuberant that they can only be described as Frederic W. Moorman described them, as beyond the reaches of the aesthetic. They seem to merge with that natural piety which caused William Wordsworth to write in "Near Dover," while viewing a distant coastline: "Winds blow, and waters roll, / Strength to the brave."
But if a first reading of Beowulf leaves one close to a world of childhood, a second and third reading makes apparent the formidable difficulties facing any writer who would recreate the great old poem in modern English for children. Even after laying aside the problems of dealing directly with the Old English language—and formulaic expressions and the ornate kennings—these difficulties are awesome. There are the backtracking movements and inconsistencies of the plot, which at best please the mind drawn to enigmas and allusive analogies. There is the sense of fate, brooding over achievements of human history so strongly as to require a highly developed aesthetic sense to keep the realities of constructive history in view. And there is the fascinatingly subjective setting, a realm of dreams and memories kept alive by the Germanic scop and best received by one whose realized memories are long.
Facing these difficulties to render Beowulf into a volume of literary excellence for the young reader, a volume worthy of its source, are only a few later twentieth-century writers in English: Gladys Schmitt, in The Heroic Deeds of Beowulf; Dorothy Hosford, in By His Own Might; Robert Nye, in Beowulf: A New Telling; Ian Serraillier, in Beowulf the Warrior; and Rosemary Sutcliff, in Dragon Slayer, a novel first published simply as Beowulf. In carrying out their work, all these writers have clarified plot. All have stressed the grandeur of the hero Beowulf. And all have suppressed the heavy sense of brooding fate carried by their source.
Schmitt has rewoven the plot so as to give background of her own invention to both Beowulf and the monsters he fights, while she has omitted the dragon-fight episode, the mortal battle of Beowulf's old age. Hosford has produced her work as an educator's introduction to the Old English poem, having as her goal and as her achievement a tale told without falsification and in a stately style. Robert Nye has turned Beowulf from a tragedy into a comedy, extrapolating its noble ethics and leaving behind its evocative nature imagery. Only Ian Serraillier and Rosemary Sutcliff have aimed to go far into the poem's depths, to recreate its imagery (or a sensitive simulacrum of its imagery) at its richest. Serraillier, keeping the dream-like setting of the original, with its fragmentability and its various spacial nexuses, has created a work of great artistic merit, but one that embodies no structural design markedly different from that of its source. His work is at best a close, free, poetic translation of the original, opening to child readers partly through the illustrations of Bill Pesce. Only Rosemary Sutcliff has a version of the Old English Beowulf which has a structural design of metaphoric and symbolic force both aesthetically fine and totally original.
The design, brilliantly taken directly from nature, is a scenic backdrop for action sketched from the actual geographical locale to which the Old English Beowulf alludes: the northeastern tip of Denmark and the southern tip of Sweden. From the often buried images in the Old English recalling these lands—the narrow sea passages ("steap stanhiþo"), the endless plain expanses ("wlitebeorhtne wang"), the cliffs ("side sþnþssas"), the encroaching shadows ("scaduhelma gesceapu")—Sutcliff has turned directly to these lands themselves. Here she has found the setting of her work. What was in the memory of the old scrops telling the long-ago stories has become a point of reference to actual land.
With the lay of these lands themselves has come readymade to Sutcliff's hand a symbolism well suited to her purposes, a symbolism which is ideal at stressing selected elements of the Old English work without falsifying the whole. Viewed objectively as a land surveyor would view them, the lands have one spacial nexus, rather than the numerous nexuses permissible to the scop or the scops recollecting them in dreams and memories. And viewed by such a surveyor, their heights and depths have clear, unvarying spacial positions, while their surrounding seas are visible only on their surfaces. The depths of the seas, all hidden, are unknowable and immeasurable.
Perceiving in this view of landscape a symbolic metaphor, Rosemary Sutcliff has cast the dramatic events of Dragon Slayer so as to sort out spacial heights from spacial depths. She has linked victorious, joyous, and especially anticipatory times to spacial heights; times of lonely and dire struggle to lower areas near sea level; and times of transient encounters or of annihilation to the sea itself. She suppresses interest in deep sea scenes, radically departing from the original Old Engish Beowulf.
Dragon Slayer begins and ends with scenes cast upon heights: scenes of times victorious, joyous, anticipatory. The first two major settings are the court of Geatland, home of hero Beowulf, and the court of Daneland, home of King Hrothgar's people, who are in need of deliverance from the monsters Grendel and Grendel's Dam. These scenes are carefully paralleled to each other, and move rapidly the one into the other. The last scene of the book, far removed in the flow of action, is Beowulf's funeral mound, raised like a lighthouse on a high-jutting ness visible far out at sea.
In the first two scenes a sense of joy and expectation reigns. It is springtime on the earth, and the manhood of Beowulf is in its first strength. There are oaths taken for noble exploits, a shared sense of brotherhood, shining firelight, mead drinking, and glowing jewels. Each of these scenes opens in springtime, with a noble visitor arriving on land from a sea voyage. A weary sea captain with salt in his hair and with news of the Danish court has come to the first scene, where with his stories he inspires Beowulf's determination to save the Danes from the monster Grendel. To the second scene, to which the novel immediately moves, Beowulf comes, bringing hope of a new peace and security. He and his men climb "up" and "up" (21, 24) to reach the Danish court, even as they have been assured that they will be looked for back home from the "clifftops" by the Geatish court (15). The Geatish passage over the Baltic sea is totally eclipsed between the high court scenes, so that at the end of Chapter I, Beowulf and his warrior band are last seen determining to go to the Danish court, while in Chapter II, they are first seen looming in sight of the Danish coastguard, himself upon a height. Although Grendel is an outside threat in both court scenes, he is viewed courageously and overcome relatively rapidly; in the first scene, he is overcome morally, and in the second scene, he is overcome physically.
No other new scene in Dragon Slayer is pitched upon a comparable height except the last one, that of Beowulf's funeral and barrow. As the funeral procession commences, four yoke of oxen carrying Beowulf's body on a bier come "straining up the steep slope to the headland, where the pyre" stands "waiting against the sky" (107). When the body and the bier are given to the flames, these are visible to "all men far and wide" (107). And when a barrow is raised on the ashes of the pyre, it is built "high" for "love" (107). It stands at last a "great howe of piled stones … notching the sky for all time on the uttermost height of the Whale's Ness, where the cliffs" plunge "sheer to the sea" (107-108). Within this barrow, known to those who hear Beowulf's story, are gleaming "precious things" and a "golden banner" (107). So raised, decked out, and visible to the "distant ships" (108) on the sea, Beowulf's funeral mound, like the earlier royal courts, is associable with future expectations, wealth, beauty, and brotherhood. It can function as a sign of hope, a signal that the heights of civilized achievements are attainable and habitable.
Between the scenes set upon heights at the outset and close of Dragon Slayer are the scenes nearer sea level or at sea level. Two major scenes on lower land are that in Daneland where Beowulf fights with the mother of Grendel, the scene of the troll mere shortly after he has killed the monster Grendel, and that back home in Geatland, fifty years later, in which Beowulf fights with a fire-breathing dragon, overcoming the dragon but being himself mortally wounded in the struggle. Taking place in a direct sequence, although far removed in chronicler time, these two scenes have like images and like dramatic situations, even as they have comparable heights above sea level. Both are described with the word "cave" (90). In both Beowulf fights virtually alone, with his warrior band in the far background. In both, he is enclosed by the elements of nature, first by an inlet space above the tide line with a "clifftop far above" (66) and then by a stretch of burnt plain "under a gigantic rock tumble" (96). In both scenes, nature makes itself felt as a comforter, with beautiful sunlight touching white sands outside the hideous troll mere in the first scene, and with a cool wind from the sea fanning Beowulf's face in the second.
In these lower-land scenes, Beowulf lives out a resolution made formerly, fighting with skilled maneuvers, with high morale, and with a sense of style. He well appreciates the necessity of his fighting alone and the fittingness of his borrowed sword and specially made shield. He is a professional who has come into his own.
Moving from these scenes near sea level to search within the seas themselves, a reader of Dragon Slayer encounters Rosemary Sutcliff's structural design in its most innovative aspect. In Dragon Slayer, scenes upon or directly within the seas, full of so much curious life in the Old English Beowulf, are largely unwritten. Not only has the fight with Grendel's Dam been moved from the floor of the sea to a coastline cave, but the romance of the sea has been changed. Sensuous appeals and gifts of the sea have been transposed from association with depths to association with relative heights. The salt spray smell on some- one's body, the sound of the surf, excavated jewels, fish foods and products, that cooling breeze which fanned the dying Beowulf's face—these gifts of the sea carry its romance inland.
When the depths of the sea are entered, they are associable with annihilation, nothingness, and unformed life. Beowulf's skillful fight, which takes place in the Old English with a sea metador on the sea floor, becomes in Dragon Slayer a boat upset and an accidental drop into cold, suffocating waters, an upset caused by a walrus (33). Beowulf's passage homeward from Daneland to Geatland, unlike his passage from Geatland to Daneland, is allowed to stand as it does in the original; but it occupies little more than a sentence of description and takes its life more from a description of air than water. The crying of gulls and sail-filling wind speed the warriors homeward (81). As a phenomenon apart from land, the sea is without intelligent life and separate vitality. When the carcass of the dragon is thrown into such a sea, he and the evil for which he stands are lost to the imagination in a manner found by Sutcliff alone. Although the statement is made that national ruin will follow Beowulf's death, a sense of ruin is minimized by the background land symbolism of the novel. This symbolism, starred by Beowulf's high barrow, is all the while feeding a sense of hope and aspiration.
Throughout Dragon Slayer, figures of thought emerge to hone the basic symbolism. Figures conveying both humor and beauty are tied to the raised land scenes. The band of Geats climbing up to the Danish court have to move in single file, and from a distance look like one silver snake (21). After their pathway enters a paved road nearer the palace, their armor sounds on them "as the feathers of wild swans sound in flight" (24). Elsewhere, the wind hums against their mailed shoulders (21), Beowulf fondly caresses the dragon prow of their ship (21), and the Geatish king plays with his little son's ears as if they were those of a favorite hound (9). Humor disappears, but lyrical beauty remains, in the context of lower land descriptions. The sword blade which kills Grendel's Dam comes down "in a flashing swoop of fire" (70), Beowulf's peacefully managed country rests in the hollow of a great hand (85), and Beowulf on the dragon's plain raises his head to sing as "the wild swans are said to do" (92). When water has lyrical manifestations, it is in connection with land: blue dusk "thickened" in the spring air of the first court scene (9); and after Grendel has been overcome, the morning light comes "washing" over the moors (43).
Simultaneously with the symbolic use of an actual geographical locale runs phrasing which gives the land concrete life. Sutcliff communicates not only the majesty of a far vista, but a bodily experience with land. There is Beowulf's arrival on the coast of Daneland via a fjord between two steep headland mounds and at a "low shelving beach" (18); his passage through an agricultural settlement featuring pigs, bees, apple trees, and heather (24); his banqueting on "steaming boar's flesh and eel pie" (30); shining jewels of "red coral and yellow Baltic amber" (48); Beowulf's return from the troll mere by the "outermost edges of … weed-slippery rocks" (72); his mooring back home at ebb tide "far up the shelving strand" (82); the repeated migration of the wild geese and return of the birch buds (85); Beowulf's fight at Whale's Ness on "ground … tumbled and broken up into low cliffs and rocky outcrops" (91); and Beowulf's final sleep upon Whale's Ness with the "blunt turf slope" and head thrust "out to sea" (91).
In using for Dragon Slayer a geographical setting discovered beyond its existence in poetry, and in shaping this setting artistically, Rosemary Sutcliff has entered for children a realm of childhood experience buried in the Old English Beowulf. Although her source is a work of forbidding complexity, she has perceived within it a single, unifying metaphor: an image coloring emotionally dramatic events and moral conditions. And while her source seemingly deals with the long ago, she has fathomed its deepest life in an eternal present.
With what primordial memory she has grasped the most ancient materials of her source, one can never know. Upon what intimation of craggy seascape and ascending cliff her vision of Beowulf has opened must remain hidden even from speculation. And with what forebodings for her young readers she has turned from the monster-ridden waters Beowulf knew, one possibility vies with another. One can only know that she has achieved in Dragon Slayer a bardic simplicity in the creation of her setting, and that with that setting her work assumes its place in the established canon of children's fiction. There her work stands with books long rich in mythic mountains, rich in far-away islands, and rich above all in stories dominated by a single, bold image. There the high seats of Zeus, Odin, and Jehovah associate a mighty leader with spacial transcendence. There a book recounting Crusoe's solitary years proves once for all that the far-away land of dreams is a geographical reality. And there, in book after book, and especially in those known even before the printed page, the simplest im- ages take on dynamic life through the magic of repetition. There, too, as in Dragon Slayer, images geographical and non-geographical return again, after many metamorphoses, to the simplicity of their beginnings. There appear not only Mother Goose's A, animals in threes, and picture-book farmlands stable under a cycle of seasons, but also actual distant lands projected through one dominant setting: Krakow with the trumpeter's tower, Heidi's Swiss Alps, Johnny Tremain's Boston, and Lina's Shora with the wheel on the school—all lands with symbolic heights. So when children familiar with children's literature come to Dragon Slayer, its modes of expression are familiar: familiar in religious symbolism of heights, familiar in images of land far out at sea, and familiar in books wherein a simple, dramatic backdrop, however allusive and variegated, remains the touchstone of a basic, stable idea.
Rosemary Sutcliff has not only divined the bardic memories in her source, but has known their present appropriateness—their affinities for established reading traditions—in the house of the child. Over what might have been an abyss of darkness between an ancient, rich culture and children relegated to the society of today, she has passed carrying a light. In that bygone time she has discovered, as did Laura Ingalls Wilder in her dreams of her old home, the eternal past which can never be another time.
Brodeur, Arthur. The Art of Beowulf. Los Angeles: U of California, 1959.
Calder, Daniel. "Symbolic Setting in Old English Poetry." Diss. Indiana U, 1969.
Clemoes, Peter. "Action in Beowulf and Our Perception of It." Old English Poetry. Ed. Daniel Calder. Los Angeles: U of California, 1977. 47-168.
Gulley, Ervene F. "The Concept of Nature in Beowulf," Thoth Fall 1970: 16-30.
Hosford, Dorothy. By His Own Might. Ill. Laszlo Matulay. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1947.
Klaeber, Francis, ed. Beowulf. Boston: D. C. Heath and Company, 1950.
Lanier, Sidney. "Beowulf and Midsummer Night's Dream." Shakespeare and His Forerunners. 2 vols. New York: AMS Press, 1966. 1: 41-73.
Moorman, Frederic W. The Interpretation of Nature in English Poetry from Beowulf to Shakespeare. Strasbourg: Karl Trübner, 1905.
Nye, Robert. Beowulf: A New Telling. New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1968.
Pons, Emile. Le Thème et le Sentiment de la Nature dans la Poésie Anglo-Saxonne. Strasbourg: U of Strasbourg, 1925.
Schmitt, Gladys. The Heroic Deeds of Beowulf. Ill. Walter Ferro. New York: Random House, 1962.
Serraillier, Ian. Beowulf the Warrior. Ill. Bill Pesce. New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1968.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. Beowulf. Ill. Charles Keeping. London: Bodley Head, 1961.
———. Dragon Slayer. Ill. Charles Keeping. New York: Puffin-Penguin Books, 1966.
Trapp, J. B. "Beowulf." Medieval English Literature. Vol. 1 of The Oxford Anthology of English Literature. 6 vols. New York: The Oxford U Press, 1973. 1: 20-27.
THE SHINING COMPANY (1990)
Joan S. Nist (review date March 1994)
SOURCE: Nist, Joan S. Review of The Shining Company, by Rosemary Sutcliff. English Journal 83, no. 3 (March 1994): 93.
The Shining Company is set in 600 A.D., inspired by the oldest surviving Welsh poem, The Goddin, an elegy for three-hundred warriors who died seeking to repel Saxon invaders. Through her fictional hero Prosper, who is seventeen when the climactic battle occurs, Sutcliff makes vivid the background of the epic tragedy. Characters range from the fictional Conn, Prosper's slave who becomes his friend, to the historical Aneirin, the Gododdin bard who created the poem. There is a pronunciation guide for the Celtic names. Sutcliff, England's premier historical novelist and a recipient of the Carnegie Medal, died last year.
THE WANDERINGS OF ODYSSEUS: THE STORY OF THE ODYSSEY (1996)
Mary M. Burns (review date May-June 1996)
SOURCE: Burns, Mary M. Review of The Wanderings of Odysseus: The Story of the Odyssey, by Rosemary Sutcliff, illustrated by Alan Lee. Horn Book Magazine 72, no. 3 (May-June 1996): 352-53.
Poetic without being self-conscious, cadenced without seeming artificial, [The Wanderings of Odysseus: The Story of The Odyssey, ] this prose retelling of Homer's great work retains the epic grandeur of the original yet addresses the comprehension of contemporary listeners. The brief prologue refers to events recounted in the Iliad and sets the scene for Odysseus's many adventures "on the long sea-road back to Ithaca." Though the stories are virtually as old as memory, it is unlikely that they have ever been better narrated for young audiences. Whether he is outwitting the Cyclops, overcoming the enchantments of Circe, or venturing into the Land of the Dead, each episode reveals different facets of Odysseus's character. His ultimate triumph over the false suitors for his wife's hand and his reunion with her are both dignified and romantic. Sutcliff's retelling is restrained-in the tradition of Greek art; the drama is inherent in her user of imagery, but she appeals to the mind, not merely to the senses. This same quality underlies Alan Lee's spectacular watercolor illustrations. Motifs from Greek art—particularly the draping of the figures—are incorporated into his personal vision for the Odyssey, which is, after all, a universal experience. A map and brief pronunciation guide are appended to this handsome volume.
SWORD SONG (1998)
Barbara Scotto (review date September 1998)
SOURCE: Scotto, Barbara. Review of Sword Song, by Rosemary Sutcliff. School Library Journal 44, no. 9 (September 1998): 210.
Gr. 7 Up—Exiled from his home for five years, 16-year-old Bjarni Sigurdson is forced to support himself by becoming a mercenary [in Sword Song ]. Although he is young and untried, he sells his sword service first to Onund Treefoot and later to Thorstein the Red, Norse chieftains who have settled in the islands west of Scotland. With his black dog Hugin in tow, the young man learns the ways of the sea and of warfare as he follows these men in battle and in peace. After five years, he decides to return home, but is cast ashore during a violent storm for one final adventure. The action-filled plot develops coherently and is less episodic than those of many journey tales. Bjarni is an appealing, well-rounded character whose growth and development keep the story focused. His early experiences are those of an adolescent, as he chases after Onund's enemies. Thorstein is involved in more serious matters, making treaties and establishing settlements, and Bjarni, too, becomes more reflective, considering his behavior and his future plans. Sutcliff wrote historical fiction as if she lived it, and this book is no exception. Particularly interesting is her portrayal of the coexistence of the old religion of the Norsemen and that of the White Christ. Although the author did not complete the final draft before her death, this is a well-crafted story that will appeal to sophisticated readers. In places the language is slightly less polished than usual, and Bjarni's final adventure is not as well integrated into the plot as the earlier ones, but still, this is vintage Sutcliff.
Ann A. Flowers (review date November-December 1998)
SOURCE: Flowers, Ann A. Review of Sword Song, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Horn Book Magazine 74, no. 6 (November-December 1998): 741.
Admirers of Rosemary Sutcliff's works will rejoice at the posthumous publication of [Sword Song, ] a historical novel about a young Viking warrior. Bjarni Sigurdson is barely sixteen when he is banished from his settlement on the west coast of Scotland for accidentally killing a man. So he sets out to make a life for himself as a swordsman. His luck at first is hard; all his money is stolen and he is humiliatingly denied work as a member of the King's bodyguard in Dublin. But he comes across a stray dog whom he adopts, and finds his place as hired sword to the Viking seafarer Onund Treefoot, who becomes his hero. Both lucky and sufficiently skillful as a swordsman and seaman to survive, he works for various masters, good and bad, over the five years of his exile. His final adventure is saving a young woman, Angharad, from her greedy and vicious cousin. When, after five years, Bjarni returns home, it's on horseback, accompanied by his woman and his hound, bearing two fine swords, and with a "fine tale to tell in the Hearth Hall after supper." Sutcliff's careful handling of how a young man, influenced by hero-worship and the force of custom, deals with the difficult choices that lead to maturity is nothing short of masterly. An unexpected and most welcome gift.
Susie Nightingale (review date May-June 1999)
SOURCE: Nightingale, Susie. Review of Sword Song, by Rosemary Sutcliff. Book Report 18, no. 1 (May-June 1999): 68.
This book [Sword Song ], completed posthumously by Sutcliff's godson and literary agent, engages the reader's attention from the first page. The Norse culture of the Vikings comes alive in these pages. Sut- cliff's extensive, historical research and deep understanding of Viking culture enhance the verisimilitude of this story. Plot, setting, and characterization are authentic, transporting the reader back in time. The story chronicles the fighting days in Bjarni Sigurdsion's life. Sixteen-year-old Bjarni, a Norwegian by birth, is exiled for five years from his home in Rafnglas after killing a follower of the White Christ. Cast aside from the settlement, he must earn his own way by the sword. Hard luck follows Bjarni as he travels from place to place, forcing him to mature rapidly. Always an outsider, he lives precariously on the edges of other people's lives. Sutcliff's characterization of Bjarni is outstanding. Brash, yet hesitant, he stands on the threshold of manhood, hoping to prove himself again and again. Only at the very end of the book does he fulfill his quest and find the personal happiness he seeks. Sutcliff's strength as a writer of historical fiction is her ability to make the past come alive for the reader. Rousing battle scenes, daring escapes from danger, and personal sacrifice are all a part of a Viking warrior's life, which readers experience vicariously. This is a must-read for students who are fascinated by Viking culture and who enjoy reading historical fiction. Highly Recommended.
Ake, Mary Weichsel. "Life, Death, and Honor in Rosemary Sutcliff's Sun Horse, Moon Horse and Warrior Scarlet." In The Phoenix Award of The Children's Literature Association, 1985-1989, edited by Alethea Helbig and Agnes Perkins, pp. 18-20. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993.
Explores themes of life, death, and honor in Sutcliff's Sun Horse, Moon Horse and Warrior Scarlet.
Sutcliff, Rosemary. "History Is People." In Children and Literature: Views and Reviews, edited by Virginia Haviland, pp. 305-12. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, and Company, 1973.
Sutcliff discusses her approach towards writing historical fiction for young readers.
Sutcliff, Rosemary, and John Withrington. "An Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff." Quondam et Futurus 1, no. 4 (winter 1991): 53-60.
Sutcliff discusses her personal background and writing career.
Additional coverage of Sutcliff's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 10; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vols. 1, 4; Children's Literature Review, Vols. 1, 37; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors—Obituary, Vol. 139; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 37; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 26; Contemporary Popular Writers; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors; Junior DISCovering Authors; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1:1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults Supplement, Ed. 1; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Something about the Author, Vols. 6, 44, 78; Something about the Author—Obituary, Vol. 73; 20th-Century Romance and Historical Writers; and Writers for Young Adults.