Rosemary Sutcliff, children’s writer and historical novelist, is “unforgettable” to Keith Taylor, himself a writer, in a web article which reader of this blog Anne McFadgen has alerted me to (Thank you!). Her work, he writes, is “memorable'” because “decades after he has read her books scenes “from all of them come to my mind’s eye as vividly as if I’d seen them happen”. He writes at The Cimmerian a long, thoughtful, informed article about The Sword at Sunset and also The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers which is for him, the “finest” of these three linked historical novels. Of the bestseller Arthurian novel The Sword at Sunset (top in the 1963 UK bestseller lists, and widely read and bought ever since) he writes:
Sword at Sunset is the definitive novel which treats Arthur as a historical war-leader and not as a mythical king. Yet it has the force of legend in it, and many elements which partake of myth and fantasy, such as the scene in which Ambrosius, the High King, dying of cancer, goes on a stag hunt and deliberately throws himself on the stag’s horns when it is cornered, offering himself as the archetypal Royal Sacrifice. There are also the Little Dark People who frequently serve as scouts and spies for Artos, and whom he always counts as friends, though his woman Guenhumara dreads them and their primitive magic.
Early in his article, he introduces his enthusiastic reflections:
And there was, unforgettably, Rosemary Sutcliff. She wrote some fantasy, retelling famous legends (Beowulf’s story in Dragon Slayer, Cuchulainn’s and Finn’s in The Hound of Ulster and The High Deeds of Finn mac Cool). She also dealt with Arthurian legend in a number of books. The Light Beyond the Forest retells the search for the Holy Grail by Lancelot, Galahad, Bors and Perceval. The Sword and the Circle recounts Arthur’s birth, youth and early years as king. The Road to Camlann tells with a steadily darkening tone the treachery of Mordred, the breach between Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere, and the final battle.
Those three books were written between 1979 and 1981. Long before that, she had written her famous “Eagle of the Ninth” trilogy, in the nineteen-fifties. All three novels are fine and memorable. They recount the adventures of various members of the same family down the generations, in the often-troubled island of Roman Britain, linked by the surname Aquila and their family’s heirloom, a dolphin ring.