Rosemary Sutcliff’s vital spark as historical novelist

… 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

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. For more text see here.

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