Sword Song was a Rosemary Sutcliff title long before Bernard Cornwell used it too! Shame on him!

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It has always annoyed me that Bernard Cornwell and his publishers considered it acceptable to call his 2008 novel of Saxon England ‘Sword Song’, when that had been the title Rosemary Sutcliff had chosen for her final historical novel ten years earlier! It shows a disappointing lack of respect by one writer of another in the same genre, historical fiction.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword Song was  a novel set in Viking times. It was in handwritten manuscript form on her desk when she died. I recall transcribing it from her elphin-scrawl handwriting. It was intriguing painstakingly to follow the story of Bjarni as he was cast out of the Norse settlement in the Angles’ Land for an act of oath-breaking, to spend five years sailing the west coast of Scotland and witnessing the feuds of the clan chiefs living there.

I was pleased that in The Times newspaper, in August 1997, Sarah Johnson  called the opening of Sword Song a ‘stunner’: ‘beat that Melvin Burgess!’ she wrote. However she found the story ‘meandering’. But I loved that meandering, in and out of the Dublin slave market, for example.

 Rosemary Sutcliff’s … posthumously published Dark Ages saga Sword Song is packed with precisely described Viking sea battles and sacrifices in a linguistic smorgasbord of thongs, thralls and fiery-bearded men. I was never a Sutcliff fan as a child, tiring too quickly of the sun glinting off the halberds of people with names that sound like Haggis Bogtrotterson, but the opening of Sword Song is a stunner: a sixteen-year-old boy is exiled from his settlement for the manslaughter of a monk who had kicked his dog. Beat that, Melvin Burgess.

Regrettably, the story quavers thereafter, meandering around the coast of Britain as young Bjarni sells his fighting skills to one fiery-beardy after another, but the dense historical detail and rich colours are all still there.

Source: The Times, August 23, 1997

7 comments

  1. I don’t think Bernard could possibly have been ignorant of the title of Rosemary’s book, as his own website cites her as a key influence on his work. Given the way that Internet marketing functions, it is very likely his use of this title has drawn more attention to the original and potentially sold more copies.
    Must say, I do like BC’s best work as much as almost anything else I’ve ever read and his own Arthurian trilogy (The Winter King, etc) is absolutely brilliant and rich with emotion. Finishing it on a beach in the Indian Ocean in bright sunshine, I found myself in such floods of tears nearby German tourists asked me if I was all right.
    However, I started reading Sword at Sunset last week, the first RS book I have consumed since a schoolboy in the 1970s, and wow! Beautiful writing, very evocative, great pace and colour as well as being, I would imagine, quite cutting edge for something published of the year of my birth. Gay Celts, buckets of sex and mysticism… and she also avoids the often tedious descriptions of battle-detail that are the bane of, for example, much fantasy literature.
    Anyway, I’m sure anyone reading this forum knows all this. I’m now seeing the book as a clear forerunner of the trilogy I describe above, as I would bet my dog that BC has read it. Nothing wrong with that, of course – after all these decades of popular publishing, if we didn’t have derivative fiction we wouldn’t have any at all.

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    1. There are quite a few books out there called “Song of the Sword”.
      “Sword Song” may perhaps have been seen as the least-used option.

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  2. Copyright doesn’t apply to book titles, and it’s common for many books to have the same title – you could well find that there are several different “Sword Songs” out there! An interesting modern legal phenomenon has authors trademarking titles as a means of keeping ownership of them.

    Love the “fiery-beardies” :)

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