Rosemary Sutcliff’s thank-you address to the American Children’s Literature Association in Arbor, Michigan, 19th May 1985 | For the Phoenix Award for The Mark of the Horse Lord

Rosemary Sutcliff sent an address to the Children’s Literature Association in Arbor, Michigan, 19th May 1985 when she received the Phoenix Award for The Mark of the Horse Lord. This is an excerpt.

The Mark of the Horse-Lord  is one of my best-beloved books, amongst my own, and has remained so warmly living in my mind, though I have never re-read it, that when I heard that it had won an award for a book published twenty years ago, my first thought was “How lovely!! But my second was, ‘But it can’t be anywhere near twenty years old; it’s one of my quite recent books; there must be some mistake!” And I made all speed to get it out of the bookcase and look at the publication date, to make sure. And having got it out, of course I started reading it again.

Re-reading a book of my own is for me (and I imagine for most authors) a faintly nerve-wracking process,  with all the fascination, but all the danger too, of returning to a place that one was happy in, a long time ago. There are the passages that make one think, “This is bad! This is overwritten. This is PURPLE! How did it ever get published?” Which is depressing to say the least of it. And there are the passages which make one think, “This is good!  This is vivid and sensitive; I am sure I can’t write like that now.” Which is even more depressing. There are passages of both kinds in Horse-Lord but I do think, coming to it again after so many years, that it has stood the test of time, and I enjoyed reading it—except for the end, which tore my heart out just as it did when I wrote it.

I seem to have a tendency to sad or only half-happy endings, but none of the others are as starkly tragic as the end of Horse-Lord. I didn’t want it to be like that. When I started, I was not really sure that it was going to be, and hoped for the best. But as the book went on, its last page became more and more inevitable. 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 of 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.

Quite a lot of friends and well-wishers told me, “You simply can’t do that! Not in a children’s book.” But I don’t believe that one should make allowances for young readers, feed them on pap. And children themselves show how little they need any punches pulled for them, by their fondness for both horror comics and the like, and for the ancient hero myths and legends which were certainly not meant for them in the first place, but of which they have taken possession. Stories dealing with the big basic values (as, incidentally, the early Westerns did), love and hate, cowardice and courage, loyalty and divided loyalty, the quest for honour, above all, the unending struggle between Good and Evil, which almost always end tragically in the death of the hero, generally in his hour of victory. Children should be allowed the great themes, which are also often tragic themes, which they can receive and make use of better than most adults can ….

From: Children’s Literature Association Quarterly  | Volume 10, Number 4, Winter 1986  | p. 176

Author: Anthony Lawton

Chair, Sussex Dolphin, family company which looks after the work of eminent children’s & historical fiction author Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92). Formerly CEO, chair & trustee of various charity, cultural & educational enterprises in UK.

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