12 orphan-heroes and heroines in Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novels

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Many of historical novelist and children’s writer Rosemary Sutcliff’s books (of children’s literature) feature orphans—a thought prompted by Katherine Rundell’s choice of ’10 of the best orphans’ in children’s books, which did not include any of Rosemary Sutcliff’s characters. Indeed Anne, a regular reader and commenter here, wonders if the issue might not be which of Sutcliff’s heroes are not orphans; she recalls that the hero as orphan who makes their way in the world is  both a traditional fairy tale and a mythic trope. Thirteen orphans in Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing are:

Artos in Sword at Sunset (first published in 1963)
Beric in Outcast (1955)
Frytha and Bjorn in The Shield Ring (1956)
Hugh Herriot in Bonnie Dundee (1983)
Hugh Copplestone in Brother Dusty-Feet (1952)
Jestyn in Blood Feud (1976)
Lovell in The Witch’s Brat (1970)
Owain in Dawn Wind (1961)
Randall, the dog-boy, in Knight’s Fee (1960)
Red Phaedrus in The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965)
Tamsyn in The Armourer’s House (1951)

Artos (King  Arthur) is  the bastard son of a long-dead Uther, raised by his uncle. 

Beric is the infant son of a Roman soldier who is the only survivor of a shipwreck on the treacherous coast of south-west Britain.

Fytha is a young Saxon girl who seeks refuge the shield ring after her home is burnt by the Normans.

Bjorn the Bear-Cub is the foster son of an old harper.

Hugh Herriot Hugh Herriot,  from a covenanting background, is first a stable-lad and later years the galloper for a Colonel Claverhouse.

Hugh Copplestone is an eleven-year-old orphan who decides to leave his Aunt and Uncle’s house after one beating too many, and marches to Oxford to seek his fortune and the ‘New Learning’.

Jestyn is an English orphan who is sold into slavery with the Northmen in the 10th century. He becomes involved in a blood feud which leads him to Constantinople and a totally different way of life.

Lovell is a young boy with physical disabilities, as well as a deep understanding of herbs and healing, who becomes involved in the founding of a priory and hospital.

Owain, fourteen years old,  is the only survivor of a Viking raid and the great battle of Aquae Sulis, who becomes  thrall to a Saxon family.

Randall is a young, ill-treated dog-boy who is wagered and won in a game of chess between a lord and a minstrel in Norman times.

Red Phaedrrus is an enslaved gladiator in northern Britain in the 1st Century, who earns his freedom by killing his best friend, a fellow gladiator. Because of his similarity to a disappeared heir Midir, Phaedrus becomes King of a Gaelic Kingdom by  pretending to be him, and gets more than he bargained for!

Tamsyn — a Devon seafarer at heart—grows up in Tudor times, following the death of her grandmother,  in London at the family home of her uncle, a famous armourer.

3 comments

  1. Nearly forgot Marcus Flavius Aquila of “Eagle of the Ninth”, himself! His mother died not long after news was received of his father’s disappearance (and death) in Britain. From about the age of 10 Marcus was an orphan, raised in Rome by his “rather foolish” aunt and detested uncle-by-marriage.

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  2. I was just thinking that there are also quite a few secondary characters (like Flavia) in Sutcliff stories who are orphans. Esca and Cottia from “Eagle of the Ninth” and Angharad from “Sword Song” come to mind, but I’m sure there are others.

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