Academic John Withrington wrote to The Independent (London) newspaper (August 20, 1992), to comment on their obituary of Rosemary Sutcliff.
Last year I interviewed Rosemary Sutcliff on the Arthurian theme in her fiction. The published text arrived a matter of days before her death and on re-reading the transcript I was reminded of her vitality and enthusiasm, of an honest approach which combined scholarship with an unsentimental attitude to pain and suffering.
As Julia Eccleshare observed of her writing, allusions to historical sources are present but never signposted, the battle narrative magnificent yet never glorifying the strife it depicts. These traits were most apparent perhaps in her adult novel Sword at Sunset, the ‘autobiography’ of King Arthur, and the work of which she was most proud. But as Sutcliff herself acknowledged, she also had “a feeling for the mending side of life”; and whether writing of the physically and emotionally crippled, or, when following in the footsteps of her beloved Kipling, of the healing which happens when clashing cultures learn to live together, her prose was always characterised by compassion.
She felt that as the years progressed she had become a tougher writer, a belief reinforced by a reading of The Shining Company, itself based upon the poem Y Gododdin, which celebrates the annihilation of an army at Catterick in circa AD600 (sacrifice was always a theme which fascinated her). Yet for all her seriousness, she remained a cheerful and remarkably modest author, seemingly surprised by her success. “You’re always terrified that the books you write are going to go downhill,” she once said. It seems unlikely that those books which remain to be published will disappoint.
One of the pleasures of curating this blog about Rosemary Sutcliff, the eminent historical novelist and children’s writer (who regular readers will know was a close, much-loved relative of mine) is the contributions you readers make by way of ‘comments’ on particular posts, and also the ‘You Write!’ tab. A recent 1988 diary entry mentioned Catraeth. Jane mused about Catterick camp and Jane picked up the baton:
The Catterick Garrison is still in operation – it’s the largest BritIsh Army garrison in the world.
The old Roman fort of Cataractonium will be familiar to those who’ve read The Shining Company – it’s the setting for the last desperate stand of the Company against the Saxon forces of Aethelfrith, Lord of Bernicia and Deira.“Catreath, Cataractonium as the Romans had called it, was a double cohort fort, and so there was room enough for all of us within the crumbling defences.”
Cataractonium’s marching camp also makes an appearance: “And so, with the forest reaching up towards us, we came to the remains of yet one more fort in that land of lost forts, and made our last night’s camp. It was not much of a fort, maybe only a permanent marching camp in its time, and being on the edge of the forest country the wild had taken it back more completely than those of the high moors…. little remained of the buildings but turf hummocks and bramble domes”.
Although it isn’t one of the Aquila family sequence, there’s one of those “aha” moments in Shining Company which readers of Sutcliff work enjoy – a connection made with Frontier Wolf (set a couple of centuries earlier) when young Prosper and a couple of companions out on a training exercise camp at the (now ruined) Cramond fort where the action in Frontier Wolf takes place. Sutcliff uses the linking device very effectively as a way of emphasizing continuity.
And ,of course, as well as making me wiser about Catterick and Catraeth, and reminding me of Frontier Wolf , this prompts me to ask all you readers and contributors – regular and occasional – please do tell us some more “Aha” moments …
In the light of today’s (29th June) entry in Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1988 diary, I went back to her novel The Shining Company. Rosemary, my godmother and cousin, kindly gave me and my family a copy when the US edition was published. She reveals her preference for it in the letter she enclosed (which I had forgotten!)
The Shining Company, the historical novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, was published to excellent reviews over twenty years ago, although it was awarded a major US award for children’s literature last year. This was the review in The Times newspaper, by Brian Alderson who was a pioneer of the study of children’s literature in Britain.
Y Gododdin is not a species of baby-talk, but a tale of bloody strife, said to have been written around the end of the 7th century by the Welsh bard Aneirin. It tells how the High Chief of the Gododdin, Mynyddog Mwynfawr, called a hosting of the Celtic tribes at Edinburgh. There, for the space of a year, he trained a war-band of 300 princes and then unleashed them on the invading Saxons at the Battle of Catterick. Everything went wrong, and only one hero returned from the fray. But his exploits and those of his companions were celebrated by Aneirin in ”the Great Song that others will sing for a thousand years”.
This Great Song is at the heart of Rosemary Sutcliff’sThe Shining Company, thus bringing Aneirin longer life than he expected. For as he gave elegiac voice to the deeds of hero after hero, so she has taken the names from his telling and has sought to imagine them back int historical reality. Speaking through the persona of Prosper, the son of a Welsh chieftain, and eventually shieldbearer to the knight who returned, she begins by establishing a sense of the closed tribal world of the time after the Romans, and then introduces unbardic perceptions of form and motive. Personal relationships and the countryside of the Dark Ages become vital ingredients in the renewed story, and as the episodes pile up the ride to Edinburgh, the welding of disparate forces into a single fighting group so the reader is made ready for the great setpiece of the battle and the long dying fall of its tragic aftermath.
Such a theme is natural to Sutcliff’s art. She is moved by simple concepts of loyalty and integrity that may be as foreign to today’s children’s literature as they were to the no-baby-talk Gododdin. But by admitting their possibility, while not shirking the real facts of ferocious woundings and pragmatic betrayals, she still persuades us that a bardic reading of the past is sustainable alongside an awareness of its squalor and its indifferent, but unpolluted, landscapes.
Source: The Times, June 9, 1990, Saturday by Brian Alderson
More on this blog about Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Shining Company