Interesting views & titles already from collecting on Twitter and Website views about eminent writer of children’s literature and historical fiction Rosemary Sutcliff‘s best books of fiction & re-telling

Rosemary Sutcliff’s Best Books

So far almost twenty of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books of children and young adults fiction and historical fiction have been cited either here or on Twitter (#BestRosemarySutcliffBook) after my call for choices and rationales. Some people snuck in more than one choice.

Of those, some raised possible distinctions between reading and re-reading, reading as a child and as an adult, reading novels written for adults and those written for children, and those books of fiction versus her re-telling of saga and legend

A Little Dog Like You (first published 1987)
Blood Feud (1976)
Brother Dusty Feet (1952)
Dawn Wind (1961)
Frontier Wolf (1980)
Simon (1953)
Song for a Dark Queen (1978)
Sword at Sunset (1963)
The Armourer’s House (1951)
The Eagle of the Ninth (1954)
The Flowers of Adonis (1969)
The High Deeds of Finn MacCool (1967)
The Hound of Ulster (1963)
The Lantern Bearers (1959)
The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965)
The Shining Company (1990)
The Silver Branch (1957)
The Witch’s Brat (1970)
Warrior Scarlet (1957)

Which book do readers think is award-winning historical novelist and doyenne of children’s literature Rosemary Sutcliff’s best?

Please post in the comments below your choice as the ‘Best Book by Rosemary Sutcliff’, together with your reasons.

On Twitter a good while back (@rsutcliff), and on this site (www.rosemarysurcliff.net, which was then at rosemarysutcliff.com I asked “So, what is your best of the sixty or so books by eminent author Rosemary Sutcliff (#BestRosemarySutcliffBook) and why?

As first choice, there were mentions of: The Eagle of the Ninth, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Lantern Bearers, Knight’s Fee, The Sword at Sunset, The Shield Ring, The Queen Elizabeth Story. Those who could not resist other mentions pointed also to: Simon, The Rider of the White Horse, Warrior Scarlet,  Frontier Wolf, The Shining Company, Song for a Dark Queen, and, in addition to Sword at Sunset, the later Arthurian trilogy (The Sword and the CircleThe Light Beyond the ForestThe Road to Camlann).

Helen, commented here that the question ‘which is Rosemary Sutcliff‘s Best Book’ is “a bit like the questions in the old Victorian confession books; what is your favourite flower?” However,  she does say that there is nothing “more Sutcliff than The Eagle of the Ninth … Somehow it goes beyond liking — if you have read it, it is, and it is part of you… It contains all of those features which make up the sum of parts that are a Rosemary Sutcliff novel, plus the indefinable minstrel’s magic that makes it all alive”.

These themes are: “the hero, set apart from his peers both by his injury and his past; the landscape and the seasons as living entities in themselves; the friendship; the adventure; the scenes of slow tension and thrilling escape; the flashes of both humour and horror; the sense and quest for justice and fairness; the clash of two worlds and the places where the distance narrows to nothing between them; the relationship between man and dog, and to a lesser degree, man and horse; the slow romance; the understanding of a military world; the hopeful, ‘song of new beginnings’ ending; and Devon—of course, Devon.” Andrew agrees “how excellently put! (The Eagle of the Ninth)…is perhaps her greatest work and has everything which makes her writing her writing. Definitely one of my favourites and I have spent many hours getting to know Marcus, Esca, and Cottia”.

Renne, too, loves The Eagle of the Ninth She recalls her “delight at finding a copy with dust cover at an auction during my late twenties when I needed an old friend”. She speaks of Rosemary Sutcliff particular gifts: “how good she is on the ways horses and dogs link humans to the natural world. Also, how some men find it easier to show tenderness through the medium of their animal companions”.

For Anne, Rosemary Sutcliff‘s best book is The Mark of the Horse Lord. “Sutcliff is at the height of her powers in this magnificent and moving expression of her favourite themes: the land as a potent entity in its own right; discovery of the self and one’s place in the world; love and comradeship; the struggle to maintain the light in dark times; and freely-given sacrifice for the greater good. This story lifts the hair at the back of my neck every time I read it”. Renne too has ” love for The Mark of the Horse Lord (and Warrior Scarlet) for their focus on the isolation of those (people) different from their society and the struggle to make a place of acceptance”.

Alice has “a real fondness for The Lantern Bearers. When I first read it, I was quite disturbed by how dark and unhappy Aquila’s story was, but when I re-read it a few years later, I appreciated it so much—Aquila’s character growth, his emotions and actions seemed so realistic”. She reflected that possibly what she did not like when she was younger was that “it was uncomfortable in a way that eschewed traditional happy endings”. Over at Twitter @KVJohansen finds it “impossible to choose #BestRosemarySutcliffBook” but The Lantern Bearers “lingers powerfully”.

Rosie’s choice is Knight’s Fee “… the clash of cultures and the tugs of different loyalties, plus it’s a period that fascinates me. But there are many others that run it very close!”

Arethusarose writes that “best book is a relative term”, but when she does think of “overall best Sutcliff book”, for her “it has to be Sword at Sunset. There are a lot of Arthurian novels out there, and a lot of myth-like stories, but Sword at Sunset has become ‘the way it was’ for me, right from my first reading. It’s tied into what little history is known of that era, it ties in bits of the early myth, even bits of the ‘courtly love’ stuff which I largely reject as representing the tropes of that time. It carries Sutcliff’s long look at the underdog, the disadvantaged, growth through pain, recovery through human connection that are themes of most of her books. It is satisfying on every level, and it fits into the Dolphin Ring cycle to boot”. On Twitter, @HMGoodchild called The Sword at Sunset the “most hauntingly lovely Arthurian retelling ever”; and @tweetheart4711 said it is  his #BestRosemarySutcliffBook “… (because) it’s about true heroism”.

For Andrew, The Shield Ring is the best, it is his “favourite book ever. I think that is largely because it is the first Sutcliff book I ever read and so I became attached to the characters and it was the first time I had been exposed to the deep emotional palette that is Sutcliff. @gardener_on Twitter the thinks The Shield Ring is #BestRosemarySutcliffBook, with its Vikings, Normans and Cumbria. @naomilpeb too, chooses The Shield Ring: it’s a “great story, of a not-that-well-known moment in history, and wonderfully evocative of the Lakes.”On Twitter, @kanishktharoor thinks The Shining Company, the #BestRosemarySutcliffBook, without citing his grounds; it is   @Angelaroemelt‘s “all time favourite” because of its “commitment theme”.

@louiseansdell points to The Queen Elizabeth Story as #BestRosemarySutcliffBook “for the domestic detail in particular”.

Honourable mentions: as “personal favourites” (Helen) are the two Civil War books Simon (1953) and Rider of the White Horse (?); as “very close seconds”  ( ?) are The Mark of the Horse Lord and Warrior Scarlet. Andrew’s “other favourites” are Frontier Wolf, The Eagle of the Ninth, and Shining Company “for their deep emotional paintings and exciting stories. What an author!”.  Alice supplements her choice of The Lantern Bearers: she speaks of Song For A Dark Queen as well—”I simply love (it), for the prose and the unflinching layered character portraits, and especially the portrayal of Boudicca as a nuanced, very dark, and yet very human and very female character.” She also refers to “Sutcliff’s Arthurian trilogy—those are the versions of the stories that I accept as the default, true ones. The prose is beautiful and compelling, and the knights are so varied and colourful; so much more than the bland do-it-for-honour-and-glory’ cutouts that one often sees. Gawain, especially…”. Moving well beyond just one ‘Best Rosemary Sutcliff Book’ she also writes “I should stop or I’ll go on forever, but also The Witch’s Brat, just because!”

Review of Simon, a historical novel of the English Civil War, by Rosemary Sutcliff — on Goodreads

It had never seemed of much importance during their boyhood that Simon Carey was for Parliament and his friend Amias Hannaford a Royalist. But when the Civi War between the two parties broke out, and two years later they were old enough to take part in it, they found themselves fighting for different sides.

This story tells of the last stages of the Civil War waged in the west country; and the account of the part played by Simon in the fighting makes exciting reading. Several times in the course of it he encounters Amias ; and these meetings leave him torn by conflicting loyalties. Finally the day comes when he is forced to put the strength of the friendship to the test, weighing it against his loyalty to the Parliamentarian cause.

Rosemary Sutcliff has written a compelling and unbiased story of the troubled times of the civil war, describing vividly and accurately the final campaign in the west and sharing the life and thoughts and feelings of some of the people who became involved in it.

“Here is an author who writes with great distinction…Simon is a book that I recommend with all my heart” – Noel Streatfield

via Simon by Rosemary Sutcliff – Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists.

Chronology of Rosemary Sutcliff shorter historical stories for children, some recently re-published

These are brief stories of historical fiction by Rosemary Sutcliff in shorter form, most of them originally published as books. The Changeling, The Shifting Sands and The Chief’s Daughter are newly available from SFGateway (as is The Shield Ring).

Stone Age: Shifting Sands (1977)
Bronze Age: The Chief’s Daughter (1967)
Bronze Age: “Flowering Dagger” (1977, in The Real Thing)
Iron Age: The Changeling (1974)
412 BCE: “A Crown of Wild Olive” (1971, originally The Truce of the Games)
60 CE: The Capricorn Bracelet (1973, collection)
80 CE: Eagle’s Egg (1981)
130 CE: “Swallows in the Spring” (1970, in Galaxy)
150 CE: A Circlet of Oak Leaves (1965)
Roman: The Bridge-Builders (1959)
Roman: “The Fugitives” (1964, in Another Six)

The 1997 Encyclopedia of Fantasy on eminent award-winning British writer Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92)

Collection of Rosemary Sutcliff covers via Google Images March 2016
Collection of Rosemary Sutcliff covers via Google Images March 2016

 According to The  Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) the “ability to create a realistic historical novel for children is in a sense one of the most testing challenges of the fantastist’s art” requiring “an imagination … powerful enough to create startling pictures of what could have been.”

Rosemary Sutcliff’s “masterpieces of historical fiction are vivid re-creations rather than attempts to portray historical fact through story. While rarely straying beyond the boundaries of what could have happened in the later centuries of Roman rule in Britain and the succeeding Dark Ages, Rosemary Sutcliff, like her mentor Rudyard Kipling, set herself to describe history as part of a temporal tapestry.”

”Thus The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), while containing at least one darkly numinous and certainly trans-real scene when its hero Marcus discovers the lost legion’s missing standard in a British shrine, is told very much in the manner of a tale of the Imperial Northwest Frontier, with Marcus in the role of English subaltern and the Druid-inspired uprisings reminiscent of Indian struggles against the Raj. Suceeding novels, such as The Silver Branch (1957) and The Lantern Bearers (1959), portray Marcus’s descendants, with the Romans and British developing elements of each other’s culture and facing another wave of conquest and immigration from the Anglo-Saxons.”

”We see the beginning of the Matter of Britain in the latter novel and in the adult novel Sword at Sunset (1964) which depicts Artos, illegitimate nephew of Ambrosius the High King, as a warlord fighting the Saxon tribes to keep alight the memory of the Romano-British nation. In the events Rosemary Sutcliff describes – especially the ambiguity of Artos’s relationship with the incest-born Medraut and his use of the moon daisy, element of the White Goddess, to unite old faiths and new at the Battle of Badon – are both the Arthur of the later chroniclers and the seed of the later romances.”

Rosemary Sutcliff turned again and again to this period, revisiting the Romano-British ‘frontier’ in Mark of the Horse Lord (1965) – a fierce study of espionage and assumed identity – and Frontier Wolf (1980). She retold Saxon and Irish legends such as Beowulf (1961; retitled

Dragon Slayer 1966) and The Hound of Ulster (1963), and returned to the Dark Ages in The Shining Company (1990) – based on the Welsh poem The Gododdin – and in retellings of the Arthur-story in The Sword and the Circle (1981) and The Road to Camlann (1981). She also wrote about Greece in The Flowers of Adonis (1965), a study of the Athenian Alcibades which provides a multifaceted picture of a charming but hollow genius. Apart from the Marcus sequence, though, perhaps her finest novel – and certainly the most akin to fantasy – is Warrior Scarlet (1958), in which Drem, a boy of a Bronze Age tribe, overcomes the disability of a withered arm to become a warrior. Within the limits of a book for children, this is as powerful as possible a picture of a putative shamanistic society, with the sun-worshipping Golden People contrasted with the outcast Half People from whom they have wrested the Land.”

“Apart from occasional suggestions of paranormal powers, Rosemary Sutcliff remains a realistic writer, exploring the history of our here and now. But her imagination was powerful enough to create startling pictures of what could have been.

via Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) – Sutcliff, Rosemary.