Rosemary Sutcliff imagined a rich cast of characters to people her historical novels. But many of her works also draw heavily on legend
Always at the same writing desk, seated in an old captain’s chair, Rosemary Sutcliff imagined a rich cast of characters to people her historical novels. But many of her works also draw heavily on legend.
In her first published book in 1950, she re-worked her Chronicles of Robin Hood. The best-selling Sword at Sunset in 1963, written for adults, re-made the story of King Arthur. Later in her writing career, she created a trilogy of books aimed at children and young people retelling the tale of Arthur again—The Light Behind the Forest: The Quest for the Holy Grail (1979), The Sword and the Circle: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1981), and The Road to Camlann: The Death of King Arthur (1981). She also wrote novels re-making the stories of Beowulf, Tristan and Iseult, and the Irish heroes Finn Mac Cool and Cuchulain, The Hound of Ulster, as well as re-telling Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey
Rosemary Sutcliff wrote in the foreword to her “starkly simple” retelling of the story of Tristan and Iseult (OUP, 1971) about “one big change” she made in the story:
… In its far-back beginnings, Tristan is a Celtic legend, a tale woven by harpers around the peat fire in the timber halls of Irish or Welsh or Cornish chieftains, long before the time of chivalrous knights and fair ladies and turreted castles in which it is generally set.
The medieval troubadours took it and enriched it, and dressed it in beautiful medieval clothes, but if you look, you can still see the Celtic story, fiercer and darker, ad (despite the changes) more real, underneath. In this retelling I have tried to get back to the Celtic original as much as possible, and in doing this I have made one big change in the story.
In all the versions that we know, Tristan and Iseult fall in love because they accidentally drink together a love potion which was meant for Iseult and her husband King Marc on their wedding night. Now the story of Tristan and Iseult is basically the same as two other great Celtic love stories, Diarmid and Grania, and Deidre and the sons of Usna, and in neither of them is there any suggestion of a love potion. I am sure in my own mind that the medieval storytellers added it to make the excuse for being in love with each other when Iseult was married to somebody else. And for me, this turns something that was real and living and part of themselves into something artificial, the result of drinking a sort of magic drug.
So I have left out the love potion.
Because everybody else who has retold the tale in the past eight hundred years has kept it in, it is only fair to tell you this. I can only tell the story in the way which feels right to me in my own heart of hearts.
Rosemary Sutcliff was interviewed by Raymond H Thompson (in 1986) for a series of interviews with Arthurian authors. She spoke of her research, and the influences which led her to her own version of the Arthurian legend in the best-selling Sword at Sunset, first published in 1963.
… I did not discover the historical side of Arthurian legend until I was eighteen or nineteen, when I read two intriguing books by some absolute crackpot called Dayrel Reid: inspired crackpots are very special when you find them. One was called The Battle for Britain in the Fifth Century; the other was called The Rise of Wessex. They dealt with the Dark Ages, but particularly with the Arthurian legend and with the possibilities of an historical Arthur. I was fascinated by this idea, and I set off looking for all the other clues that I could find. Continue reading “Rosemary Sutliff speaks about her approach to Arthurian Legend (1986)”
Rosemary Sutcliff’s description in Tristan and Iseult of Iseult’s hair as “the colour of brambles when the sap rises in them in the springtime” has stayed in mind for TRIG in Ireland.
I looked out for that the spring after I first read it. I’d never noticed before how beautiful brambles are when the sap rises in them in the springtime. It’s an extraordinary colour.
Source: here post 50 in the conversation thread
Macmillan: Farrar Strauss Giroux, publishers of Rosemary Sutcliff in the USA, have a teacher’s Guide to their Sutcliff books: Teacher’s Guide to Rosemary Sutcliff from Farrar Strauss Giroux. I live in hope that some teachers find their way to this post and tell me if it is any good! It covers: Continue reading “Teachers Guide for Rosemary Sutcliff”