British writer Rosemary Sutcliff re-tells legends of Robin Hood, King Arthur, Beowulf, Tristan & Iseult, Finn Mac Cool, Cuchulain, the Iliad, the Odyssey

Rosemary Sutcliff imagined a rich cast of characters to people her historical novels. But many of her works also draw heavily on legend

Portrait of historical novelist and children’s author Rosemary Sutcliff by Mark Gerson

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

Internationally acclaimed historical novelist and writer for children, Rosemary Sutcliff, could not read when nine years old

Why read to yourself when you can get somebody else to read to you?

Rosemary Sutcliff once told an interviewer:

“At the age of nine…I was not yet able to read…(but) Why, after all, read to yourself when you can get somebody else to read to you?”.

She explained that her mother used to read to her “a rich and somewhat indigestible stirabout of literature” which included the British stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood, myths and legends of the classical world and Scandinavia, The Wind in the Willows (by Kenneth Grahame), The Tailor of Gloucester (by Beatrix Potter), Treasure Island (by R. L. Stevenson), Nicholas Nickleby (by Charles Dickens), Kim Puck of Pook’s Hill (by Rudyard Kipling), and Little Women (by L M Alcott).

  • Source—(2002) B A Drew, 100 More Popular Young Adult Authors: Biographical Sketches and Bibliographies. Libraries Unlimited. ISBN 1563089203

Rosemary Sutliff’s prose was “always characterised by compassion”.

Rosemary Sutcliff had a feeling for the mending side of life, and for the healing which happens when clashing cultures learn to live together. (In The Independent newspaper, 1992)

The Independent (London) —August 20, 1992—published some comments on their obituary of Rosemary Sutcliff, which noted that she had “a feeling for the mending side of life”.

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 rereading 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 (of the obituary), 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 cAD600. (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.

‘That’s not a sand-castle,’ said the busy child on the beach, ‘I’m building a temple to Mithras.’ | After reading Rosemary Sutcliff

Former editor of children’s books for The Times newspaper, Brian Alderson, reflects on Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel for children and young adults, The Eagle of the Ninth.

Cover of Books for Keeps, March 2010

Brian Alderson founded the Children’s Books History Society; he was once Children’s Books Editor for The Times newspaper. Writing in Books for Keeps in 2010, he  recalled an anecdote once told to librarians by Rosemary Sutcliff in the 1950s: ‘That’s not a sand-castle,’ said the busy child on the beach, ‘I’m building a temple to Mithras.’

In all probability the temple-builder’s enthusiasm for the work came from hearing its famed serialisation on ‘Children’s Hour’ but (perhaps unlike television serials) the wireless version sent listeners straight back to the book to get the author’s full-dress narrative to go with the spoken one.

They were keen readers, those librarians – our first critics, long before the academic brigades were mustered – and for them, at that time, the landing of The Eagle of the Ninth had something of the force of a revelation. True, it did not come from an entirely unknown author. Continue reading “‘That’s not a sand-castle,’ said the busy child on the beach, ‘I’m building a temple to Mithras.’ | After reading Rosemary Sutcliff”

Rosemary Sutcliff’s books are a magic carpet to the past

Historian, writer and journalist  Christina Hardyment judged Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff to be  an ‘odd one out’.

Rosemary Sutcliff is most famed for The Eagle of the Ninth, but there was much more to her than that. In the 1950s, historically-minded children found her books a magic carpet into the past. I began with Brother Dusty-feet (1952) and The Armourer’s House (1951), and never looked back and an insatiable interest in history has remained the backbone of my life.

In 1954, The Eagle of the Ninth introduced Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young Roman who chooses to stay in Britain after the legions leave. Seven subsequent books follow his family’s fate, usually directly. The odd book out is the fifth, Sword at Sunset, now published in a new edition to celebrate its 50th birthday. In 1963, it was firmly announced to be for adults, and given the (for their time) graphic and violent scenes of sex and slaughter, it deserved to be.

Continue reading “Rosemary Sutcliff’s books are a magic carpet to the past”

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