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!”

A listing of all the books of Children’s Literature and Historical Fiction by British writer Rosemary Sutcliff

A Rosemary Sutcliff Bibliography

The widely read and acclaimed The Eagle of the Ninth, published in 1954, still in print, is just one of some sixty books by Rosemary Sutcliff. This list has every book by Rosemary Sutcliff — author, historical novelist and children’s writer. For a short biography of Rosemary Sutcliff see Life tab.

Eagle of the Ninth and similar

The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) illustrated by C. Walter Hodges
The Silver Branch (1957) illustrated by Charles Keeping
The Lantern Bearers (1959) illustrated by Charles Keeping
The Capricorn Bracelet (1973) illustrated by Charles Keeping
Both Three Legions (1980) and The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles (2010) are omnibus editions containing the first three books
The Eagle of the Ninth Collection Boxed Set (2012) is also an omnibus edition of the first three books.

Camelot or King Arthur novels

Sword at Sunset (1963)
The Sword and the Circle (1979)
The Light Beyond the Forest (1979)
The Road to Camlann (1981)
The King Arthur Trilogy (1999) is an omnibus of The Sword and the Circle, The Light Beyond the Forest, and The Road to Camlann

Other children’s and young adult novels

Chronicles of Robin Hood (1950)
The Queen Elizabeth Story (1950) illustrated by C. Walter Hodges
The Armourer’s House (1951)
Brother Dustyfeet (1952)
Simon (1953) illustrated by C. Walter Hodges
Outcast (1955) illustrated by Richard Kennedy
The Shield Ring (1956)
Warrior Scarlet (1957) illustrated by Charles Keeping
Lady in Waiting (1957)
Knight’s Fee (1960) illustrated by Charles Keeping
The Bridge Builders (1959)
Dawn Wind (1961) illustrated by Charles Keeping
Beowulf (1961) illustrated by Charles Keeping (also published as Dragon Slayer)
The Hound of Ulster (1963) illustrated by Victor Ambrus
The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965) illustrated by Charles Keeping
The Flowers of Adonis (1965)
A Saxon Settler (1965)
The Chief’s Daughter (1967)
The High Deeds of Finn MacCool (1967)
A Circlet of Oak Leaves (1968)
The Witch’s Brat (1970)
Tristan and Iseult (1971)
The Truce of the Games (1971)
Heather, Oak, and Olive (1972) is omnibus of three titles The Chief”s Daughter, A Circlet of Oak Leaves, and A Crown of Wild Olive (originally published as The Truce of the Games)
The Capricorn Bracelet (1973)
The Changeling (1974) illustrated by Victor Ambrus
We Lived in Drumfyvie (1975) with Margaret Lyford-Pike
Blood Feud (1976) illustrated by Charles Keeping
Sun Horse, Moon Horse (1977)
Shifting Sands (1977)
Song for a Dark Queen (1978)
Frontier Wolf (1980)
Eagle’s Egg (1981)
Bonnie Dundee (1983)
Flame-Coloured Taffeta (1986) illustrated by Rachel Birkett
The Roundabout Horse (1986)
A Little Dog Like You (1987) illustrated by Jane Johnson
The Best of Rosemary Sutcliff (1987) is an omnibus edition of Warrior Scarlet, The Mark of the Horse Lord and Knight’s Fee
Little Hound Found (1989)
The Shining Company (1990)
The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup (1993) illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark.
Black Ships Before Troy (1993) illustrated by Alan Lee
Chess-dream in the Garden (1993) illustrated by Ralph Thompson
The Wanderings of Odysseus (1995) illustrated by Alan Lee
Sword Song (1997)

Novels for adults

Lady in Waiting (1957)
The Rider of the White Horse (1959)
Sword at Sunset (1963)
The Flowers of Adonis (1969)
Blood and Sand (1987)

Non-fiction

Rudyard Kipling — A Monograph (1960)
Houses and History (1960)
Heroes and History (1965) illustrated by Charles Keeping
Arthur Ransome, Rudyard Kipling and Walter De La Mare (1968) (with Leonard Clark and Hugh Shelley) reproduces the Rudyard Kipling mongraph—above
Is Anyone There? (1978) (with Monica Dickens)
Blue Remembered Hills (1983) — A memoir, her autobiography, or ‘recollection’ as she called it

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.

On Rosemary Sutcliff’s Life — The Independent’s Obituary

ROSEMARY SUTCLIFF’s historical novels opened the eyes of a generation of children to the past. They also set a new standard for children’s historical fiction because of their insight, passion and commitment.

Sutcliff was a demanding writer who expected a lot from her readers which is why her books are also wholly satisfying for adults. She evokes time and place with an incredibly sure touch and – once she had found her true voice with The Eagle of the Ninth in 1954 – a sharp ear for the dialogue of the past, For child readers, the fact that Sutcliff wrote about ordinary people and not the rich and famous had a particular appeal. She also wrote largely about children, mostly boys, and often about children alone or outcast.

Perhaps because at the age of two she contracted Still’s disease, a form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, which left her paralysed and wheelchair-bound, she had a natural empathy with those with handicap or disability. Drem, the boy with the withered arm in Warrior Scarlet (1958), is one of the most sympathetic and most powerful of her heroes, while the unthinking prejudice that surrounds the cripple in The Witches’ Brat (1970) reflects a heartfelt understanding of the isolation experienced by those who are ‘different’.

In addition, Sutcliff had an integrity verging on ruthlessness, which meant that her stories rarely fell in to sentimentality. She pulled no punches, as in Warrior Scarlet when Drem fails the intitiation test of killing his wolf and thus must become a shepherd instead of a warrior as his forebears have been. As a reader one longs for him to succeed but Sutcliff’s own solution, that he kills a wolf in his job as a shepherd, is ultimately far more satisfying.

In Frontier Wolf (1980) the young centurion Alexios Aquila makes the wrong choice in battle. Faced with the same decision later on he must choose again. He makes the same choice but this time it is right. It is this commitment to reality rather than fictionalised optimism that gives Sutcliff’s stories their subtlety and plausibility.

Her vision of the past was similarly well-balanced and unsentimental. Her attention to the details of life built up pictures which were accurate, capturing discomfort and narrow- mindedness as well as the simplicity and clarity of life. Sutcliff combined a clear and profound historicism with a curiosity about the past. In none of her books is there a trace of the card index, so fatal for a reader. She used a variety of periods and places for her books but was always most absorbed by how the people of any period lived, worked and interacted with each other.

She knew and loved the Sussex Downs and had an astonishing feel for their past. She was fascinated by the continuity of history and how a place like the South Downs had been lived in since the Dark Ages.

In many of her books she touched on how tribes with old and new beliefs exist side by side until gradually one becomes dominant. The Little Dark People in Warrior Scarlet contrast with the Golden People who use copper goods and wear coloured cloth; the Britons invaded by the Romans and gradually learning their new-fangled ways provide the background to titles ranging from The Eagle of the Ninth to The Silver Branch (1957), The Lantern Bearers (1959) and, most recently, Frontier Wolf; the Saxons adapt the advanced ways of the Normans in Knight’s Fee (1960) and – slightly later, as the two sides move more closely together – in Dawn Wind (1961). But it is not only her domestic details that convince and absorb.

Sutcliff had an exceptional ability to describe the complexity of army strategies and the details of combat as well as to capture the emotions of fighting on any scale. Her war scenes are intense, convincing and apparently unrestrained, walking a delicate tightrope which prevents them from lapsing into the bloodthirsty. Sutcliff was never sadistic or cruel. She did not whitewash war or violence, but she did not relish it either. She recognised it as part and parcel of our past.

Sutcliff was born in 1920, the daughter of a naval officer, and much of her childhood was spent moving from one port to another. Because of her parents’ movements and her illness, she did not attend school on a regular basis, and was educated largely at home. At the age of 14 she was sent to Bideford School of Art where she proved herself a talented artist. She set out on a career as a miniature painter, and was a member of the Royal Society of Minature Painters.

From her training as a miniaturist came a detailed and fine way of looking which she used to set and define her writing. Her prose is always lucid and always vivid. The accuracy of her detail enabled her to create an enormously rich canvas with absolute conviction. She never wrote down to her child readers but had an instinctive way of speaking directly to them. She was one of a generation of children’s writers who understood the importance of writing for children as intelligent readers. She gave them a way of stepping into the past by offering characters with whom they could immediately identify. She loved the past and made it available and fresh without ever corrupting it with contemporary overtones.

Sutcliff was widely acknowledged as a writer of imagination and perception whose body of work – over 50 works spanning more than 40 years from 1950 – made an enormous impact on the way history was presented in fiction for children. She was awarded the Library Association Carnegie Medal in 1960 and the Children’s Rights Workshop Other Award in 1978: the first an establishment award which gave her the recognition she deserved for the majority of her books and the second, an equally well- deserved award, for her sympathetic – and decidedly ‘feminist’ – account of the life of Boudicca.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s works were translated into 15 languages. Although she had limited use of her hands, she wrote all her books in longhand, often in three complete drafts. She kept writing to the morning of the day she died and there are completed books in manuscript which have yet to be published