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

Rosemary Sutcliff researched her books of historical fiction and children’s literature with “exquisite care” | Oxford Encyclopaedia of Children’s Literature


“Critics of Rosemary Sutcliff’s work sometimes comment on its difficulty both in terms of the language she employs and in terms of the historical depth her novels embrace.” But Romey (as I knew her, a close family member) welcomed as compliments these sorts of evaluations of her writing.

“She prided herself on never writing down to her readers, expecting them instead to be enticed into enjoying a compelling and demanding tale by the pageantry of history and the warm humanity of people in every era.”

“She carefully creates dialogue in her novels that recollects the speech of a bygone era without falling into what she termed ‘gadzookery.’ Sutcliff also researched her novels with exquisite care, and they reflect her vast knowledge of military tactics, religious practices, landscapes, and the material conditions and artifacts of everyday life whether in a Bronze Age village or in a Roman legion on the move.”

“Other commentators have noted the limited role that female characters play in her novels. Except for a few volumes that focus on a young woman, like Song for a Dark Queen (1978), which tells the tale of Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni who led a revolt against the Romans in a.d. 60, this is certainly true. Sutcliff often includes energetic and courageous women among her secondary characters, but providing insights into women’s roles in history is not among her greatest strengths.”

Extracts from Oxford Encyclopaedia of Children’s Literature on Rosemary Sutcliff.

Chronicler of Occupied Brittania | Rosemary Sutcliff’s life and work | Obituary from The Guardian newspaper

Let us not be solemn about the death of Rosemary Sutcliff CBE, who has died suddenly, aged 72, despite the progressively wasting Still’s disease that had been with her since the age of two. She was impish, almost irreverent sometimes, in her approach to life. Her favourite author was Kipling and she once told me she had a great affection for The Elephant’s Child – because his first action with his newly acquired trunk was to spank his insufferably interfering relations.

But it was Kipling’s deep communion with the Sussex countryside and its history that was her true inspiration. Settled as an adult in Arundel, Rosemary shared with him his love for his county as well as his vision of successive generations living in and leaving their mark upon the landscape.

Rosemary Sutcliff, at the peak of her form in her “Roman” novels, was without doubt an historical writer of genius, and recognised internationally as such. Read More »

The Geography of the stories made by Rosemary Sutcliff | Writer of historical fiction and stories for children, young people and adults

Place matters hugely in the work of  Rosemary Sutcliff. The main settings of her stories include:

The West Country in England
Blood Feud | Brother Dusty-Feet | Outcast | Simon | Sword at Sunset | The Armourer’s House | The Eagle of the Ninth | The Queen Elizabeth Story | Tristan and Iseult
The South Downs in England
Dawn Wind | Flame-Coloured Taffeta | Knight’s Fee | Sun Horse, Moon Horse, | Sword at Sunset | The Eagle of the Ninth | The Lantern Bearers | The Silver Branch | The Witch’s Brat | Warrior Scarlet
London
Brother Dusty Feet | Song for a Dark Queen | The Witch’s Brat
The North Of England
A Circlet of Oak Leaves | Frontier Wolf | Sword at Sunset | Sword Song | The Capricorn Bracelet | The Chronicles of Robin Hood | The Eagle of the Ninth | The Mark of the Horse Lord | The Rider of the White Horse | The Shield Ring | The Shining Company | The Silver Branch
Scotland
A Circlet of Oak Leaves | Bonnie Dundee | Eagle’s Egg | Frontier Wolf| Shifting Sands | Sword at Sunset | Sword Song | The Capricorn Bracelet | The Eagle of the Ninth | The Mark of the Horse Lord | The Shining Company | We Lived in Drumfyvie

Wales
A Circlet of Oak Leaves | Sword at Sunset | Sword Song | The Bridge-Builders | The Chief’s Daughter | The Lantern Bearers | The Shining Company
Ireland
Blood Feud | Sword Song | The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool | The Hound of Ulster | Tristan and Iseult