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)

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales” | Possibly Albert Einstein quote!

Rosemary Sutcliff grew up was seriously affected by juvenile arthritis from a very young age. She was not at school and unable to read until aged about ten years, but she was read to ceaselessly by her mother, including Grimm’s Fairy-Tales – a copy of which was in her library.

Allegedly Albert Einstein, the physicist behind the Theory of General Relativity and other crucial theoretical advances of the 20th century, once said: “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Mind you that he said it might be a fairy-tale itself: https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2013/12/einsteins-folklore .

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.

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