Rosemary Sutcliff on Writing Historical Fiction

Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff by Raymond H. Thompson

August 1986

… I interviewed Rosemary Sutcliff for the periodical Avalon to Camelot back in 1986. I found the insights so intriguing that I decided to undertake (a) series of interviews with Arthurian authors.

Though perhaps best known for historical novels set in Roman Britain, such as Eagle of the Ninth (1954), Rosemary Sutcliff has written some of the finest contemporary recreations of the Arthurian story. She introduces us to Arthur in The Lantern Bearers (1959), a book for younger readers that won the Carnegie Medal, and in Sword at Sunset (1963) she continues his tale in his own words. She has also retold the Arthurian legend with clarity and elegance in Tristan and Iseult (1971), The Light Beyond the Forest (1979), The Sword and the Circle (1981), and The Road to Camlann (1981). Her later novels were set in the more recent past, but she returned to Dark Age Britain for her last novel, The Shining Company (London: Bodley Head), which is based upon the Gododdin. This poem, composed about 600 A.D. in North Britain by the bard Aneirin to commemorate a band of British warriors who fell in battle against the Angles, is of special interest in that it provides us with the earliest mention of Arthur’s name and Sutcliff’s novel preserves the Arthurian echoes.

I had intended to visit Sutcliff again to update and expand the interview. Sadly she died unexpectedly in 1992. We shall all miss her, for she too was one of a shining company, the storytellers who are Taliesin’s successors. Without them, what would become of the Arthurian dream?

RT: What first attracted you to Arthurian legend as a subject for story-telling?

RS: Amongst the rather odd collection of books that I was reared on were stories of Arthurian legend. King Arthur and Robin Hood between them attracted me very strongly as a child.

RT: Were these retellings of Malory?

RS: Yes. Originally I read retellings of what we might call the Malory version. 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. Then, little by little, other people, like Geoffrey Ashe, began to write about the historical Arthur, and I read their books as they came along. I always believed very strongly that there could be no smoke without a fire. A legendary hero almost always has a basis in a real person, around whom bits of legend and bits of other people’s stories gather and collect, rather like amber collecting little bits of paper. I was convinced that there was a real man in the middle somewhere.

RT: Did you read archaeological as well as historical works?

RS: I was very interested in archaeology as a very young and two of the books that I was brought up on were by Arthur Wiegel, a German archaeologist: Wanderings in Roman Britain and Wanderings in Anglo-Saxon Britain. They are not up to scratch any more because knowledge has grown so much since I started out, but when I first became interested in archaeology they were the last word.

RT: That raises another question: did you find that any archaeological discoveries have since changed your mind about Arthurian legend?

RS: Not really, because all these recent digs at Cadbury don’t really prove anything. They prove that Cadbury was an Iron Age fort and a Dark Age fort–yes, splendid. It might even have been one of the forts in which Arthur stationed his garrison. But I don’t see any evidence which suggests that it was his headquarters. There is nothing to change my earlier feelings about Arthur and the countryside which he came from.

RT: What about Geoffrey Ashe’s theory, identifying Arthur with Riothamus?

RS: It is very interesting, but it hasn’t changed my own feelings.

RT: Apart from Malory, had you read any other Arthurian romances when you started work on Sword at Sunset?

RS: Chretien de Troyes and of course the Mabinogion, which has been part of my life as long as I can remember. “Gereint and Enid” is to my mind one of the best of all the Arthurian stories.

RT: How about Tennyson?

RS: Yes, I read Tennyson and I loved him when I was a teenager, but I don’t think that I would put him down as an Arthurian scholar.

RT: What about modern versions?

RS: I loved T. H. White’s Once and Future King. It goes so deep and it’s on so many levels: it seems to go deeper than any other written version I know. It seems so up-to-date because the relationships are so recognizable. I read all four books many times. It is a pity that he messed them up when he wrote the final version in The Once and Future King, though–The Witch in the Wood particularly. I think T. H. White became more and more a man with a message, and he had to destroy an awful lot of his own gorgeous things to get that message across. I was very sad about it. When I read his books, I generally read them as they appeared separately.

RT: Did you read any novels that portrayed Arthur as a Dark Age leader before you yourself did so?

RS: No, never, but I had determined from the time that I was very young that there was a real person there, and that I would love to find and reconstruct that person. For many, many years I had the wish to do it one day, but I knew that I wasn’t yet ready to do it. Then one day quite suddenly I knew that I was ready, that the time had come when I really could cope with it. Most of the actual research I did for the book, apart from knowing the Arthurian story from the romance versions, was into Dark Age life and history as far as they were known. Then I worked into this setting the Arthur who seemed to me to carry weight, to be the most likely kind of person. It was very strange because I have never written a book which was so possessive. It was extraordinary–almost frightening. It took me about eighteen months to write, and it absolutely rode me thoughout the entire time. I would take the book to bed with me at night, and work there until I dropped off to sleep about two o’clock in the morning, too tired to see any more. Then I would wake up about six o’clock, still thinking about it. It was addictive. It was almost like having the story fed through to me, at times. I do my writing usually in three drafts, and I would go from the first to the second draft, from the second to the third, and find bits of the book that I had no recollection of having written at all. It was interesting, almost scary, but much of the material had this effect of being almost fed through to me, rather than being the result of my own research.

Another funny thing was that after I had finished the story I had great difficulty getting back into a woman’s skin, because I had been living as a man for eighteen months, thinking as a man, making love as a man, always looking from a man’s viewpoint. I am always deeply involved in my books. For me the book doesn’t work if I am not. But I have never been as deeply involved as that before or since.

When I started writing Sword at Sunset I made at least three false starts, but I couldn’t think what was the matter. I knew exactly what the story was that I wanted to tell, but it wouldn’t come. Then suddenly the penny dropped: it had to be first-person singular. I had never done first-person singular before, but the moment I started doing it that way it came, like a bird. But I had problems with it: first-person singular is very different from third-person writing, and I had no experience of it at all. But it was the only way it could be written.

RT: Before you wrote Sword at Sunset you wrote The Lantern Bearers. How do you see the relationship between the two novels?

RS: Well, The Lantern Bearers is officially a children’s book, but I would claim that my books are for children of all ages, from nine to ninety. Sword at Sunset is officially an adult book, but the two are really part of the same story. The Lantern Bearers finishes exactly three days before Sword at Sunset starts, though the viewpoint does shift. While not a first-person singular book, The Lantern Bearers is written through the eyes of Aquila. The point of view switches to Arthur in Sword at Sunset, but Aquila continues to be part of the story, unlike most of the other characters.

RT: The Lantern Bearers is itself a continuation of your other Roman stories?

RS: Yes, it is all part of the same series, really.

RT: Have you any favorite characters?

RS: Yes. I was very fond of Marcus in my first Roman book Eagle of the Ninth. Everyone said that Aquila was a very difficult character, and nobody liked him except me. I was very fond of him, however. He was difficult and prickly, but he had awful experiences that made him difficult and prickly. I am also very fond of Drem in Warrior Scarlet. He is one of my special favorites too.

RT: Is there any particular historical period that you prefer?

RS: I think that I am happiest of all in Roman Britain. I feel very much at home there. The Middle Ages I am not at home in. I am interested in them and love to read about them, but I can’t write about them, or practically not at all. I think it is because I can’t take the all-pervasiveness of religion which has a stranglehold on life. The more level-headed viewpoint of the Romans is nearer to our own way of looking at things. If I could do a time flip and landed back in Roman Britain, I would take a deep breath, take perhaps a fortnight to get used to things, then be all right, for I would know what was making the people around me tick. But if I landed in thirteenth or fourteenth-century England, I’d be lost. I have a special “ah, here I am again, I know exactly what they are going to have for breakfast” feeling when I get back into Roman Britain, which is very nice. I also enjoy the earlier Bronze Age very much: I loved writing Warrior Scarlet. But there seem to be only a certain number of stories you can tell of the Bronze Age.

RT: How about the Dark Ages?

RS: That fascinates me. It also has the additional advantage that if you can’t prove your interpretation is right, nobody else can prove it is wrong. Mind you, I think you have to be careful not to make this an excuse for cheating.

RT: Do you ever find that sometimes the need to preserve historical plausibility and to follow known facts gets in the way of telling a good story?

RS: Yes, but since I am a writer, not an historian, I will sacrifice historical accuracy. I really very seldom have to do it, and then it is only a matter of perhaps reversing the order of two events, or something like that. But if it does come to the crunch, I will choose a good story over absolute historical accuracy.

RT: In Sword at Sunset you gave to Bedwyr the role that is traditionally given to Lancelot. Did you feel you were going against tradition in doing this, or that you were in fact getting back to the historical roots?

RS: I think I had more the feeling I was getting back to the historical roots. There is very little that Bedwyr ever does in Arthurian legend, but there he is, one of the three oldest of the companions. I felt that if he is as unimportant as he appears to be, how come he is one of the three oldest companions? I wanted somebody to play the Lancelot role, and it seemed natural somehow that he should take it on.

RT: The other traditional companions you included were Kay and Gwalchmai. Why did you include no others?

RS: I didn’t feel I had any need of them. So many of the others are obviously figures from French medieval romance. These three seem to have roots that are older, more primitive.

RT: Were you concerned that the associations of the other figures with the French tradition were such that they would not fit into your story?

RS: Yes, I think so. This was not a romance version at all, but something much earlier: a Celtic version.

RT: In Sword at Sunset you chose to make Gwalchmai a healer, and healers appear in a number of your stories. Does the figure of the healer have a special appeal for you?

RS: I have always been very interested in the healing art. My family was terrified that I should end up by being a woman doctor, which wasn’t quite nice in those days. Doctoring always attracted me. The healer, whether he is a witch doctor or a monk in the infirmary or a Roman army doctor, is a character who doesn’t make or break but mends. This character always appealed to me very strongly. It has, I know, cropped up again and again in my books.

RT: The idea of the mender certainly fits in with some of the most pervasive themes in your novels, especially that of bridging the gap between two communities. What about the soldier? You seem even fonder of using this figure.

RS: I don’t think I am fond of it. It just happens that I am always getting involved with soldiers. I am always involved with battles and I don’t like battles. I don’t understand battles, but they work out alright eventually. When the urge to write about a character comes into my mind it never seems to be a peaceful stay-at-home character doing something perfectly worthwhile in a quieter way. It always seems to be a fighting man who appeals to me. I don’t know why: I am not a butch character. Somebody once said to me,”Perhaps you’ll be a soldier in another life.” I heard myself saying, “No, thank you, I have had enough of soldiering.” Perhaps it was something I remembered. I know that I was really quite startled when I heard my own voice saying this.

RT: What makes it ironic is that many of your characters are working towards a deeper understanding of human relationships, and that is not normally something that you associate with soldiers.

RS: No. I think that my soldiers tend to be the complete man in the way of the Elizabethan or the First World War soldier-poets: a combination of the warrior and the sensitive.

RT: Also, I suppose, you set about trying to educate them, or sensitize them?

RS: Yes. I do make them become more aware of relationships and of the peaceful side of life. They nearly always have come quite a long way by the end of the story.

RT: Arthur seems quite sensitive to begin with?

RS: Yes. You see I can claim no credit really for the character of Arthur at all. He seemed to decide himself the kind of person he was, and I just wrote it down.

RT: As well as writing many works of fiction, you have retold most of the important legends of Britain at one time or another. These legends are often very complex and sometimes contain elements that conflict. What determined your choice among the various forms of, for example, the Tristan and Iseult story?

RS: I think I simply chose the version that I thought would fit most happily into the story. It was a completely subjective decision. The only change I made which was not vouched for in an earlier story was to leave out the love potion which everybody else keeps. That was just me. I am basically a storyteller: I belong to the minstrelsy. Therefore I will choose what seems right to me.

RT: Do you have plans to write another Arthurian novel, perhaps about Merlin?

RS: I find him interesting, but I don’t think he belongs in an Arthurian novel. I think he is a different strand, and the two got plaited together at some stage in the development of the legend. I did not include him in Sword at Sunset because I just didn’t feel that he belonged there. Nor do I feel that Arthur belongs in a novel about Merlin. However, when I finish my present novel, The Sword of Allah [since published as Blood and Sand (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1987)], I plan to write the next one based upon the Gododdin poem, in which the bard Aneirin appears [since published as The Shining Company (London: Bodley Head, 1990)].

RT: We shall look forward to reading it. Thank you.

© Raymond H. Thompson

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