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Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff

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erechwydd
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Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff

Post by erechwydd » Sun February 26th, 2012, 6:18 pm

(Chicago Review Press, 2008, 495 pages)

First published in 1963, Sword at Sunset is perhaps Rosemary Sutcliff’s best known adult novel, a vivid re-imagining of the myth that is King Arthur. Sutcliff strips away the medieval ‘romance’ here, instead drawing sparingly on Welsh tradition, and grounding her tale very much in the realities of the post-Roman era, as the inhabitants of Britain struggle against not just the rising tide of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Sea Wolves’ and their allies, but dangerous division amongst themselves.
The story is narrated by Sutcliff’s Arthur, Artos, as he lies dying of a battle wound in the monastery of the Island of Apples, and takes us on a journey from his early years as the Count of Britain, the canny head of a roving warband whose purpose is to break Anglo-Saxon power in Britain, through to his election as High King and beyond. But the novel doesn’t charge straight into battle: Sutcliff starts slowly, building up a detailed sense of Artos’ world and his character, so that although I was unsure about him at first, I gradually came to respect, and then to like him. Artos makes a thoroughly believable post-Roman warleader, not above using trickery and threats – even towards his own people – if it allows him to further his cause; but although he has his flaws, he’s also very human: dogged and made vulnerable by a fateful encounter in his home hills, committed to his cause, afraid of the loneliness accompanying authority, and in many respects honest, decent and loyal, it’s easy to empathise with him, and of all the characters in the book, he was my favourite. Sutcliff said that she was more 'deeply involved' with this novel than any other, and described herself as 'living' as Artos during the time she was writing it, and it’s perhaps a mark of this involvement that whilst her style is very distinctive, I never felt I was listening to anyone other than Artos himself. Her other characters were well drawn, their natures often deftly conveyed by just a few well chosen words, and the relationships between them are emotionally powerful and compelling – especially between Artos and his two closest companions, Guenhumara and Bedwyr.
The descriptions of surroundings and events are, as ever, detailed and vibrant, especially visually – the passages depicting sunsets stand out particularly – which leaves a strong impression of having actually experienced them. Sutcliff, from what I’ve read of her work so far, wasn’t one to shy away from describing bloodshed and cruelty either, and this novel is no exception: there are several images of gut-wrenching violence, although it’s never gratuitous.
As might be expected given the novel’s grounding, there’s no real magic in this book – and no Merlin, either, for that matter – only a strong sense of Fate, the whims of which some people can discern, and others can’t. At first I felt that the way in which Artos picked up each of his companions along the way seemed somewhat neat and linear, but viewed as part of the current of Fate, it makes perfect sense.
My only real niggle with the novel was the portrayal of the Little Dark People, a semi-subterranean race of pygmy people (rather like the Picts of legend) with Neolithic aspects, which occasionally brought me up short. But if I’m honest, they eventually blended in with the rest of the tale, and it ended up seeming as if they always had.
Overall, a masterful imagining of who and what the original ‘King Arthur’ may have been, well written and with deft references to the old legends. Towards the beginning of the novel, Artos, when trying Ambrosius the High King’s sword, speaks of it being ‘perfectly balanced’. I think the same can be said of Rosemary Sutcliff’s tale.

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Post by annis » Mon February 27th, 2012, 6:25 am

Great review, Erechwydd. I was delighted when Sword at Sunset was reissued a few years back. It's still one of the most compelling Arthurian novels, stripped of medieval flummery and taken back to its Celtic roots, powerful because it is lacking in fantasy (apart from the Little Dark People who frequently appear as the keepers of earth magic in Sutcliff's stories), realistic, yet grounded in universal heroic myth. It's one of the clearest expressions of the triple themes identified by Barbara Talcroft in Sutcliff's work: ritual kingship, the maimed king and the Goddess.

It's very interesting to read Sutcliff's interview with Raymond Thompson, where she speaks of working from the deepest level of heroic archetype, serving as a conduit for Artos' story (though she was also the consummate craftsman - apparently always writing (by hand!) three drafts for each of her books before she was satisfied.)

She used Francis Brett Young's Hic Jacet Arthurus Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus (Here Lies Arthur, the Once and Future King) as the foreword for Sword at Sunset, and you see how this evocative poem would have stirred her imagination. In an interview with John Withrington, she commented, "I had thought of, begun to think of, the reconstruction of the historical Arthur, and then I came across this poem....it sort of rang bells for me in all directions".

I posted a brief review of Sword at Sunset when it was reissued, along with some thoughts about Sutcliff's work, at the Historical Novels Info website here
Last edited by annis on Tue February 28th, 2012, 2:07 am, edited 10 times in total.

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Post by Shield-of-Dardania » Mon February 27th, 2012, 9:35 am

Great stuff, Erechwydd & Annis.

I browsed through that interview with Raymond Thompson. This is one of the gems, I think:

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.

erechwydd
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Post by erechwydd » Mon February 27th, 2012, 6:33 pm

Annis, I agree, it's a book that should always be around. I was pretty chuffed when I saw the reprint. I actually have the original 1963 edition, which I picked up at a garage sale down the road when I was about ten. But somehow I never read it. :o I eventually decided to get the new edition, and I'm glad I did, as though I never quite accommodated to the spelling, it's a really nicely produced book.
I think it's testament to both Sutcliff's skill and the deep resonance of the myths she incorporates, that they often don't stand out as 'myth' at all, but just seem perfectly natural - part of the 'ancient and innermost places of man', as she puts it in the Foreword. I love that. I haven't read Barbara Talcroft, but looking at the triple themes you've listed there, I can see how they relate to Sutcliff's work. Thanks for the link to your review; I think it really captures the essence of the novel. :)

Shield-of-Dardania, that part of the interview really stood out for me too when I looked through it a while back. Though I think it's possible to blur the boundaries too much when it comes to historical accuracy, it's good to have that reminder of the importance of the story.

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Post by annis » Tue February 28th, 2012, 2:20 am

Thanks, Erechwydd :) I wonder what you would have made of Sword at Sunset at ten? It's always been placed among Sutcliff's few adult novels. I think when it was written the themes of incest, adultery and homosexuality weren't considered suitable stuff for younger readers, though I imagine they would hardly shock modern teenagers, and in fact a lot of Sutcliff's young fans back in the day read it anyway. Keen readers are never thwarted by limitations - I remember reading plenty of books that would have shocked the socks off my parents if they'd known about it!

erechwydd
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Post by erechwydd » Tue February 28th, 2012, 12:43 pm

I agree, teenagers today probably wouldn't bat at eyelid at the content - and as you point out, maybe they never did much. ;) Not sure what I'd have made of it when I was ten, though I have wondered. To be honest, I can't really remember why I didn't read it at the time, except that I think I was a little overawed by the fact that it was a first edition, and probably thought it would self-destruct if I handled it. :rolleyes: I get the impression that the last owner didn't read it much either, which is sad, but I like to think it inspired them in some way, as it came complete with contemporary Arthur-related news cutting. :)

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Post by Madeleine » Tue November 11th, 2014, 3:38 pm

Just seen that this has been re-issued yet again, in a new paperback edition - maybe trying to catch the Game of Thrones fanbase?
Currently reading "The Pale Horse" by Agatha Christie & "The Corset" by Laura Purcell

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Post by Misfit » Tue November 11th, 2014, 10:10 pm

It's out on Kindle as well. Good for me, I can donate my tiny formed copy and library has the ebook in their catalog. The font size in my hard copy was so intimidating.
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Post by Carla » Sat November 15th, 2014, 5:31 pm

I can't recommend this too highly. Absolutely first-class. I'm so pleased to see it is being re-issued again.
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