20 April 2006

Song for a Dark Queen: brief review

Tony Keen, in his blog comments briefly on Song for a Dark Queen.

Update on 23rd April: Tony Keen comments on Rosemary Sutcliff.

10 April 2006

Teachers' Guide for Sutcliff's novels

Thank you to Sarah Johnson for mentioning this on her blog:

Farrar, Strauss and Giroux's (Sutcliff's US publisher) 12 page Teachers' Guide brochure

2 December 2005

A Rosemary Sutcliff editor

I recently came across the Ancient Worlds website. They have a forum for Children's Literature and this post by one of Sutcliff's editors will doubtless be of interest. Here is the same poster acknowledging that Sutcliff is out of fashion. And here are some comments on Sutcliff's book in general.

UK Hardback cover: Sword Song

Sword Song, Bodley Head, 1997

14 October 2005

UK Paperback cover: The Lantern Bearers

The Lantern Bearers, Oxford University Press, Paperback, 1972

5 September 2005

Dutch cover: The Lantern Bearers

Dutch The Lantern Bearers, supplied by Robert Vermaat: awaiting details.

Spot the deliberate mistake. Lorica segmentata went out of use probably around the 3rd century; the story is set in the 5th century.

Dutch hardback: Sword At Sunset

Dutch Sword At Sunset, supplied by Robert Vermaat: awaiting details.

Definitely the Richard Harris effect again ... But at least he's not in a grumpy mood this time!

21 August 2005

That's Sutcliff without an 'e' thank you!

Over on Anthony Lawton's blog, he says he too has noticed how often Rosemary Sutcliff's name is spelt with an 'e' on the end

He's also added some new entries, complete with photos, so hop over and check it out

Anonymous comments

Due to comments which primarily seem to be advertising, I have changed the comments facility to 'registered users' only. This is regrettable, but needs to be done; this blog is not for commercial advertising.

If you already have a blogger blog, there will be no problem if you wish to comment. If you don't have a blogger blog, it's easy to sign up, and you don't necessarily have to keep up with your blog (though it's fun, and you might find it addictive!) If you really don't want to sign up, then drop us a line at the above address; I'll be happy to post your comments for you. Looking forward to hearing from you!!!!

Things to come: Dutch books covers, as supplied by Robert Vermaat, more British book covers, plus eventually, I'll get around to typing in that Rosemary Sutcliff interview of mine.

20 August 2005

Paperback cover: The Mark of the Horse Lord

The Mark of the Horse Lord, Oxford University Press, Paperback, 1975

27 July 2005

When I waited for Rosemary Sutcliff

Robin Rowland, who wrote the review of King Arthur as linked in this blog a while back, has written a short piece about why he likes Rosemary Sutcliff in his blog.

10 July 2005

The Mark of the Horse Lord

Some Random Thoughts after Reading The Mark of the Horse Lord

I was delighted to hear that you've set up a Rosemary Sutcliff weblog. Reading through the posts and links, I was inspired to drop everything and re-read for perhaps the seventh or eighth time my favourite of her novels for children – The Mark of the Horse Lord. I am, incidentally, the proud possessor of a first edition, courtesy of my husband who received it as a fourteenth birthday present, long before I knew him.

Opening the book reminded me of the thrill of my first reading – this was a copy borrowed from the school library. I remember how quickly Sutcliff drew me into the world of her characters and caught me fast in the web of her storytelling, so that I was no mere looker-on, but in turn one of those belonging to Phaedrus's gladiator family, then a tribesman dancing to the rhythm of the wolfskin drum, warming himself at the house-place fire, or taking up his weapons for battle.

And as I read, the web was spun again, as strongly as the first time. I was enthralled and moved. And at the ending, I felt the same sharp pang of shock I had felt at that first reading, when I didn't want it to end the way it did, though something in me knew that this was the only fitting end; a more comfortable one would have been a betrayal of the story and the people who lived it. And it in its way, though tragic, the ending left me with a feeling of exhilaration, as I’m sure it was meant to.

So – The Mark of the Horse Lord has for me lost none of its magic. But what is that magic? I don't want to kill the dream with over-analysis but I do want to explore a few thoughts about Sutcliff’s writing that came to me as I read.

Sutcliff’s thrilling and thought-provoking storytelling is woven out of strong threads that draw the reader into the world of The Mark of The Horse Lord, and indeed into all of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels:

The characters who, in all their quirky individuality, spring fully-formed from the pages and take possession of the reader’s heart.

The themes that drive the characters: friendship and love, belonging and not-belonging, the struggle with some crippling handicap of mind or body, or both – and, perhaps above all, sacrifice: the willing sacrifice of the chieftain or king for his people. All these are themes that Sutcliff comes back to again and again, but of all her novels for children it’s perhaps in The Mark of the Horse Lord that they’re played out most fully. And these are demanding themes, whose darkness and complexity make the novel as rewarding for adults as it is for children.

The world the characters live in which becomes as real to readers as their own world. In Sutcliff’s hands, the natural world of weather and landscape, of fauna and flora, is more than a backcloth; it’s a character in its own right, vivid and three-dimensional. Thanks, I’m sure, to her early training as an artist and keen observer of nature, she paints with a few deft strokes everything from the broad sweep of heather moors to the wistfulness of a winter twilight, from the green, fragrant canopy of a forest down to the detail in a falling leaf or a flower petal. This is a world that we readers can touch and smell and feel, that we can, in effect, inhabit. And the imagery Sutcliff uses to bring her world alive is entirely right and fitting for its purpose. It strikes me that there’s no self-conscious artifice in its making. It’s natural and unforced, hewn simply out of the fabric of the world her people live in.

23 June 2005

The Dark Age Novels of Rosemary Sutcliff by Charles W Evans-Gunther - Part III

The final Dark Age book is The Shining Company and is, as far as I can see, completely divorced from the previous books. Rosemary Sutcliff has returned to the first person for this book, with Prosper telling his own story. It begins with Prosper, the son of a Welsh lord, being given an Irish slave - Conn - and we swiftly meet Luned, who makes up the youthful threesome. Their lives were soon to change when Prosper becomes second shield bearer to Prince Gorthyn ap Urfai of Rhyfunnog who is riding out to join Mynyddog's warband at Din Eidin. Rhyfunnog was a district of North Wales in Gwynedd Is Conwy, and in an area that is now called Clwyd.

They join the year-long preparation for a battle against the Angles of Bernicia. As the months pass by Conn, who is with Prosper, becomes interested in smithying and eventually is freed to become a smith. There we come across one of Miss Sutcliff's trademarks - an object that links up parts of the story. At the beginning of the novel Conn becomes fascinated by the stories told by Phanes of Syracuse, a merchant, and his Archangel Dagger, which has been brought from Constantinople. This, and Phanes, appear later in the story and have a profound effect on both Prosper and Conn. After the preparations, comes the campaign. Though the Britons cause the Angles great losses, the enemy eventually triumphs. The wounded Gorthyn is saved by Prosper and returns to Din Eidin. The novel ends with Gorthyn and Prosper making their way with the Archangel Dagger to Constantinople, and Conn returning to Luned in North Wales.

Rosemary Sutcliff's novels are well worth reading, even though they are in the main juvenile publications. Like all novelists, she puts her own peculiar stamp on them. In the Dark Age novels and the Roman series, we see some of her trademarks - in the passage of a youth to adulthood, her love of dogs and horses, healers and strange objects that lend continuity. Though she follows some of the traditional events, characters and so on, she always adds greater reality to the story.

Taking into account the information that was available in the period of writing of the earlier books, I feel that Rosemary Sutcliff's representation of the Dark Age may be near to the mark. You may not agree with how she put the character in a particular position; for example - Arthur being Ambrosius Aurelianus's nephew - but the over all feel seems right. Also, the way she depicts the everyday life of the various people is hard to fault. I do feel that her way of showing the growth of change from Roman, Romano-British to modern British is correct. Few people can claim purity of bood - no English person is pure English, and the same is true for Welsh, Irish or Scottish people. There are certain people in the British Isles that can trace their ancestors back to Normans who came over with the Conqueror, but they are not Norman now. The Light of the earlier novels did not go out - it changed into a different sort of illumination.


Fisher, Margery, 1986, Bright Face of Danger

Thompson, Raymond H, 1987, 'An Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff' Avalon to Camelot Volume II, No 3 (See a version of this at: The Camelot Project, Rochester University )

Townsend, John Rowe, 1971, A Sense of Story: Essay on Contemporary Writers for Children

Wintle, Justin & Fisher, Emma, 1974, The Pied Pipers


11 June 2005

The Dark Age Novels of Rosemary Sutcliff by Charles W Evans-Gunther - Part II

All of Rosemary Sutcliff's novels are worth reading; they are not only good stories but believable. One of the signs of a good novelist is that when you read their works you think you are reading about real people and real happenings. Also, you become drawn into the story and feel for the characters. This is very true of Miss Sutcliff's works. She was especially good at creating a reality from so few facts - you almost get the impression that she knows more about the subject than the experts. Interestingly, she had Roman army units at Exeter in The Eagle of the Ninth when archaeologists said there were not any. However, since the 1950s considerable evidence has been found at Exeter to prove otherwise. It is known that Rosemary Sutcliff did the necessary painstaking research to get herself into the feel of the period, but there still seems to be something almost uncanny about her work, almost as if she had lived in the time she was writing about. She did hint on a number of occasions that she may have some belief in reincarnation, but certainly she felt more at home in the pre-medieval period. It is without doubt that her best books are about this far-away time.

The first of Rosemary Sutcliff's Dark Age novels is The Lantern Bearers, the tale of Aquila, son of Flavian, how he survives the Saxon slavery, escapes and joins Ambrosius Aurelianus to defend Britannia against the growing threat of Anglo-Saxon domination. Originally, Aquila is a Roman soldier, but when the last of the legions leave (no actual date is given) he deserts and stays with his family. Unfortunately, his father and most of the servants are killed in a Saxon pirate raid, his sister Flavia is kidnapped and he is left to die. However, a separate band of pirates takes Aquila as a slave and return to their homeland. The young man grows up with the Saxons, learns their language and finds out that they are people just like his own kind.

When in back in Britannia, Aquila makes his way west and north to join Ambrosius Aurelianus. In the mountains of Arfon, he meets for the first time a young boy called Artorius - Artos the Bear - Arthur:

"He headed for the winding cleft in the hillside ... More than half way up ... he found a small boy and a hound puppy very intent on a hole under a brown tumble of last year's fern. He would have passed by without speaking and left them to it, but the small boy sat up and grinned at him, thrusting back a shock of hair the warm silvery-mouse colour of a hayfield in June, and the puppy thumped his tail; there was something irresistibly friendly about both of them that he stopped, without meaning to ..."

Aquila eventually marries Ness, has a boy child, and names him after his father - Flavian. Through his stay with the Saxons, his real name was forgotten and he became known as Dolphin because of the tattoo he had on his arm. When Flavian is born, Aquila's friends call the boy Minnow, son of Dolphin. The battles with the Saxons increase and the novel ends with impending war and the young Arthur grown in strength is now ready to lead a band of companions into battle.

In the first chapter of Sword At Sunset we are introduced to another object that has a similar significance to the Aquila family's dolphin ring:

" ... I saw that set in the pommel was a great square amethyst. It was so dark in colour as to be almost of the Imperial Purple ... clear on the pale surface-sheen of the gem, I saw an Imperial eagle, intaglio cut, grasping in its claws a double M; and spelled out backward around the edge, turning the sword to catch the light on the letters, the single word 'Imperator' ... It is Maximus' Seal.

I remember I stood for a long time looking at the Great seal ... oddly moved by the link across the years with my great-grandsire, the proud Spanish general who married a princess of Arfon ..."

We are told that Arthur was the bastard son of Utha, Ambrosius' brother, and grandson of Constantine son of Magnus Maximus. This is a very interesting point worthy of discussion, and I would suggest it has its origins in the controversial ideas of Welsh scholar Arthur Wade-Evans.

In this version of the story of Arthur, Miss Sutcliff depicts Arthur as a cavalry leader under the command of Ambrosisus Aurelianus. He is depicted as a human being - not a superman or medieval king - a caring man, a clever man, but with flaws which eventually lead to problems. Rosemary Sutcliff obviously used many sources - including Geoffrey of Monmouth - and though far from the traditional romantic version of the tale, it does contain some elements of these later stories.

Amongst the characters in Sword At Sunset are some traditional Welsh ones such as Cai, Bedwyr and Gwalchmai - and, of course, Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere) but using Geoffrey of Monmouth's version of her name, Guenhumara. In this novel, Bedwyr takes the part of Lancelot in the famous love triangle which develops. Sword At Sunset tells the story of Arthur in his own words - from the buying of horses in France, to the terrible winter in Scotland, his wars, his loves, his friendships and his failures. It continues the tale begun in The Lantern Bearers leading to the death of Ambrosius in a hunting accident, the victory at Badon, Arthur being proclaimed Caesar, the break-up of the companions by Medraut (Arthur's son) and the end at Camlan. This is a marvellous story, well written by Rosemary Sutcliffe, and though it includes many of the traditional elements in Arthur's life, it also includes something of Miss Sutcliff's own ideas - such as Gwalchmai as a healer, the Little Dark People, and the continuation of the story of the Aquila family (Aquila dies at Badon, Flavian is Arthur's shield-bearer, and Flavian's son, called Minnow by Arthur, becomes a soldier like his forefathers).

Dawn Wind, the third of the Dark Age books, continues with the Aquila family and Rosemary's juvenile novels. It concerns Owain, who is trying to find a place in the ruins of his world. The Anglo-Saxons have come to dominate the land that is to become England, and the Britons have recently been defeated in a great battle. Owain and a hound, whom he calls simply Dog, have survived. Miss Sutcliff is very good when talking about dogs and horses, and both play important parts in this novel. In the early part of the story, Owain is living with an old famer and his wife and one Sunday attends Mass at which the priest lays out the situation:

"Brethren, the Light goes out and the Dark flows in. It is for us to keep some lamps burning until the time we can give it back to the light the world once more ..."

The world seems to be crumbling around the Britons and literally when Owain enters Wroxeter hoping to find it still occupied. Ruins are everywhere, and the only living soul he finds is Regina, a young girl who has survived on her wits. Together, they leave the ruins in hope of finding a better life. However, Regina falls ill and Owain sells himself into Saxon thralldom to save her. Now a slave of the hated enemy, the view point is swiftly rotated to show what life for these Germanic people is like and we learn that they are not so much different. Owain settles in and becomes a part of Saxon society. One excellent character in the story is old Uncle Widreth, who tells the children stories and philosophises:

""When you are my age'" the old man was saying, "When you are my age, you'll have learned how little all things matter. Life is fierce with the young and maybe more gentle with the old. Only, while one is young, there is always the hope that one day something will happen; that one day a little wind will rise ...""

And it is the dawn wind that changes Owain's life and brings his freedom - freedom eventually to meet up again with Regina and the hope of returning to those old friends made in the hills of Wales.

With the re-union of Owain and Regina, the Dark Age series concerning the Aquila family ends. However, the dolphin ring is passed from father to son until the male line comes to an end. According to The Shield Ring, a female member of the Aquila family becomes part of a Norse family and after her the ring passed from father to son, but is not longer purely British. It is certain that Miss Sutcliff wanted to show that the British of later time were not simply Celtic or Saxon or Norse, but a mixture of these and more. From Clustunium in Etruria to Calleva in Britannia, and from the hill to Wales to the crags of Cumbria, the Aquila family changed from Roman to British.


A dolphin intaglio

Supplied by Graham Sumner

Dragon Slayer, Puffin, 1966

Rosemary Sutcliff's Dolphin signature

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