Sword At Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Sword At Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A re-telling of the Arthurian legend that puts it firmly in the historical fiction category with none of the fantastical frippery of wizards and magical dragons. The story of a war leader trying to hold a country together that makes it all very plausible indeed.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 486 Date: December 2012
Publisher: Atlantic
ISBN: 9780857892430

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Every country has its myths and legends: those stories that are told and re-told. Stories that have any number of re-interpretations. Stories, a belief in which becomes part of our national identity, even if we hold them to be true, purely because we want them to be true. Part of them, at any rate. Those parts of our favourite retelling that speak most to us as individuals.

In England, Robin Hood and his merry men, is one such. The other is King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

It is this latter that Sutcliff chose. No-one is really sure who King Arthur was, but whoever he was any notion of French chivalric tradition later associated with him was clearly spin. He existed – if he existed – in a time of turmoil. The Romans had deserted, the civilisation they had brought was slowly being allowed to disintegrate (probably for the lack of funds to keep it up as much as anything else), but the British were hanging on.

Two problems.

The British didn't really exist in any sense that we would understand today. There were Scots and Picts to the north; there were the Celtic tribes in Wales and the South West. The remnants of the Iceni and others in the East.

Secondly: there were the Saxons. They were interlopers, and they were bent on domination.

The solution would be to unite the tribes to fight to keep them out.

Enter Ambrosius and with him, Arthur.

It would take a miracle to unite the tribes and defeat the Saxons. And so miracles were ascribed… miracles and magic and betrayal…all the stuff of legends. The sword in the stone. The magician Merlin. Dragons arising out of mountains. The half-sister Morgan le Fay and the dreaded fate of Mordred. The beautiful Guinevere who would betray Arthur's love with his closest comrade in arms, Lancelot. (And that's before we start to wonder if there ever was a round table or go off with Sir Gawain after the Holy Grail).

Sutcliff ignores all of this in large measure in her re-telling of the Arthurian legend. As in her other historical novels, she allows for a certain amount of a certain kind of what might, to some eyes, just possibly look like magic, but mostly she goes to the record (such as it is), goes to the archaeological evidence and asks: what might it really have been like? If any of this, she seems to ask, had any origin in truth, what might that truth have been?

In the short author's note that precedes the tale she sets out her stall. For her, there was No knight in shining armour, no Round Table, no many-towered Camelot; but a Romano-British war leader, to whom, when the Barbarian darkness came flooding in, the last guttering lights of civilisation seemed worth fighting for.

She retains, as she puts it, certain features…from the traditional Arthurian fabric. There is the Sin which carries with it its own retribution – the liaison with the unknown half-sister and the begetting of the son who will be the doom. And there is the love-betrayal. This latter she ascribes not to Lancelot who does not appear in her tale, because he seems to have been a later romantic addition to the story rather than having any evidential existence. Instead it will be Bedwyr – one of the earliest of Arthur's companions to be named in the 'historical record' – harper, fighter, comrade in arms who steals away a wife – but then that is not so simple a part of the tale either. Life never is. Nor love.

Elsewhere she adds in episodes that have grounding in archaeological fact – a young girl was found buried under nine horses in a pit at the Roman fort of Trimontium. She offers explanations, entirely plausible within the context of a story of events that may or may not have happened. It is after all, a novel.

It reads as such.

The author distances the telling from the fable, by Celticising or Romanising (as appropriate) many of the familiar names. Bedovere is rendered as Bedwyr; Guinevere becomes Guenhumara, Sir Kay becomes simply Cei. But Uther is recognisable as Utha and Ambrosius was always Ambrosius. Ygerna for Igraine, and Medrault for Mordred take no real deciphering for anyone brought up on the tales, but the subtle shifts are enough to make the suspension of disbelief all the easier. This is how it really might have been. This could be the truth.

The battle sequences are rendered in less than the gory detail we might expect today. The book was first published in 1963 and, although officially for adults, it was likely aimed at those who had grown up on the Eagle of the Ninth and its followers. At the same time, she does a good job of rendering the sheer on-going drudgery of warfare that went on year after year, breaking for the harvest and the fight-impossible winters. She underlines what it was like for the common soldier who would maybe see his wife once every three or four years.

And those battles are won without the help of wizardly intervention but by the usual combination of better tactics, ability to use the lie of the land, more advanced equipment and weaponry and the necessary dose of luck.

The story is told by Arthur himself, as he lies dying. It is a memoir full of glorious deeds, but also of an unasked for love that could not be rendered, of deep friendships and comradeship. His beautiful wife brings as her dowry not a round table for debating around, but a hundred fighting men and her brother to lead them. Artos the bear as he known affectionately right up until the decisive battle of Badon which will see him anointed something akin (but not quite) to High King, also speaks of his animals. His horses and dogs mean as much to him as his Company. The Companions Sutcliff calls them. It's a perennial idea no doubt echoed in all the war stories in all the world. For me it called to mind Cornwell's Chosen Men in the Sharpe stories.

There are all the rituals and superstitions you might expect of a story set in ancient Britain, a time when the old religions and the new were existing side by side. It is a largely Christian country already, but followers of Mithras are still unremarkable, and who knows what the little dark people of the forest believe.

The Arthurian legend may well be a fairy tale, but even fairy tales work best when they are told in a way that makes them easy to believe. Sutcliff did a stunning job with this one.

It has none of the romance of Geoffrey of Monmouth's classic rendition, but as a result it seems to be a story of real people, driven and restrained as much by their emotions as their intelligence (and vice versa). Even the taking of Arthur's body to Avalon and the casting of the sword into the mere are given a rational explanation. The skill in the telling is that none of this rationalisation detracts, but rather adds, to the enjoyment of revisiting the story one more time.

For those who know nothing of the Arthurian legend, I might advise caution in reading this book. It will spoil the delights of the traditional tales if this is your first encounter with the once and future king. Go read some of the more fantastical renditions first. Go especially to Monmouth's telling. But then come back.

For everyone else, brought up as I was on tales of Camelot, this is the grown up version of the story. A truth that is even easier to believe in.

If you want to know what might have happened next, try Bloodline by Katy Moran which follows Cei after Arthur's death.

Buy Sword At Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sword At Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff at Amazon.co.uk

Buy Sword At Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Sword At Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff at Amazon.com.


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