The Beacon at Alexandria Essay - Critical Context

Gillian Bradshaw

Critical Context

Gillian Bradshaw established her reputation as a novelist while still in college, receiving the Jule and Avery Hopwood Award for Fiction from the University of Michigan for Hawk of May (1980), the first volume in what would become an Arthurian trilogy. After completing a master’s degree in classics from Cambridge University, she continued to explore and re-create the latter days of the Roman Empire and the early Middle Ages. So seamlessly does she weave in the historical facts that give believability to her stories that the reader does not even notice these lessons. In The Beacon at Alexandria, for example, many fascinating snippets describe how medicine was learned and practiced at that time in history and what a primitive military hospital might have been like. These facts heighten the sense of loss that Bradshaw obviously projects at the death of the Roman Empire, even though she does not romanticize second century life. Two other books, while not constituting a formal trilogy with The Beacon at Alexandria, continue her exploration of life during the collapse of the Roman Empire: The Bearkeeper’s Daughter (1987) and Imperial Purple (1988).

Bradshaw did not write her books for a young adult audience, but they have been embraced by teenagers who although realizing the chasm between these civilizations and their own, recognize a commonality between their situations and those of Bradshaw’s characters. Any young woman who has been hindered from pursuing her dreams (although with far fewer obstacles) will see in her own circumstances a reflection of Charis’ story. The Beacon at Alexandria received the American Library Association’s Notable Book award.