Rosemary Sutcliff 1920–
Sutcliff is one of England's foremost writers of historical fiction for young adults. She is especially noted for her ability to bring history alive for her readers. Whether she is retelling a traditional legend or chronicling actual historical events, her expertise at realistically conveying a particular sense of time and place enables young adults to see history as a "continuous process of which they themselves are a part." By focusing as much on the dramatic external action as on the inner life of the protagonist struggling to pass into maturity, Sutcliff succeeds in creating historical fiction relevant to contemporary youth.
Perhaps the best known of her works is her trilogy about the rise and fall of Roman Britain consisting of The Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers. Sutcliff won the Carnegie Medal award in 1960 for The Lantern Bearers. Her other trilogy, depicting Arthurian legends, was recently completed with the publication of The Road to Camlann.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed. and Something about the Author, Vol. 6.)
Louise S. Bechtel
"Simon" is the longest and best written of Miss Sutcliff's books, appealing more to readers over twelve. It pictures England of the Civil War in 1640, focusing on the campaign in Devon and the west country, showing how a teen-age boy came to take his share in the fighting, and what happened to his friendship for his neighbor and friend who fought with the Royalists. The battles, the journeys, the narrow escapes, are done with vigorous realism. The setting, always vivid with this writer, is most memorable here, for this is country she knows well. There is romance, for the older girls who like "costume" stories, but chiefly it is for those boys who love old battles with youth as hero whether or not the war is one they have met already in history.
Louise S. Bechtel, in her review of "Simon," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation), May 16, 1954, p. 21.
(The entire section is 154 words.)
One of the most interesting writers of children's historical novels today is Rosemary Sutcliff; her new book, The Eagle of the Ninth, seems to me a work of real distinction. It concerns a young Roman's first few years in Britain, and his journey into the Caledonian north, after a wound has put him out of Army service, to see if any trace can be found of the mysteriously vanished Ninth Legion. Second-century Britain may not seem an enticing period; yet Miss Sutcliff writes so evocatively and well, and with so skilful an avoidance of pitfalls, that I would recommend her book not only to older boys and girls but to any adult who likes, in reading, the serious historical story, the enigma and the quest.
Naomi Lewis, "The Young Supernaturalist," in The New Statesman & Nation (© 1954 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. XLVIII, No. 1230, October 2, 1954, p. 404.∗
(The entire section is 148 words.)
Lavinia R. Davis
When the young centurion Marcus Aquila took over his first command in a frontier garrison in ancient Britain his heart was set on a long and glorious military career. He was also determined to find out about his father who had been lost ten years earlier when the Ninth Legion had mysteriously vanished on its way to quell a rebellion in North Britain. A crippling wound in his first battle put an early end to Marcus' military career. How he achieved his second ambition, even to restoring the Eagle, the bronze standard of the lost Ninth, and clearing his father's name, makes an exceptionally fine historical novel ["The Eagle of the Ninth"].
The two main characters, Marcus and his former slave, a Briton named Esca, are well drawn. Their adventures, whether in battle, on the lonely hills, or in the forbidden temple where the Eagle was finally found, are invariably exciting and credible.
Lavinia R. Davis, "In Ancient Britain," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 9, 1955, p. 24.
(The entire section is 177 words.)
Louise S. Bechtel
With each of her historical stories for older boys and girls, [Rosemary Sutcliff] writes better. Her "Eagle of the Ninth" was a stirring recreation of life in Roman Britain. Keeping to the same period, she now tells [in "Outcast"] an almost equally thrilling tale of a Roman boy brought up as a Briton, then rejected by his tribe, made a slave when he goes back to Rome, and … sent to the galleys. The plot finally takes him back to Britain, the land he truly loves, to find his father, his freedom, and his own true love.
The background has startling reality. Those "good readers" over twelve, who appreciate as fine and as long a story as this, will be absorbed, not only in the exciting action, the battles and escapes, but in the remarkably interesting details of life in Rome, of the sufferings of the galley slaves, of the Roman engineering that drained the Romney Marshes.
Louise S. Bechtel, in her review of "Outcast," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), February 26, 1956, p. 9.
(The entire section is 180 words.)
[In "The Shield Ring"] Rosemary Sutcliff tells the story of young Bjorn, unsure of his own courage but determined to prove himself worthy of the noble traditions of his people [the Vikings]. How he does this, and how his friendship for the Saxon girl, Frytha, gradually changes into love, makes an absorbing tale, peopled with three-dimensional characters and filled with stirring events. Admittedly, the author's precise care in recreating a period and place, her use of archaic words such as garth and schoon, her concern with character motivations make for slow and sometimes difficult reading. Nevertheless, this is a well-written, richly colored historical novel which can be warmly recommended….
Elizabeth Hodges, "The Defenders," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 17, 1957, p. 40.
(The entire section is 131 words.)
Margaret Sherwood Libby
A deeply stirring historical tale, one like "The Shield Ring," is rare. The characters are forceful, sympathetic and interesting. There is a startlingly vivid picture of life in hut and Great Hall in a Viking settlement or steading among the northern hills and lakes of England in the eleventh century while the Normans harass its borders….
Splendid as was the "Eagle of the Ninth," this is finer. The intelligent reader over twelve will be caught by the sweep and power of it and by its wild, poetic atmosphere. It cannot be pigeonholed as just for the "young"….
Margaret Sherwood Libby, in her review of "The Shield Ring," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T. Corporation; reprinted by permission), May 12, 1957, p. 8.
(The entire section is 123 words.)
J. O. Prestwich
Rosemary Sutcliff has won a reputation as a writer of historical novels for children which always show care and sensitivity and sometimes distinction. Her recent work has been rather sombre in tone and over ornate in style. The Silver Branch, a story of Roman Britain, is a sequel to The Eagle of the Ninth, and shows Miss Sutcliff at her best. The time is the close of the third century: the theme the recovery of Britain by Rome after the reign of Carausius and the coup of Allectus…. It is a carefully constructed book with a firm dramatic theme, many admirable descriptive passages and vivid characters. (pp. 658-59)
J. O. Prestwich, in a review of "The Silver Branch," in New Statesman (© 1957 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LIV, No. 1392, November 16, 1957, pp. 658-59.
(The entire section is 134 words.)
Lavinia R. Davis
As in an earlier book, "The Eagle of the Ninth," Rosemary Sutcliff paints here a colorful and convincing picture of Roman Britain ["The Silver Branch"], this time in the latter part of the third century. The story begins during the rule of Carausius, and centers on Justin, newly come to Albion to take up his post of junior surgeon. Uneasily aware of intrigue and unrest about him, Justin and his kinsman Flavius, a young centurion, think at first the turmoil is centered in the conflict between Carausius and his corrupt, self-seeking Finance Minister. But when the Emperor is murdered and the two are forced into hiding, they realize that the whole hope of a civilized and united Britain is at stake. It is only after two years of exile and of adventures with an outcast native tribesman, an ex-gladiator and other members of the loyal underground that Justin and Flavius see Roman justice and order emerge triumphant.
All the characters—the shy young surgeon, his dashing companion—even the Emperor's jester, whose branch of silver bells gives the book its title—are entirely credible. The detailed but never redundant descriptions create a brilliant background for a vigorous and unusually moving narrative.
Lavinia R. Davis, "Turmoil in Britain," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1958 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 29, 1958, p. 18.
(The entire section is 225 words.)
A bronze-age boy had to kill a wolf single-handed before he could wear the warrior's scarlet, the mantle of manhood. For Drem, the test was doubly difficult because of a crippled right arm….
This tale of the testing of Drem [Warrior Scarlet] is a splendid excursion into the past, a fine reconstruction of prehistoric rituals. Set in southern England, the novel is evocative in mood and revealing in detail. The courage and determination of the handicapped hero are implied through actions that speak louder than words. Young people will read the author's message and be grateful for the absence of patronizing explanations and sentimentality. Style and taste lift this novel well above the average tale of adventure. It is smooth stuff, showing a steady hand on the narrative and an eye for color.
Eric Hood, "Mantle of Manhood," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 4, 1959, p. 26.
(The entire section is 156 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
Miss Sutcliff's The Lantern Bearers ends, it is true, with a victory, but a victory in a war which, the reader is aware throughout the story, is inevitably lost. For this is a story of the decline of Roman Britain. Miss Sutcliff has written most sensitively in two previous books about other aspects of this theme. In each the ultimate disaster has lain like a shadow across the action. In the Place of Life, deep in the mists of Caledonia, Marcus the Centurion had felt it (in The Eagle of the Ninth), and his descendant Flavius had read it in the flames of Calleva (in The Silver Branch). Now Aquila tastes the last bitterness of humiliation when he deserts the Eagles to stay in Britain when the last Legions pull out. The three novels belong together. Together they make perhaps the most interesting achievement of this remarkable writer.
It is well known that Miss Sutcliff owes her initial inspiration to [Rudyard] Kipling. There is much of Kipling in The Lantern Bearers, in the idea, in the sweep of the story, in—it must be confessed—certain stylistic mannerisms which from time to time stick out their uncomfortable spikes. Miss Sutcliff has so many talents and so much promise that one must wish that she would eschew Fine Writing. She handles her narrative with superb skill, particularly in scenes of violent action, but holds up the movement too often with passages of mannered prose. It is a hint of immaturity...
(The entire section is 444 words.)
Margaret Sherwood Libby
"We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind."—so, at the end of the latest and one of the finest of Rosemary Sutcliff's historical novels ["The Lantern Bearers"], does Ambrosius, who had held off the Saxon hordes for a time, speak to his young aid Aquila, adding that "morning always grows again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down." Aquila, the hero of the story, had let his troop sail without him when the Romans abandoned Briton forever, and great had been his subsequent sufferings…. His story, exciting, thoughtful, mature, the story of a man's steadfast adherence to a difficult choice that brought both bitterness and satisfaction, is for young people ready for adult books. The characterizations are vivid, varied and convincing, the setting a superb recreation of an unfamiliar period in English history, and the plot, both interesting and plausible, has its significance heightened by the recurring symbolism of light in dark days, first introduced in an early chapter when Aquila, having let his fellows sail for Gaul, impulsively lights once more the great beacon light of Rutupiae which would be quenched forever after the departure of the legions.
Margaret Sherwood Libby, in her review of "The Lantern Bearers," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review (© I.H.T....
(The entire section is 243 words.)
C. S. Bennett
[Knight's Fee is] a splendid rendering of upper-middle-class values. It is set in that Kiplingesque region of English history where Saxon and Norman are being made one. The hero is a lowly Celtic hound boy, in touch with the surviving magic of earth and folk…. [His] loyal steadfastness (and the accidents of fate) finally win him victory over the class barrier and inheritance of the knight's fee. The feudal background is vivid; the political intrigue murky. Miss Sutcliff's strength is her almost poetic feeling for people and places and things; but this can sometimes betray her into fine writing. (p. 742)
C. S. Bennett, "Varlets, Nabobs, Governesses," in New Statesman (© 1960 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LX, No. 1548, November 12, 1960, pp. 742, 744.∗
(The entire section is 121 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
Rosemary Sutcliff is a master of the concrete detail which brings home to us that our ancestors, though men like ourselves, lived in very different conditions…. [Knight's Fee] which tells how a poor dog-boy rose by faithful service to knighthood under King Henry I….
The reader is told what people ate and at what times, as well as what they wore. The characters are not deeply explored, but the sketches of chivalrous knights and turbulent barons are adequate for the purpose of an exciting story.
In fact this would be a perfect introduction to the Middle Ages, from which older children might learn all they need of its daily life, if one great medieval preoccupation had not been completely omitted. We are told almost nothing about religion or the Church….
Miss Sutcliff does not suggest that her Saxons and Normans were agnostics; she supposes that most of them practised a pagan fertility cult. On the last page she writes flatly: "William Rufus belonged to the Old Faith", as though it were a fact universally admitted by historians. But the clerks who knew William Rufus personally wrote him down a wicked Christian or perhaps an atheist. Thus to state as a fact the fancies of modern anthropologists is to incur the danger of misleading untutored minds, even in a work of fiction.
"The Blanket of the Dark," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times...
(The entire section is 247 words.)
Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth combines the presentation of the historic era of the Roman occupation of Britain with an acute sense of place. A feeling of belonging to a certain landscape becomes a vital part of the plot structure. She portrays remarkably the conflict between the Celtic tribal customs and the Roman way of imposing its own civilization wherever it went. The two elements are finally welded into an inseparable unity by one force of nature—the country itself…. Place works its will, not only on the buildings of the Romans but on the characters of the Romans as well. The hero of the story, Marcus, is at the end of the novel free to go where he wishes, back to the loved land of his childhood. But he elects to stay; Britain has become his home. This conclusion is no mere noble decision but the inevitable result of the strong sense of place inherent in this novel from the beginning. By the time the novel is finished, the reader even feels homesick, homesick not only for a certain essence of country and climate but for another time.
While the action in the plot is dignified and utterly credible, it moves to a climactic chase which crests onward to the conclusion. There is never any question about the appropriateness of this time and place as background; the characters are drawn out of the past; they behave in a way consistent with their times and still are utterly comprehensible. Much about the past is...
(The entire section is 503 words.)
[Rosemary Sutcliff's] first four books are for younger children: The Chronicles of Robin Hood (1950), The Queen Elizabeth Story (1950), The Armourer's House (1951), and Brother Dusty-Feet (1952). They are stories of imaginative fancy set in an historical period which provides the framework, but the fairies and the magic are more important than the kings and queens. Into each story the author reweaves some of the legends which are links with her own childhood delight. (p. 16)
Rosemary Sutcliff's historical novels show her strong attachment to Kipling. The writing of both authors is shot through with the spirit of the English countryside and the sense of its continuity which links the present with the past. To Kipling, the fact that the Sussex he loved was the same land the Bronze Age villagers knew, the Saxons ploughed and the Normans conquered was to be wondered at. This wonder gives saga, legend and myth modern significance. Miss Sutcliff shares this feeling, and her readers respond to her enthusiasm. Without some communication of feeling for the past the historical novel is lost. When Randal in Knight's Fee sits on the hill with the shepherd (the timeless occupation) and handles the flint axehead which the initiated reader knows was, perhaps, that of Drem in Warrior Scarlet, we are made to feel that continuity is important. (p. 27)
This sense of place and continuity can be...
(The entire section is 4789 words.)
Rosemary Sutcliff is an intuitive historian. This is not to say that she is not most careful and exact in research, but that her ability to think herself back into the past transcends scholarship. Her acknowledged master is Kipling who had the same gift for feeling history through his nerves and seeking it through the soil. Rosemary Sutcliff began her career with The Queen Elizabeth Story , a gentle, charmingly written story with an element of fantasy and a pervading sweetness which bordered on sentimentality. This was the vein of several succeeding stories until suddenly, in Simon  the author found her strength in a brilliant realistic picture of life in the civil wars. In later books she developed her gift for strong vigorous narrative and replaced the sentimentality with an increasing harshness. The Eagle of the Ninth , a story of Roman rule in Britain, and The Shield Ring , which described the last stand of the Viking settlers in Buttermere against the Normans, represent the finest flower of her early maturity. In later stories, like Warrior Scarlet  a story of the Bronze Age, and The Lantern Bearers, a pendant to The Eagle of the Ninth, describing the break-up of Roman Britain after the departure of the Legions …, she has introduced difficult social and emotional motives which seem to threaten that she is ceasing to be a writer for children; but in the splendidly...
(The entire section is 350 words.)
In the best historical novels, history goes out of the window and love remains.
So it is in Rosemary Sutcliff's new novel "Sword at Sunset"—which is only theoretically concerned with King Arthur. As history, it is unconvincing. Miss Sutcliff's king has almost nothing to do with the familiar Arthur of folklore. She has reinvented him, given him a character of her own choosing and placed him outside the accepted legends altogether—in a closed world where nothing happens except at the dictates of her imagination. In this way—though the first-person narrator she presents is more mysterious than ever—he is somehow more credible than his legends.
This is not the Arthur of the history-books—the figure that scholars have puzzled over in the sparse chronicles of his time. At another level, he is not the central figure of [Sir Thomas] Malory's "Morte d'Arthur," or the more conventional hero of [Alfred, Lord] Tennyson's "Idylls of the King." This time, he is a living presence who moves in a brilliantly lit and fantastic landscape only remotely connected with ancient England. And why not? The author, we feel sure, has studied all the sources—and then, it would seem, discarded them. What remains is an expression of the purest affection for the Arthur of her heart.
The tale she tells is an odd one indeed: as rich and sumptuous as the world described in the "Mabinogion," as gay and menacing as "The Tale...
(The entire section is 467 words.)
Ever since Standish O'Grady published his bardic history of Ireland in the nineties, storytellers and poets have been exalting Cuchulain….
Cuchulain's story is the grand episode of the epic tale of pagan Ireland, and, like a good deal of Irish romance, has much of supernatural and irrational in it. Here is the hero who is to die young, the one who defends his uncle's kingdom against the forces of the whole of Ireland, who has to meet a well-loved friend in single combat, who unwittingly slays his son and whose love story is charming in a way that is rare in ancient romance.
Rosemary Sutcliff, who has finely presented the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, makes a stirring narrative out of Cuchulain's career ["The Hound of Ulster"]. Here and there she misses a trick. The ancient storytellers had to make Cuchulain undefeatable. His victorious returns become monotonous as Miss Sutcliff relates them. There is one episode that would have provided relief: his courtship of Emer, a sophisticated damsel, who could be occult as well as charmingly coquettish. It would have been a relief from the raids and the slaughters. At the end, however, not the sternness but the pathos that was in the life of Cuchulain is brought out. She has sensitively presented the superman who is also gentle, loving and chivalrous.
Padraic Colum, "Legend of the Past, Parable of the Present: 'The Hound of Ulster'," in The...
(The entire section is 251 words.)
SHEILA EGOFF, G. T. STUBBS, and L. F. ASHLEY
For those who submit willingly to magic, Rosemary Sutcliff's new novel, The Mark of the Horse Lord, will cast its spell no less powerfully than any of her books since The Eagle of the Ninth. This is her fifteenth book for children, the flowering since 1950 of a remarkable talent which enchants readers old and young, exercises critics, and makes irrelevant the notion that the historical novel is barely concealed didacticism or an escape from the difficulty of writing for adolescents about contemporary problems. Miss Sutcliff's books have an organic unity which sets them apart from the extrovert 'good yarn' or historical fiction, and they make no concessions to ideas of what is a suitable book for children. (p. 249)
Timid as they now seem, her early books are not without significance, especially as historical stories for the under-tens are thin on the ground. The Chronicles of Robin Hood, The Queen Elizabeth Story, The Armourer's House, and Brother Dusty-Feet enjoy a continuing popularity with the young who identify history with legend. The heroes and heroines are the idealized playmates of the only child. Simon is the first novel to show the power that the later books developed. Miss Sutcliff sketches a vigorous hero and shows unexpected skill in describing battles.
In discussing the novels after Simon one moves back and forth between the relevance of the thematic material to...
(The entire section is 1012 words.)
Joan V Marder
Miss Sutcliff's first book, a retelling of the Robin Hood legends, and the three which followed, are written for younger children and, while they give pleasure, they do not suggest the range and power of the later books. Signs of this developing potential came with the publication of Simon in 1953, a story with a Civil War setting, whose hero fights for the Parliamentary cause. Teachers welcome this book as a counterweight to the over-romantic view of the war seen from the Royalist camp which is commonly propounded in historical novels; but to the child reading the book, it is very much more than a roman à thèse, it is a story about timeless and enduring problems. Simon, the name character, has to resolve the rival claims of friendship and loyalty to a cause, to grow up and to move from the protection of his family to an adult life with public responsibilities. This blending of historical setting and timeless problems is the mark of all Rosemary Sutcliff's later work, and one of the main reasons for its popularity with children. (p. 138)
In the year after Simon appeared, Eagle of the Ninth was published, and marked the beginning of a sequence of novels which explore many aspects of Roman Britain from the full flush of Roman power until long after the legions had departed, and Rome was only a memory and a hope in the hearts of a few men—a civilisation, a way of life, 'the last brave glimmer of a lantern...
(The entire section is 828 words.)
[The] power of imagination Rosemary Sutcliff needed in order to cast herself back into the minds and feelings of the Bronze Age peoples in Warrior Scarlet is fully as vital and astounding as that required by any of the great fantasists. Sutcliff's quality of imagination is different from theirs, no doubt, for there are many different kinds, but it is just as truly a wizard power to exist so completely in the past that the reader never stops once to question any action, any name, any practice or statement or habit of these ancient people. There is never once a false or hollow ring; on the other hand, every scene is packed with evocation and reality. We feel deeply what her boy Drem felt in that far-off time, not only because of his own nature, but because of the nature and history of his culture. A sense of profound conviction is conjured out of this fusion of research and empathy and imagination. (pp. 263-64)
Eleanor Cameron, "'The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things'" (originally published in a different form in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. XL, No. 5, October, 1964), in her The Green and Burning Tree: On the Writing and Enjoyment of Children's Books (copyright © 1962, 1964, 1966, 1969 by Eleanor Cameron; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company in association with The Atlantic Monthly Press), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1969, pp. 258-76.∗
(The entire section is 225 words.)
The Times Literary Supplement
[So] great is the output of legends retold nowadays, amounting almost to a minor industry, that one is entitled to ask not only if the story is well told, but also if it was really worth the telling.
Rosemary Sutcliff's Tristan and Iseult deserves the highest praise on both counts. The Arthurian cycle is a defining element in our culture, as the Trojan war was in the ancient Greek, and the Tristan story is one of its loveliest strands. Miss Sutcliff tells it with her admirable mastery of that difficult thing, an epic style—never incongruously modern, never fusty or obscure, believable even in dialogue. The pace and shape of the narrative are superbly managed.
"The Stuff of Dreams," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3618, July 2, 1971, p. 764.∗
(The entire section is 139 words.)
John Rowe Townsend
Day to day, minute to minute, second to second the surface of our lives is in a perpetual ripple of change. Below the immediate surface are slower, deeper currents, and below these again are profound mysterious movements beyond the scale of the individual life-span. And far down on the sea-bed are the oldest, most lasting things, whose changes our imagination can hardly grasp at all. The strength of Rosemary Sutcliff's main work—and it is a body of work rather than a shelf of novels—is its sense of movement on all these scales. Bright the surface may be, and vigorous the action of the moment, but it is never detached from the forces underneath that give it meaning. She puts more into the reader's consciousness than he is immediately aware of.
She is not—in terms of the novel in general rather than of the children's list—a fashionable writer, or even very well known…. It may be that Miss Sutcliff's virtues are not fundamentally a novelist's virtues. The novel is much more concerned with individual character and day-to-day living than were the ancient forms that came before it. Rosemary Sutcliff's work is rooted more in myth, legend and saga than in the English novel.
She was a slow starter. The promise of her early books was not outstanding. The Queen Elizabeth Story (1950), The Armourer's House (1951) and Brother Dusty-Feet (1952) were innocuous, episodic historical stories for quite...
(The entire section is 1628 words.)
MAY HILL ARBUTHNOT and ZENA SUTHERLAND
Most critics would say that at the present time the greatest writer of historical fiction for children and youth is unquestionably Rosemary Sutcliff. Her books are superior not only because they are authentic records of England's earliest history with its bloody raids and its continuous wars for occupation by Norsemen, Romans, Normans, and Saxons, but also because every one of her memorable books is built around a great theme. Her characters live and die for principles they value and that men today still value.
The theme of all her stories, as Margaret Meek points out [see excerpt above], is "the light and the dark. The light is what is valued, what is to be saved beyond one's own lifetime. The dark is the threatening destruction that works against it." In The Lantern Bearers … the blackness of despair is concentrated in the heart of Aquila, a Roman officer….
No briefing of these stories can give any conception of their scope and power, and when young people read them they live with nobility. The sooner our children can begin to read these Sutcliff books the better, as they will help to build intellectual maturity. Nevertheless, these are difficult books, not because of vocabulary problems, but because of the complexities of the plots in which many peoples are fighting for dominance. (p. 508)
Fortunately, Dawn Wind …, one of the finest of the books, is also the least complex....
(The entire section is 493 words.)
[In "The Capricorn Bracelet" Rosemary Sutcliff] returns to subject matter she treated 20 years ago in her first big novel, "The Eagle of the Ninth."
"The Capricorn Bracelet" is a collection of short stories spanning the Roman occupation of Britain from the first to the fifth century. The bracelet, awarded for distinguished military service, affirms the tradition of the Roman Legions….
No one writes more convincing battle scenes than Miss Sutcliff. Her landscapes are alive with movement and color. Yet her heroes are curiously stereotyped, unchanged, whether the power they serve is on the rise or falling apart at the seams. They are all brave, decent young men concerned with the esteem of their peers, never entertaining a doubt about their obligations.
"The Capricorn Bracelet" is not Miss Sutcliff at her best. Still it is very good.
Feenie Ziner, "King King Kangalo, Hadrian's Wall and One Cool Buzzard," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 30, 1973, p. 8.
(The entire section is 165 words.)
Jill Paton Walsh
[It] is now a long time since there was a new major piece of writing from Rosemary Sutcliff. Blood Feud will be eagerly welcomed by admirers of her long and distinguished body of work.
Is Blood Feud then more of the same? In some ways, yes. We find ourselves once more with a hero suspended between worlds in transition—half Celtic, half English, Viking slave and Byzantine soldier, he is swept up on that epic movement of the Viking expansion eastwards, so fascinatingly unfamiliar to most of us. We find ourselves also in a moral world where courage and loyalty count overwhelmingly, and men are ruled by a ferocious code—blood binds them as brothers or as enemies. Once again we are brought through darkness to a faint dawn; the hero is suspended between duty to kill and duty to heal, and finds himself defined by the choice he makes.
Rosemary Sutcliff's mastery of her chosen vein of writing is complete, beyond praise. The evocation with a few vivid, always concrete strokes of remote scenes, of battles, journeys, camps, is superb. She can catch the manly tones of voices uttering tough or grand or commonplace sentiments in a language which never seems outré, and never sounds the false contemporaneity which is the bane of so much historical writing. The tale moves swiftly across a crowded and believable world. And this book is as finely crafted as anything Rosemary Sutcliff has done.
(The entire section is 409 words.)
Rosemary Sutcliff is never obvious in her interpretation of old causes lost and won…. Blood Feud is in fact what the book is about, the obligation for vengeance not for gain but so that the shades of the dead may rest in peace. (p. 3064)
Relatively short, concentrated, enriched with pictorial detail, the book has an emotional force which relates it, for me, to Rosemary Sutcliff's best work and especially with Eagle of the Ninth. Everything in the book—battle scenes, the discovery of love in various forms, weather and landscape, religious polemic—is reflected through Jestyn, the waif whose life is ruled by accident…. The first-person reminiscence distances old tragedies and conflicts, as Jestyn, now a physician, sends his thoughts back over the years. It is a narrative method well suited to this richly personal chronicle. (p. 3065)
Margery Fisher, "Causes and Conflicts," in her Growing Point, Vol. 15, No. 8, March, 1977, pp. 3064-67.∗
(The entire section is 151 words.)
Rosemary Sutcliff has always enjoyed the idea of the outsider, of the odd one who is isolated by fate to perform some special act. Though it has become almost a formula now, the magic lingers on—even in her new novel [Sun Horse, Sun Moon] which verges on self-parody….
All the Sutcliff hallmarks are here: the sonorous descriptions, the perfect evocation of an alien culture, the stilted quasiprimitive dialogue (with its unique use of the soothing phrase "na-na"). And, at about a third of the length of the earlier novels, this spare tale could easily be taken for a faint copy. But it is not. Though it lacks detail and human warmth, it conveys instead the mystery of ancient civilizations: the bleak unadorned style and story suit an age that remains dark and impenetrable to this day. The plot is a simple one, but the use of contrasting images of horses, shadows, birds, and cold winds give it a complex patterning that is the verbal equivalent of early Celtic jewelry.
Sarah Hayes, "The Breath of Life," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3949, December 2, 1977, p. 1415.
(The entire section is 196 words.)
Rosemary Sutcliff has given us [in Song for a Dark Queen] a rounded, convincing and (very properly) rather frightening portrait of Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, who led the tribes to the sack of Roman Colchester, St. Alban's and London. In the lyrical, loving, and doomladen tale of Cadwan the harper, she grows from a brave defiant infant to a proud unwilling bride, a happy mother and a vengeful widow, her private self always contrasted with her public, queenly role….
The Roman point of view, and the Legions' movements in meeting the rebellion, are recounted by young Agricola on his first service….
All Rosemary Sutcliff's well-known skills are here: the lovely descriptions of the seasons in a subtly prehistoric East Anglian scene …: the brilliant evocation of atmosphere, whether happy, foreboding, or sinister (as in the sacred grove, where the atrocious sacrifices detailed by the historian Dio Cassius are more subtly dealt with by this author): the assured narrative power in handling crowded and dramatic scenes, which pile up as this superbly exciting, albeit bloodthirsty story rises to its tragic climax in the battle: the sense of contrast between the "civilized" and the "barbarian", in their own and each other's estimation: the masterly telescoping of the passing years, the skilful indications of the underlying reasons for the uprising. With her usual confidence she describes Celtic ritual and the...
(The entire section is 359 words.)
[What] is impressive about Frontier Wolf is not the story itself, nor the gradual winning through of Alexios from disgrace to honour. It is Rosemary Sutcliff's extraordinary capacity for recreating a visual and emotional picture, many-textured, of the life of a Roman garrison on the Antonine Wall as the Empire crumbled. She has the writer's equivalent of a musician's "absolute pitch"; her certainty enables her to use language that fore-echoes the future (the Votadini speak with a recognizable Celtic lilt), and to engender situations and characters that carry with them an authenticity and complexity that defy the conventional textbook image of Roman times.
Elaine Moss, "Outposts of the Empire," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4051, November 21, 1980, p. 1323.
(The entire section is 129 words.)
Very occasionally, the opening sentence of a book works a small miracle on the reader. It is as if a shutter sprang open momentarily, to reveal the essence and truth of the entire book within a single visionary second. There is nothing obviously spectacular about the first sentence of The Sword and the Circle but the magic is there and with it the certainty that riches lie ahead.
Many followers of Rosemary Sutcliff must have waited and hoped for her to bring her own particular distinction to a retelling of the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. There are other available versions, of course, some of them admirable …, but The Sword and the Circle stands far above any collection known to me, and should be seized on by anybody providing books for children upwards of ten years old.
With her usual scrupulous regard for authenticity, Rosemary Sutcliff has rooted the stories deep in history….
For some, Rosemary Sutcliff's writing may perhaps be over-rich (though much less so than twenty years ago). It has the stately measure of seventeenth-century English prose, the sharp pathos of an old ballad and an echo of Homer in its beautifully tuned imagery, and yet it can be as homely and unpretentious as an old kitchen table. This way of writing has evolved over the years into a style unmistakably her own—so much so that it could be said to be too pervasive, like an...
(The entire section is 443 words.)
Rosemary Sutcliff has dwelt so long, imaginatively, in the Dark Ages that she seems not quite at ease in bringing Arthur into the age of chivalry. Future literary historians, assessing her contribution to the literature of our age, will find profitable exercise in comparing her approach to the figure of Arthur in The Lantern Bearers, in the adult novel Sword at Sunset, and in this rather more conventional exploration of Malory and other medieval sources [The Sword and the Circle].
Perhaps it is some evidence of her incomplete ease that Miss Sutcliff returns here to some of the stylistic devices of her earlier books. There is much elegant and atmospheric writing, a little less of the terse, hard lines which have distinguished the later novels for children.
This having been said, let me hasten to add that this is as good a retelling of the ancient stories as we have had in this half-century.
Marcus Crouch, in his review of "The Sword and the Circle," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 45, No. 3, June, 1981, p. 127.
(The entire section is 173 words.)
It can hardly have been by chance that in 1960 it was Rosemary Sutcliff who wrote the Bodley Head monograph on the children's books of Rudyard Kipling, nor is it surprising that in it she remarked " … of all the writers of my childhood, he made the strongest impact on me, an impact which I have never forgotten,"… for no reader of her own books—except one totally ignorant of Kipling—can fail to be aware of her debt to him. Quite apart from certain identities of subject, there is an underlying identity of theme: what one might call the Conflict of Duty and Inclination. In the monograph she wrote that the Mowgli stories are " … a following-out of divided life and divided loyalties, the unbearable choice that has to be made and has to be borne" …; this might equally well be said of her own works, since she has scarcely a hero who does not have to make that "unbearable choice," with the making of and abiding by that choice very often the mainspring of the book. Just how deeply she has been influenced by Kipling I suspect that even she is not fully aware; that it goes beyond a casual borrowing of subject material may be shown in a review of her major works…. (p. 90)
Simon is the first Sutcliff work to have a recognizably Sutcliffian—one might almost say epic—flavour. It has many of the typical Sutcliff ingredients: young adult rather than child hero, a David-and-Jonathan friendship, above all a central conflict of...
(The entire section is 1301 words.)
If there is one story with which every child growing up in Britain should be familiar, it is the story of King Arthur. There is no shortage of retelling, but most of them are hack rewritings which debase their source material. Even the best attempts … seem to lack the vital spark which animates the early sources, and which received its classic expression in the prose writings of Sir Thomas Malory.
Rosemary Sutcliff's version, told in three books, The Sword and the Circle, The Light Beyond the Forest and The Road to Camlann, is now complete, and stands … as a valiant attempt to bring the often tragic, violent and sensual tales within the compass of children's understanding without cutting the heart from them. While story and language stay close to Malory, the shaping spirit is recognisably that of the author of The Eagle of the Ninth, The Mark of the Horse Lord and that splendid novel of an historicised Arthur, Sword at Sunset.
The Road to Camlann is the best of the three volumes, perhaps because its interwoven stories all tend to the same end. The theme of the book is the destruction of the fellowship of the Round Table through the machinations of Arthur's incestuous bastard Mordred. The stories centre on Lancelot: his threefold rescue of Guenevere and his bitter wars with Arthur and Gawain. To children his betrayal of his best friend out of passion can seem mere treachery, and...
(The entire section is 307 words.)
[The Road to Camlann] takes up the story [of King Arthur] with Mordred at Camelot, insidiously undermining the fellowship and the spiritual values on which the Round Table was based. There follows the love of Guenever and Lancelot, the wars and the final battle. The story ends with the death of Lancelot at Glastonbury.
In this, the most familiar of all the Arthurian stories, there is not much room for individual interpretation, and Miss Sutcliff stays close to Malory, even to the use of actual speeches and phrases at climactic moments where modern words, even those as resounding as this writer's, might have struck the wrong note. Miss Sutcliff captures the profound sadness of the story and the hopelessness of its preordained doom. She writes with conscious nobility of style, as befits the material, using the techniques of the chronicler rather than the novelist, although she shows her characteristic understanding in dealing with the motives of Lancelot and Arthur. Here, young readers and their parents may be assured, is the best of a great and lasting story matched with the best of one of this age's great writers. Those who, later in life, move on to Malory will discover that the spirit of the Arthurian legends has been conveyed without falsification, and that the transition to the fifteenth-century original can be made with no effort.
Marcus Crouch, in his review of "The Road to Camlann,"...
(The entire section is 243 words.)
Sheila A. Egoff
A virtually perfect mesh of history and fiction can be found in the writing of Rosemary Sutcliff. She seems to work from no recipe for mixing fact and imagination and thus, like fantasy, which it also resembles in its magic qualities, her writing defies neat categorization. Still, what cannot be defined can be observed. Thus what one perceives is that Sutcliff begins with a very well stored mind and an affinity for a given period in the distant past that she sets forth as if it were something she herself had once experienced, richly remembers, and recounts—much as some ordinary person talks about the memories of childhood or a trip. Sutcliff easily, unobtrusively, and naturally seems able to supply just the right detail at just the right time to make both setting and plot utterly convincing. Her persuasion is so compelling that readers are imperceptibly led back into the past with such subtlety they feel they are living side by side with her characters. (pp. 163-64)
With her first major novel, The Eagle of the Ninth …, Sutcliff brought a new dimension into historical fiction for children, indeed into children's literature…. [She] gives all her characters universal, human problems while making them vital and recognizable in their own time. And with all this she also tells a great story. (p. 164)
Sutcliff is a "hot" novelist in strong contrast to the cooler, more cerebral, and lucid approach of a Hester...
(The entire section is 446 words.)
[Rosemary Sutcliff] cherishes cultural diversity even while she stresses continuity. And while she upholds such unfashionable virtues as duty, courage, integrity, she has in her treatment of the theme of male comradeship provided the most sensitive and sustained representation of male homosexual feeling in children's literature.
The main body of her work, the sequence of major novels ranging from the Bronze Age Warrior Scarlet, through the great Roman trilogy (published in one volume as Three Legions) to the eleventh century Knight's Fee, is a magnificent achievement. To call the books historical novels is to limit them disgracefully; the very phrase implies a deadness … and a distancing which is the opposite of her intention. She does not bring "history" to the reader, but involves the reader in the past—not just for the duration of a book, but for ever. She can animate the past, bring it to life inside the reader in a most personal and lasting way.
This ability is a magical one, and there perhaps lies the key to her success. She is not essentially a novelist but a storyteller. She has the oral storyteller's instinctive grasp of pace, slowing her action till the reader is aware of every breath her characters take, then triumphantly whirling into battle, enmeshing the reader in confusion which seems to pass too quickly for the eye to take it in, yet never losing her grip on her material. And...
(The entire section is 323 words.)
[In The Road to Camlann] Rosemary Sutcliff has assumed a bardic style, rhythmic and full of poetic archaism and reflecting in some ways the manner of medieval poetry. From this source, perhaps, come the delicate natural touches that refresh a tale of intrigue and cruelty—the flowers that herald spring, the dark forest reaches: but the author uses nature for something more than decoration. [For example, the] last battle at Dover in which Mordred and Arthur strike their last blows is full of the harshness of winter, used almost as a symbol….
Battles and single combat are described strongly but in formal tones, and in formal terms, too, Rosemary Sutcliff outlines the love between Lancelot and the Queen in its latter years, bringing tension to her tale with a felt contrast between their passion and the courtly restraints in which it has to be expressed. The destructive element in this love is recognised as one cause of the final dispersal of Arthur's knights and, with equal importance, the incestuous parentage of Mordred, a parentage which caused his jealousy and led him to undermine Arthur's power and peace of mind. This romantic interpretation of historical chronicle and fifteenth century narrative is finely done in its grave, pictorial style.
Margery Fisher, "Imagined Past," in her Growing Point, Vol. 20, No. 6, March, 1982, pp. 4030-33.∗
(The entire section is 220 words.)
Autobiography, however much one may try to modify the fact, is essentially the raising of a monument to oneself: an impulse which society may long have acknowledged as legitimate and healthy, but which still runs counter to inherited traditions of modesty and reticence. Rosemary Sutcliff, an honourable retailer and reteller of romance and epic, is the daughter of a naval officer, and a mother who taught her never to cry, always to conceal the fox beneath her cloak. Moreover, she was their only child, and physically handicapped. Deciding to record her early life—from infancy to the acceptance of her first book, in her early twenties—risks flouting the disciplines ingrained in her. It also means that we, the public, are invited to intrude on private griefs, and joys, without being fully admitted to more than one or two of them.
At most points where the story might be deemed remarkable, Miss Sutcliff's training usually denies its singularity…. Like all handicapped children, Miss Sutcliff says, she accepted [her physical] limitations: life wells up to fill whatever circumference it is allowed. Comparisons and complications only set in later.
Later, indeed, since she was, as she just allows herself to stress, as much prone to falling in love as those with limbs of more average efficiency—a blissful but doomed marriage of true minds, just after the war, could find no consequence then (could it more easily now?)...
(The entire section is 487 words.)