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.)
"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.
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.∗
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.
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.
[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.
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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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"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...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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[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.
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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[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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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[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.
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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[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...
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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...
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[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...
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[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...
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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,...
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