Rosemary Sutcliff

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Margaret Meek

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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 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 seen in Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time (1939). It is a historical novel with a double time illusion in which the heroine seems to live both in the present and in the past. Although Rosemary Sutcliff has never used this device in a book, one feels that part of her success comes from her ability to do what Miss Uttley demonstrates, to talk 'with people who lived alongside but out of time, moving through a life parallel to my own existence'. (pp. 27-8)

These elements of continuity in place and time, together with a much greater involvement in a series of historical events, came out strongly in Simon (1953), Rosemary Sutcliff's first important historical novel. (p. 28)

Although Simon does not deal with the central issues of the [Civil War],… idealism is the dominant theme. It is a significant book in Miss Sutcliff's development as a writer, for it showed her where her strength lay. It does what she demands history should do, brings to vivid life the actuality of the last campaign of the Civil War which was fought in the combes and across the farmlands of Somerset and North Devon. Miss Sutcliff immersed herself totally in the details and emerged with, for her, a new kind of novel, where pageant is replaced by theme, and all the story-teller's skill is challenged by battles, sieges, troop movements, documentation of personages and events, and the need to account for action in terms of motive as well as circumstance.

Simon is the Roundhead, Amias the Cavalier. Their childhood friendship is wrecked by the war and their conflicting loyalties. No one who had read the early novels would have foreseen that Miss Sutcliff could describe the beating of a deserter, the battle of Torrington and the harsh discomfort of the sick and wounded so evocatively that the waste, pain, misery, glory and excitement of war are held together in a plot compellingly detailed and yet fast-moving. (pp. 28-9)

Many an author has described a battle with exactness, but Miss Sutcliff's method of settling on the felt details that remain in the mind, driven along the nerves of the hero, is even more convincing than the historian's account. The intensity...

(This entire section contains 4789 words.)

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of the inner life of the author, at which the earlier books hinted, has been projected into the teeming outside world of the Civil War. Her sympathies are shared, but her bias is towards the Roundheads. To grasp the quality and personal involvement, one can compareSimon with [Geoffrey] Trease's The Grey Adventurer which is equally skilful but much more detached. Sometimes Miss Sutcliff is carried away by the pressure of detail, but the line of action is held taut throughout the book. (pp. 30-1)

In Simon Miss Sutcliff leaves the sheltered world of childhood and enters the realm where public excellence is tested and recognized. Her heroes are separated by differing sympathies in the war, but they are true to what they believe, so that their friendship is sealed at the very moment they fight each other. The theme is for a reader older than any Miss Sutcliff had in mind before this. Loyalty and devotion, the conflicts and complexities of war, are beyond the immediate grasp of the under-tens but within the compass of the twelve-year-old who is beginning to recognize these very conflicts in his own terms. Both author and reader are identified with the hero's development, and both have grown in stature as a result.

As this happens, the conscious narrative tone of the earlier books falls away. A greater breadth of vocabulary and longer sentences are possible. With Simon, Rosemary Sutcliff becomes a writer for the child who is a discriminating reader, one who asks that his books should extend his experience and stretch his ability to the full.

Not only is Simon longer, more complex, and more strongly felt than the earlier books, it also shows a new depth of characterization and a totally unexpected skill in dialogue based on the rhythms of local Devonshire speech…. With new vigour and conviction Rosemary Sutcliff moved away from the tempting delight of historical tales for the younger reader and the threat of escapism. Now real history, the kind that demands not only passion and zeal in the telling but also painstaking checking of detail and careful assimilation of the spirit of an age, had superseded the lure of legend. Looking back, one can see Simon as a turning point in Rosemary Sutcliff's career. It has all the seeds of promise that flowered later. Interestingly, the hero is robust and finely-balanced within himself from the start. He has depths of sense and sensibility unusual in adventure story heroes; he suffers anguish from his divided loyalties, but keeps faith above all, and comes through by virtue of a sound constitution and an even temper. None of the heroes who follow begin with these advantages. (pp. 31-2)

Rosemary Sutcliff has written four books which deal with [the twilight period when the Romans were evacuating Britain]: The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Silver Branch (1957), The Lantern Bearers (1959) and Outcast (1955). The first three form a sequence in that they deal with the fortunes of the family of Marcus Flavius Aquila, the centurion who came to Britain in the hope of finding what happened to his father's legion, the legendary Ninth, when it marched beyond the Wall and was never heard of again. Outcast is about the life of a slave in the galleys which brought the legions to Britain. Dawn Wind (1961) is the chronological sequel to The Lantern Bearers. It links the books of the first Roman period with the coming of the Christian missionaries to Kent. (pp. 34-5)

These books enjoy widespread popularity both here and abroad and have contributed most to Miss Sutcliff's reputation. (pp. 34-5)

[The] vital spark of Rosemary Sutcliff's books, from The Eagle of the Ninth onwards, is the total imaginative penetration of the historical material. The books seem to be written from the inside, so that the reader's identification with the chief character carries him further into the felt life of the time than many other books which are made up of the skilful but detached articulation of the fruits of research. One feels that Rosemary Sutcliff is less concerned to write historical narrative than to reconstruct, in the child's response to her creative imagination, a strong feeling for and involvement with the people of this mist-bound, huddling, winter-dark island at the periods when the invaders came, Romans, Saxons, Norsemen.

This magic has certain recognizable elements; the names of the characters are chosen with a poet's care, the dogs have a central place and are characterized with the loving attention children recognize and approve. The villains, such as Placidus in The Eagle of the Ninth and Allectus in The Silver Branch are acidly etched, although there is more reliance on traditional enmity and feud than on personal evil to provide the dark side. Episodic characters, singly or in groups, have a miniaturist's clarity of outline…. [Her characters] all carry a dignity and heroism that link this series of tales with the legends Miss Sutcliff loves to tell. Indeed, part of the difficulty in evaluating the achievement of these books comes from the thickly woven texture which is as closely wrought as in many adult novels of quality. (pp. 36-7)

Each plot is full of incident and suspense, the construction is taut but supple. Each book has a unified theme, yet they are linked together. (p. 38)

In narrative, The Eagle of the Ninth is the most workmanlike; each incident has a bold outline, fire-clear details, and is told with passion and skill. The others cover larger stretches of time and the canvas is more crowded. As the subtlety of plot and theme grows more complex, so the author looks to older readers. (p. 39)

The theme of each book 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. The heroes are serious young men schooled in the Roman virtues of pietas and gravitas which demand loyalty to family, country, friend and cause, exactly those things which call out the idealism of adolescents whose inner world is full of this kind of thinking. Marcus goes to look for his father's eagle as an act of piety and also that he may compensate for the loss of his own command. In so doing, he learns other loyalties, to the land of Britain as well as to Rome, to his slave who becomes his friend, and about the nature of loyalty itself, how it grew hollow in the lost legion, how men mistake the true for the false, that honour must be paid for many times, that freedom is not simply manumission. To become adult is to learn these things in different ways. As in Simon, public excellence is seen as the extension of private virtues. It is recognized by men of all tribes, by those who move in the darkness beyond the Wall as well as by those to whom duty is the clear call of a military trumpet. This is what the young want to know about in an age when they are faced by equivocal adult standards and general cynicism.

This theme is extended in The Silver Branch with increased subtlety, for the creativeness of the Roman peace is now threatened by the wanton destructiveness of the Saxons and the darkness at the heart of those who threaten the order that Rome brought to the barbarians. (pp. 40-1)

The chances of saving the light are no stronger than the little silver branch carried by the Emperor's fool, 'shining drops distilled out of the emptiness'. This may be a partial view of the Pax Romana, but it speaks to the young who are constantly reminded of past glories when these are now so obviously lacking, and who have no firm assurance that their world will emerge from the darkness that threatens it.

The Lantern Bearers is the most closely-woven novel of the trilogy…. In it the hero bears within himself the conflict of dark and light, the burden of his time and of himself. When he fires the beacon of Rutupiae light for the last time 'as a defiance against the dark' and goes wilful-missing to stay in Britain, to which he feels he belongs, Aquila is carrying the Roman virtus into the next age. At the end of the book he says, 'I wonder if they will remember us at all, these people on the other side of the darkness'. To this theme there is a rich counterpoint of personality and event, motive and action, more intricately interwoven than in any novel so far.

After his thralldom with the Jutes, Aquila's darkness is at his heart, for loyalties betrayed and vengeance sought. All gentleness is shut out. At moments of the greatest turbulence when the darkness is closing round, Aquila realizes that the light men carry within them, which is the only safeguard against the greater darkness of despair, is their concern for each other and what is dear to them…. A man may serve a cause so that his public excellence can be recognized, and yet one who remains untouched by family love and warmth for others is still in darkness, for all his virtus. The glory that was Rome is no longer, all that remains is an ideal in the hearts of men who have risen above common vengeance, and the races must learn to be at peace together.

This theme is continued in Dawn Wind. Owain has more than served his time as a thrall, yet he does not leave the family he has lived with because he made a promise to his master that was more binding than his thrall ring. (pp. 41-3)

This intricacy of theme is kept jewel-clear in all the books by an adept handling of symbolic material, a ritualism which young readers appreciate. It is full of surcharged emotion which need not be uttered: Marcus setting up his little altar to Mithras and sacrificing the bird of carved olive wood, symbolizing his childhood and former life, the Dolphin ring which links the family through the ages, the fish symbol drawn in the ashes of the hearth by the legionary, the tattooed dolphin on Aquila's shoulder, the recurrent symbolism of flowers, herbs, colours, and the ritual return of seasons, blossom and fruit, sowing and sacrifice.

Remembering the gentle cosiness of Miss Sutcliff's early books, one might be surprised to find the uncompromising cruelty of the battles portrayed with equally uncompromising clarity. The white heat of Aquila's controlled emotion in The Lantern Bearers, its total rejection of comfort and gentleness, has no precedent in her work. Treachery, hardship, the ferocity of friend and foe are set down with an intensity of imaginative passion, as if the author were concerned to prove the lasting qualities of the virtues that are tried in the fire of conflict. (pp. 43-4)

When we examine [the] particular instances of Miss Sutcliff's craft we see that the effectiveness of the whole, which moves with the speed and sweep of the narrative to the climax of each episode, is nevertheless composed of minute attention to detail: the colour of the sky, the shape of the hills, the mane of a horse, a bowl of apples or words carved on a rock, all are invested with meaning.

In these Roman stories the problem of dialogue has been solved by the invention of timeless cadences in a slightly shifted word order, the surest safeguard against stilted archaism or colloquialism, even though the fall of the phrase is sometimes unreal, or occasionally the modern speaker peeps out. Also the girls, who were not so well-drawn as the boys, have gradually assumed more weight. Ness, Aquila's wife, is a character of quality, whereas Cottia, Marcus's friend, is altogether too babyish. As her characters mature, so does the author's handling of dialogue.

In between the books of the trilogy are three others: Outcast (1955), The Shield Ring (1956) and Warrior Scarlet (1958) and a short story of life on the Roman Wall, The Bridge Builders, which although published in 1959 seems from the author's note to have been written before The Shield Ring was completed. Although Miss Sutcliff has developed into a story-teller who is at her best in a long narrative, this short sketch has her unmistakable individuality.

Outcast, the story of Beric, can be mentioned here as it has a link with the others discussed in this chapter, and it throws light on an important aspect of the novels. Beric is washed up on the shores of Britain and adopted by a tribe which later casts him out. He is carried off to Rome as a slave. In making a bid for freedom he is recaptured and sent to the galleys where, after unspeakable treatment, he attacks an overseer, is lashed and dropped into the sea for dead. The sea casts him up again, this time on Romney Marsh where he falls into the hands of Justinius, the 'Builder of Roads and Drainer of Marshes', who adopts him as his son. Together they fight the great gale that threatens the dyke and the work to which Justinius's life is dedicated.

This is another fast-moving story, yet the plot depends to a greater extent than usual on coincidence legitimate as this is, and is more loosely episodic. The two outstanding features are the descriptive reality of the life of a galley slave and the dark misery of the outcast, which anticipates Aquila's torments in The Lantern Bearers. Beric belongs nowhere; he has no tribe, his Roman master give him another name, a galley slave has no identity. Finally Justinius seems to have mistaken him for someone else, the son he had never seen.

To the adolescent the theme of 'Who am I?' is a compelling one. In his desire to be accepted for the person he is, to establish his identity in the adult world, to find a role he can play, he identifies himself with the outcast, a part which, for all its misery, he fully understands. The characterization of Beric might well have fallen into sentimentality, but this is avoided. It is debatable, however, whether it avoids altogether an excess of self-laceration that is more than the realistic cruelty conventional in the Roman tales of other writers, notably those of Henry Treece. Adult reviewers have objected to the scenes of lashings, while young people have told Miss Sutcliff that they enjoyed them. They are neither excessive nor distasteful, but they hint at something deeper in the plight of the hero, which the other three Roman books also illustrate.

After his first battle Marcus, in The Eagle of the Ninth, endures rough-and-ready doctoring and later penetrating surgery to search his wounds which leave him with a limp and exclude him from regular military service. He undertakes his special mission with a handicap. Justin, in The Silver Branch is a disappointment to his father as he is a surgeon, not a fighting man. He stutters and lacks self-assurance in his dealings with people. Aquila, in The Lantern Bearers, has withdrawn from close human relationships and is something of a maimed personality. The scar on his brow is the merest outward sign of his inward scars. Beric distrusts all kindness as the result of the treatment he has undergone…. (pp. 45-8)

Only in their relationship with others, the ideal companion, the blood brother, the wise man, do these wounds heal. (p. 48)

One feels in reading these books that the inner life of the hero is as important as any outward action. The heroic man is of a certain cast of temper, a mould, a balance, which is no more and no less than we learn in [Homer's] Iliad and the tales of Arthur. The conflict of the light and the dark is the stuff of legend in all ages. Miss Sutcliff's artistry is a blend of this realization in her own terms and an instructive personal identification with problems which beset the young, problems of identity, of self-realization. Children see in stories of maimed and hurt children struggles with conscience rather than with the outside world. Extended into adolescence these struggles increase in intensity…. As the heroes come to see that one must learn to carry one's scars lightly by acceptance and concern for others, so do the readers.

Being an outcast may mean that one feels rejected, different, but it is also an attitude of mind by which one takes revenge on others. One is less of a person if one is preoccupied with one's own hurts. Only by being involved in something creative, the search for the Eagle, the maintenance of law in a disordered world, the building of a wall against the sea, the farming of the land, does one find oneself.

In Dawn Wind one sees that internal battles in England solve fewer and fewer problems. The different tribes and races must learn to live with each other. The last conquest is still to come, but the lesson holds good. (pp. 49-50)

We have seen that Rosemary Sutcliff can not only revivify the twilight period between the age of Imperial Rome and the coming of Christianity, but also create heroes whose standards of values reflect her readers' awareness of the conflict between private conduct and public excellence in a way that extends beyond the limits of formula fiction. In another three books, The Shield Ring, Warrior Scarlet and Knight's Fee, written in between the Roman stories, Miss Sutcliff tackles the most pressing problem of all: how does one win one's place in the world of men? What are the conditions of acceptance? To a writer like Miss Sutcliff, whose circumstances as a child cut her off from much that other children could take for granted, this question had a special significance. Miss Sutcliff is fully identified with everything she writes, and we have traced her development as a writer in the growing complexity of the themes she has chosen. The books of this chapter highlight three specific 'traces' of importance to an understanding of her work and her personality. They concern the permanence of landscape, which is the Kipling tradition; the settling in England of races or peoples who learn to live together so that their original identity is blended in a new nationality, and the rite de passage from youth to manhood, which is, I feel, the central theme.

All three traces are present in The Shield Ring, the story about Norsemen who withstood the entry of King William's Norman troops into the Lake District at the making of the Domesday Book. The tribal valour and clan loyalty of the Norsemen formed a 'shield ring' and the Normans were lured up a specially made road that led to nowhere and slaughtered in ambush. From a study of place names and local legend, the author has recreated Lakeland as it was in Jarl Buthar's day, not only as a scholar, but as an artist whose eye can select the details, which, combined with intensity of narration, bring alive the fells, lakes and rock ledges as the tale unfolds…. (pp. 51-2)

The landscape in Warrior Scarlet is the Sussex Downs, those same hills that Kipling found so full of historical significance. Warrior Scarlet is set in the Bronze Age, the age of the heroic Golden People. But long before their time an unknown ancient warrior slept under the Hill of Gathering, the Bramble Hill of Knight's Fee, which deals with the Sussex Downs when Senlac fight was a living memory. The Little Dark People who lived there before the Golden People came are still there in the Conqueror's day in the shepherd and the wise woman. So the earth remains. This spell of continuity, Miss Sutcliff's best legacy from Kipling, is woven long and wide in a way that Kipling no more than hinted at. The plots of Miss Sutcliff's three stories are bound fast to the soil. The Norsemen know that they will gradually blend with the people round about; the Normans learn that they must settle disputes in accordance with customs now long established. This feeling for the continuing survival of the land is the true historical sense of Miss Sutcliff's novels. Where other novelists for children have portrayed this sense of continuity they have been involved in the chronicle aspects of their material, the unwinding of a tale of successive generations, as in a novel like The Land the Ravens Found, by Naomi Mitchison, so that although we could retrace the steps of the families which moved from Caithness to Iceland, so vivid and exact are the details, we miss the mounting tension of The Shield Ring which concentrates on a single climax. In it there is the deep brooding fear of being hunted that haunts each episode, a feeling that only by supreme efforts, by surpassing themselves, will the Norsemen survive. The countryside takes on the significance of a human character, especially at night or in time of battle. It is never simply a setting. (pp. 53-4)

It is well for a critic to confess a preference. Warrior Scarlet has been kept until last because I am persuaded that it shows Rosemary Sutcliff's art at its best and combines the qualities of the other tales with a controlled intensity of writing which produces a work of great power and authenticity. Also, I feel that in this book author and reader are most truly identified. For the reader the theme is the one which most concerns the adolescent, that of becoming adult. For the writer the problem is to vivify a period beyond written record, to write a book about the heroic age as compelling as legend itself.

Because we no longer have any recognizable ceremony of initiation, adolescents begin to demand recognition as adults as soon as they can adopt adult roles. Society complicates matters by allowing them to drive a car, enlist in the army, marry, vote, all at different ages, and the certainty of having gained adult status seems elusive. They are also expected to act responsibly before they are given responsibility. In Warrior Scarlet the reader sees the problem in clear outline against the background of a heroic age where the demands of the tribe are unequivocal: after a wolf is slain in single combat, the boy hunts with the Men's Side. What if he fails? He is no longer of the Golden People. He is an outcast and keeps sheep with the Little Dark People whom the golden warriors once dispossessed of their lands and to whom tribal privileges no longer extend.

In Warrior Scarlet Rosemary Sutcliff has widened her range to cover the hinterland of history and realized, with the clarity we have come to expect, every aspect of the people of the Bronze Age, from hunting spears and cooking pots to king-making and burial customs, from childhood to old age. The book is coloured throughout with sunset bronze. (pp. 57-8)

No summary of the plot can do justice to the power and sweep of this tale and the depth of the relationships portrayed. (p. 60)

Drem's coming to manhood is more than his growing skill to conquer his disability. He sees the power and beauty of the swan he killed….

He learns to see sheep as a shepherd sees them and to put his own concerns aside while looking after them. He comes to realize that although his world had been 'a harsh one in which the pack turned on the weakest hound, in which little mercy was asked or given', the real achievement is to face the fear, to carry the disability, to save one's life by risking it entirely.

Miss Sutcliff shows again her great artistry in dealing with the menace of dark rituals. The making of New Spears, a ritual scene which first appeared in The Eagle of the Ninth, is built into a thrilling climax of darkness and light. (p. 61)

The essential Englishness in both theme and location suggests that Rosemary Sutcliff would find her public restricted, but this is by no means the case. Her publishers report that she is well-known in North America, where The Shield Ring, Warrior Scarlet, The Lantern Bearers and Knight's Fee were named Notable Children's Books by the American Library Association. Several books have been translated into German and the Scandinavian languages. There is also a version of Warrior Scarlet in Serbo-Croat.

During the last few years the historical novel has increased in popularity, scope and effectiveness. In this form of writing for children one can confidently say that the highest standards of artistry and craftsmanship prevail. Rosemary Sutcliff's work is characterized by a degree of intensity akin to poetic fervour. Her imaginative reconstruction of the past and the themes of heroic legend find an echo in the idealism of the modern adolescent. She combines great talent and industry with the incomparable gifts of the true story-teller. Praise for her work, simply because it is amongst the best of its kind, is bound to seem excessive, but the more exacting the criticism, the more favourable the final judgment must be. (p. 69)

Margaret Meek, in her Rosemary Sutcliff (© The Bodley Head Ltd 1962; reprinted by permission of The Bodley Head), Bodley Head, 1962, 72 p.


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