Rosemary Sutcliff Neil Philip - Essay

Neil Philip

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 his slaying of Gareth and Gaheris "unarmed and unwares" unforgivable. Rosemary Sutcliff, by conveying so skilfully "the grete curtesy that was in Sir Launcelot more than in only other man", blocks such a damaging response. Lancelot is a rounded, convincing character….

Neil Philip, "Completing the Circle," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3408, October 23, 1981, p. 30.