Rosemary Sutcliff Neil Philip - Essay

Neil Philip

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 she has a bardic attitude to language. She re-uses phrases which appeal to her, sometimes several times in a book; in her descriptions of downland and heath she can become intoxicated with detail, as if the very thought of the open air exults her. Her "one plot; a boy growing up and finding himself" has done her and her readers proud.

Neil Philip, "Romance, Sentiment, Adventure," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1982: reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3425, February 19, 1982, p. 23.∗