Monday, October 11, 2010

Rosemary Sutcliff!

Our books today form a little sampling of the historical novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, since a number of you wrote to ask me (privately, of course … sigh) if her fiction stands the test of time as well as her memoir Blue Remembered Hills. Several of you expressed fond memories of reading her when you were children, which is something I myself never did – so I revisited a handful of her novels to see what I could see.

It turns out they hold up quite well. In fact, they're wonderful. One of them has an afterword by the wretched Young Adult novelist Scott O'Dell in which he accidentally says something both true and powerful. Sutcliff, he tells us, “writes all out, the best she can, and mostly for herself.”

That last part is of course the key, and you can certainly feel it reading through her many novels: she passionately loves the material she's shaping – taking the early history and mythology of Britain from as many sources as she can find, mixing it all together, imagining all the stories big and small that must have filled the interstices of Britain's long abandonment by Rome and long conquest by the Saxons. She tells and re-tells all the old familiar stories of those dark ages, and she does it without an ounce of sugar-coating and without once talking down to her audience. These are perfect examples of the kind of “Young Adult” fiction I always cite as being 'all-ages' stuff; good teen readers don't want anything simplified for their benefit – they want problems, complexity, and unhappy endings, because in part they yearn for reading to hasten all the non-boring parts of adulthood. The worst YA writers pander not to teens but to their watchful, over-protective, and openly sentimentalizing parents – the best ones know they're providing an often essential counter-balance to all that.

Not that such things were on Rosemary Sutcliff's mind in the decades of her writing career, although increasingly through her writing she strikes me as the type who would have been a very tough critic as a young girl.

As some of you may recall from that earlier entry, Sutcliff suffered from a rare and nearly debilitating form a arthritis for the whole of her life, and she had no access to the state-of-the-art analgesics she'd get for such a condition today. So she had to summon an enormous force of will merely to produce her books, but it goes deeper than that: not only did her medical condition prevent her from really pursuing her first love, painting, but it also inculcated in her early on a sympathy for underdogs and an admiration for the kind of valor that presses on despite overwhelming odds. Those are some of the things that make her novels so enjoyable, time after time.

Critics have sometimes referred to our first choice among those novels, 1965's The Mark of the Horse Lord, as her best. It's the story of Phaedrus, a gladiator in Roman Britain, who's quickly tangled in a plot to usurp the throne of a Scottish kingdom and masquerade as its king. In the process – amid violent plot and counter-plot – he learns a lot about what it means to be a king, and a lot about himself. I'm not sure I agree with those critics who call this her best work – but the book is dark and brooding and not at all sugar-coated, and through it all, as through all of Sutcliff's writing, you can see the painter at work:
Sleet was still spitting down the wind, but the yellow bar of a low dawn edged the eastern sky; and as Phaedrus mounted the Crowning Stone, and with his left foot on the hide of the King Horse set his right into the deep-cut footprint that had held the right foot of every king of the Dalriadain since first they came from Erin across the Western Sea, the first sunlight struck the high snow-filled curries of distant Cruachan.

She sticks much closer to recorded mytho-history for 1971's Tristan and Iseult, which follows the classic love story closely, with one major exception – an exception our author addresses herself, in a note that's charming both for its sincerity and its lack of apology:
In all the versions that we know, Tristan and Iseult fall in love because they accidentally drink together a love potion which was meant for Iseult and her husband, King Marc, on their wedding night. Now the story of Tristan and Iseult is Diarmid and Grania, and Deirdre and the Sons of Usna, and in neither of them is there any suggestion of a love potion. I am sure in my own mind that the medieval storytellers added it to make an excuse for Tristan and Iseult for being in love with each other when Iseult was married to somebody else. And for me, this turns something that was real and living and part of themselves into something artificial, the result of drinking a sort of magic drug.

So I have left out the love potion.

By the time of 1981's The Sword and the Circle, Sutcliff was a living legend in the writing world, somebody who had won literally generations of readers and suffered no dimming of her powers over time. The combination of all this heady acclaim is perhaps the only reason why a novelist as perceptive as she was would attempt what she does in this book: the story of King Arthur, soup to nuts. Not that unusual, you say, and you're right – when attempted by not-very-perceptive authors. The really sharp ones know they can't possibly out-do one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, T. H. White's immortal The Once and Future King. That book came out in 1939 – Sutcliff must have read it dozens of times just like the rest of us. She must have known she couldn't match White on exactly his own turf (this is why the best subsequent Arthurian novels have come at the whole story from side-angles, and more power to them), yet that's exactly what she tries to do. Talk about underdogs! When she comes to the iconic scene where young Arthur, desperate to find a sword for his brother Kay to use in the joust, pulls a sword from what he hurriedly takes to be some kind of war monument, she gives it her most visual, evocative prose:
When he reached the garth of the abbey church he dismounted and hitched his cob to the gate and went in. The fresh snow lay among the tombstones, and in the midst of the tall black sentinel towers of the yew trees the pavilion glowed crimson as a rose at Midsummer; and the sword stood lonely in its anvil on the great stone, for even the ten knights were gone to the jousting.

Then Arthur took the sword two-handed by its quillions. There was golden writing on the stone, but he did not stop to read it. The sword seemed to thrill under his touch as a harp thrills in response to its master's hand. He felt strange, as though he were on the point of learning some truth that he had forgotten before he was born. The thin winter sunlight was so piercing-bright that he seemed to hear it; a high white music in his blood.

And it's very, very good – but those of us who've been under White's spell all this time will smile a little sadly, because there isn't really a contest with his depiction of the same moment:
There was a kind of rushing noise, and a long chord played along with it. All round the churchyard there were hundreds of old friends. They rose over the church wall all together, like the Punch and Judy ghosts of remembered days, and there were badgers and nightingales and vulgar crows and hares and wild geese and falcons and fishes and dogs and dainty unicorns and solitary wasps and corkindrills and hedgehogs and griffins and the thousand other animals he had met. They loomed round the church wall, the lovers and helpers of the Wart, and they all spoke solemnly in turn. Some of them had come from the banners in the church, where they were painted in heraldry, some from the waters and the sky and the fields about – but all, down to the smallest shrew mouse, had come to help on account of love. Wart felt his powers grow.

The Wart walked up to the great sword for the third time. He put out his right hand softly and drew it out as gently as from a scabbard.

But even so, The Sword and the Circle is sharp, pure gold – as are all Sutcliff's books. We'll get to them all in due time here, with two in particular more certain than the rest: of course we must look soon at her Trojan War book, written last in her life, Black, Ships Before Troy. And naturally, a thorough look at Eagle of the Ninth will be in order when the movie comes out and bombs at the theaters! An inanimate block of splendor like Channing Tatum was nothing Rosemary Sutcliff ever foresaw, for all her powers of imagination. We'll have to see how the two of them fare, when they finally meet.

4 comments:

PatD said...

Steve, you are the bomb. Sutcliff has been one of my favorite authors for years, yet she gets very little recognition for her influence on most of the modern reimaginings. Almost all of today's popular mythological series, especially the Arthurian treatments, cite her Sword at Sunset as their first and major influence. I read that a long, long time ago, and even after all these years, it remains second only to White's... and it's a very close second, at that.

Sword at Sunset was the first serious, fictional depiction of what a real, historical Arthur might have been like. There's no sorcery and no Boorman-like imagery, yet it is imaginative, gritty and exciting. It does something very, very few of the reimaginings do: it elevates the myth's story and themes. The Eagle of the Ninth is probably her most well known, but her best book (among so many fine ones) is definitely Sword at Sunset. I can't wait to read your review of it.

After you finish Sutcliff's books, maybe you could go on to review the wonderful world of the woefully under appreciated Morgan Llywelyn. Her reimaginings of the great Celtic myths of The Silver Branch, Finn MaCool, the druids, the earliest Celtic horse riders, etc. are wonderful. She's another under appreciated author, married to a highly reputed classicist, who brought an historical realism to legends and myths. Her masterpiece is a terrific retelling of the life of Brian Boru: Lion of Ireland. You've probably read all these, but I'd love to see you introduce them to your audience.

Steve Donoghue said...

What a wonderful idea! One Morgan Llewlyn post, coming right up!

Recent Reading: Micro Edition » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism said...

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Steven Kennedy said...

I read Eagle of the Ninth, The Lantern Bearers, and A Knight's Fee as a kid, and everything else I could find by Sutcliff as an adult. She is absolutely my favorite author-- to me her command of prose is nothing short of lyrical-- phrases like "going West of the Sunset by the Warrior's Road," "A victory like a trumpet blast to sound through the land," and images like the last lighting of the Rutupiae Light, the last of Rome in Britain, have stayed with me forever. Every time I read one I am stunned by the concept that many consider these children's books, when the themes are so true to life, complex and compelling. The Brits have a tradition of high level "childrens" fiction that puts us to shame.