BORN: 1920, Surrey, England
DIED: 1992, Sussex, England
The Eagle of the Ninth (1954)
Warrior Scarlet (1958)
The Lantern Bearers (1959)
The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965)
Rosemary Sutcliff. Sutcliff, Rosemary, photograph by Mark Gerson. Reproduced by permission of Mark Gerson.
A Carnegie Medal-winning author, Sutcliff brought history to life through her heroes, the atmospheres she created, and the sense of continuity found in her works. Known primarily for her children’s novels, she presented English history from the late Bronze Age through the coming of the Roman legions, the Dark Age invasions of the Angles and the Saxons, and the Norman Conquest, focusing on the experiences of young men and women who overcome the unrest of their times to find a measure of peace, despite their personal or physical limitations. Sutcliff also explored history through her many retellings of old legends or stories, such as those of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and Beowulf. In these works, she presented well-known heroes, often adding a new dimension to their tales.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Budding Interest in War Themes. Rosemary Sutcliff was born in Surrey, England, in 1920. When Sutcliff was eleven years old, her father retired from the navy and the family settled in a somewhat isolated moorland house in north Devon. She contracted a debilitating form of arthritis called Still’s disease as a child, but was nevertheless able to attend a normal school for a few years. Sutcliff’s father returned to the navy at the onset of World War II, however, leaving mother and daughter alone again. Their isolation was broken when their house became a British Home Guard signals post, and Sutcliff’s interest in battles and the military can be traced back to this time. The British Home Guard was a volunteer force composed of people who were ineligible for military service, who were assembled to protect Britain in case of a Nazi invasion.
Leaving school at the age of fourteen, Sutcliff began training as a painter of miniatures, a profession that was chosen for her because of her disability. Even though she had no inclination for the work, she made it through three years at Bideford Art School and became a professional.
Early Efforts at Writing. Sutcliff made her fiction debut with The Chronicles of Robin Hood (1950), quickly followed up with and The Queen Elizabeth Story (1950). Within a few years, she found her literary voice with such novels as Warrior Scarlet and The Lantern Bearers.
A Consistent Career. Perhaps the best of all Sutcliff’s writing is found in two novels of the 1960s, The Sword at Sunset (1963), which tells of the life and death of the Celtic warlord Artos (Arthur) and his doomed fight against the Saxons, and The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965), where a freed gladiator impersonates a Scottish chieftain and inherits his Highlands kingdom. Both stories end in tragedy but contain an unforgettable blend of action, deep thinking, and striking landscapes.
The 1970s and 1980s saw a smaller amount of work by Sutcliff, but of high quality. The Capricorn Bracelet (1973), a collection of stories first used as radio broadcasts, covers three hundred years and six generations of Aquila descendants fighting for Rome in the Scottish Border country. Blood Feud (1977) is the story of the Anglo-Saxon Jestyn, captured by marauding Vikings, who journeys with them to Constantinople to fight for the Byzantine emperor. Frontier Wolf (1980) returns to Roman Britain, where Alexios Aquila commands a body of frontier scouts against Scottish tribesmen along Hadrian’s Wall. Both novels are fine examples of Sutcliff’s work.
A Perfect Mesh of History and Fiction. In her autobiography, Blue Remembered Hills (1983), Sutcliff recalls her early life and her struggle against crippling arthritis. Sutcliff died on July 23, 1992.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Sutcliff's famous contemporaries include:
Mary Stewart (1916-): English novelist and children's author renowned for her historical fantasy series that focuses on the life of Merlin.
J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973): English writer who authored The Hobbit and the much-loved Lord of the Rings trilogy.
C. S. Lewis (1898-1963): Perhaps best known for his Chronicles of Narnia children's series, Lewis also wrote a number of philosophical and religious texts.
Queen Elizabeth II (1926-): Queen of England since the early 1950s, Elizabeth took the throne upon the death of George VI, her father; after Queen Victoria, she has reigned over the United Kingdom the longest of any monarch to date.
Works in Literary Context
The isolation of Sutcliff’s early life, her crippling illness, and the pain she experienced in a variety of relationships all influenced the trajectory her successful literary career would take. Inheriting the tradition of storytelling from her mother, Sutcliff was exposed at a young age to both Celtic and Saxon legends; she later built upon her memory of these stories to write engaging works of historical fiction that continue to engage readers of all ages but particularly young adults.
Light vs. Dark. Similar themes and images connect many of Sutcliff’s books. Margaret Sherwood Libby, writing in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review about The Lantern Bearers, declared that ‘‘the plot, both interesting and plausible, has its significance heightened by the recurring symbolism of light in dark days.’’ Margaret Meek, in Rosemary Sutcliff, recognized this theme of light and dark in all three of the books: ‘‘The conflict of the light and dark is the stuff of legend in all ages.... 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.’’ For example, Aquila’s lighting of the Rutupiae beacon becomes not only a personal symbol of his choice to remain in Britain but also a symbol of hope for those who fight on with him, a sign that the light of civilization will not die out forever.
Promises and Rings. Another of the themes that run through Sutcliff’s works is the great oath of loyalty, found in titles from Warrior Scarlet to The Shield Ring: ‘‘If we break faith ... may the green earth open and swallow us, may the grey seas roll in and overwhelm us, may the sky of stars fall on us and crush us out of life for ever.’’ The ritual of the spear that marks Drem’s entrance into manhood in Warrior Scarlet is echoed many years later in a similar scene in The Eagle of the Ninth. Still another connection lies in the continuity of Aquila’s family from one generation to the next, symbolized by the massive golden ring, inset with a flawed emerald and carved with the figure of a dolphin, which is the emblem of Aquila’s house. The ring reappears at intervals throughout Sutcliff’s history: Marcus first sees it on a thong around the neck of an ancient warrior in the Scottish Highlands; it is a sign of recognition between Flavius and Justin when they first serve together in Britain; it comes to Aquila from his sister Flavia when he escapes from the Jutish camp; it comes to Owain more than a hundred years later from the hand of his dead father as he flees the battlefield; and it comes to Bjorn from his foster father, Haethcyn, six hundred years later still, when Bjorn marches with Aikin Jarlson’s war band to fight the Normans, as a token that he has come into his father’s estate.
While many of her adult books are now out of print, Sutcliff’s children’s stories continue to entertain young readers and influence writers such as Helen Hollick.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Sutcliff was one of many authors to draw on the legend of King Arthur for inspiration. Here are some other works that feature the mythic Arthur:
The Once and Future King (1958), a novel by T. H. White. White focuses on Arthur's childhood and his relationship with the wizard Merlin in this popular version of the Arthurian legen.
The Mists of Avalon (1982), a novel by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Bradley presents an entirely fresh perspective on the tale of Arthur: she tells the story from the point of view of the women involved and places Arthur's struggles within the context of the dwindling power of paganism and the rising power of Christianity in England.
The Skystone (1992), a novel by Jack Whyte. The first book of The Camulod Chronicles, this novel details the beginning of King Arthur's England.
Works in Critical Context
‘‘Most critics,’’ contend May Hill Arbuthnot and Zena Sutherland in their Children and Books, ‘‘would say that at the present time the greatest writer of historical fiction for children and youth is unquestionably Rosemary Sutcliff.’’ Despite this, Sutcliff’s name is rarely mentioned among the great children’s authors, nor is her life as discussed or investigated as are those of her more famous contemporaries.
The ‘‘Roman Britain” Trilogy. Sutcliff’s ‘‘Roman Britain’’ trilogy begins with The Eagle of the Ninth, which concerns a young Roman centurion and his first few years spent in second-century Britain. The Eagle of the Ninth ‘‘is one of the few good stories’’ covering the period of Roman rule in Britain, maintains Ruth M. McEvoy in Junior Libraries. And a Booklist contributor concludes that the realistic background and characters make this a novel that ‘‘will reward appreciative readers.’’
The third book, The Lantern Bearers, ‘‘is the most closely woven novel of the trilogy,’’ claims Margaret Meek in her book Rosemary Sutcliff. ‘‘The characterizations are vivid, varied and convincing,’’ maintains Margaret Sherwood Libby in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review.
Warrior Scarlet. With Warrior Scarlet, Sutcliff continued her tales of the making of Britain through two new young heroes. The story of the Bronze Age in England is told in Warrior Scarlet by focusing on a boy and his coming to manhood. ‘‘Sutcliff has widened her range to cover the hinterland of history,’’ states Meek, ‘‘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.’’ Warrior Scarlet, according to a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, ‘‘is outstanding among children’s books of any kind.’’
Sword at Sunset. Like her novels for young adults, Sutcliff’s adult novels also delve into history. Sword at Sunset is a retelling of the legend of King Arthur that blends ‘‘legend, historical scholarship and masterfully humane storytelling to illuminate the misty and romantic era that preceded the Dark Ages,’’ remarks a Chicago Tribune Books reviewer. Sutcliff has placed Arthur outside the legends, imbuing him with more believability, according to Robert Payne in the New York Times Book Review. ‘‘This time,’’ writes Payne, ‘‘he is a living presence who moves in a brilliantly lit and fantastic landscape only remotely connected with ancient England.’’ Reflecting on the novel’s craftsmanship, Payne concludes: ‘‘Sutcliff is a spellbinder. While we read, we believe everything she says. She has hammered out a style that rises and falls like the waves of the sea.’’
Responses to Literature
1. Why do you think Sutcliff is not mentioned as frequently as Tolkien or C. S. Lewis in discussions of young adult authors? Is it because her books are based more on history than on fantasy? In an essay, explain your thoughts on the author’s relative obscurity.
2. How did Sutcliff’s lifelong illness directly and indirectly influence her career as a writer?
3. Why do you think Sutcliff chose to retell the Arthurian legend, which has already been retold many times? What is the legend’s allure? Do you think this allure is specific to England?
4. How are Sutcliff’s adult novels different from her children’s books? Compare the ‘‘Roman Britain’’ stories with Sword at Sunset.
Arbuthnot, May Hill, and Zena Sutherland. Children and Books. 4th ed. Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1972.
Egoff, Sheila A. Thursday’s Child: Trends and Patterns in Contemporary Children’s Literature. Chicago: American Library Association, 1981.
Meek, Margaret. Rosemary Sutcliff New York: Walck, 1962.
Townsend, John Rowe. A Sense of Story: Essays on Contemporary Writers for Children. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971.
________. Written for Children: An Outline of English Language Children’s Literature. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1974.
Aiken, Joan. ‘‘Rosemary and Time.’’ Times Educational Supplement, January 14, 1983, 24.
Evans, Ann. ‘‘The Real Thing.’’ Times Literary Supplement, March 27, 1981, 341.
Libby, Margaret Sherwood. Review of The Lantern Bearers. New York Herald Tribune Book World, February 14, 1960, 11.
McEvoy, Ruth M. Review of The Eagle of the Ninth. Junior Libraries, January 1955, 33.