“Sword at Sunset” by Rosemary Sutcliff (Chicago Review Press, 2008)

Sword at Sunsetstarstarstar

The late Rosemary Sutcliff was a prolific writer from the 1950s through the 1970s, publishing a number of children’s books, including the Eagle of the Ninth series and a series of Arthurian novels, as well as over twenty other children’s books on historical subjects.  She also penned nonfiction works and adult fiction, including Sword at Sunset, originally published in 1963 and re-released on May 1st of this year.

Sword at Sunset features an introduction by Canadian author Jack Whyte, writer of the successful Camulod Chronicles, a nine-book series beginning several generations before Arthur was born.  Whyte freely admits that when he first discovered Sword at Sunset it changed his life, which becomes all too clear when one has read both authors.  The characterization, the tone, and the painstaking attention to historical detail and accuracy are prevalent in both works, to the point where one might think Whyte owes Sutcliff more than an introduction and homage.

In Sword at Sunset, Sutcliff creates a world where the Roman legions have left Britain, yet the sense of Romanitas remains strong, especially in the noble characters of Ambrosius and Artos the Bear. They retain not just the armor, style of combat, and the Roman military organization, but a superior, almost arrogant sense of belonging to something that was once great and could be again.  Sutcliff’s early medieval world is not as “dark age” as normally depicted in fiction, but thriving with trade and societal infrastructure across Europe still seemingly intact.  Artos the Bear spends the beginning of the book traveling to southern France where he looks to purchase strong breeds of horses to bring back to Britain to create a strong cavalry force to fight against the invading Anglo Saxons and maintain the British control and rule.

While it is not completely clear how Artos the Bear has risen to such great prominence, he nevertheless has the backing of the people, which spurs him on to defeat the Saxons in many battles.  Sutcliff introduces many familiar characters from the Arthurian world, though there is no Merlin or Lancelot (the latter originally an addition made by Chrétien de Troyes in the twelfth century), but an important appearance is made by Arthur’s incestuous sister Medraut (or Morgan). Sword at Sunset reads like a historical military text with its calculated and descriptive battle scenes that make the world come alive, to the point where the reader may indeed believe such events transpired in the fifth century, leaving the common storylines of romance and chivalry out completely, much as they were in the original time of Arthur.

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Originally written on July 11th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.