Rosemary Sutcliff is most famed for The Eagle of the Ninth, but there was much more to her than that. In the 1950s, historically-minded children found her books a magic carpet into the past. I began with Brother Dusty-feet (1952) and The Armourer’s House (1951), and never looked back and an insatiable interest in history has remained the backbone of my life.
In 1954, The Eagle of the Ninth introduced Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young Roman who chooses to stay in Britain after the legions leave. Seven subsequent books follow his family’s fate, usually directly. The odd book out is the fifth, Sword at Sunset, now published in a new edition to celebrate its 50th birthday. In 1963, it was firmly announced to be for adults, and given the (for their time) graphic and violent scenes of sex and slaughter, it deserved to be.
Posts Tagged ‘writing’
Reader-follower-commenter Anne alerted me a couple of years ago to Rosemary Sutcliff’s comments on ‘gadzookery’ and ‘writing forsoothly’.
Victorian writers, and even those of a somewhat later date…saw nothing ludicrous in ‘Alas! fair youth, it grieves me to see thee in this plight. Would that I had the power to strike these fetters from thy tender limbs.’ Josephine Tey, whose death I shall never cease to lament, called this ‘Writing forsoothly.’ A slightly different variant is known in the trade as ‘gadzookery.’ Nowadays this is out of fashion; and some writers go to the other extreme and make the people of Classical Greece or Mediaeval England speak modern colloquial English. This is perhaps nearer to the truth of the spirit, since the people in question would have spoken the modern colloquial tongue of their place and time.
But, personally, I find it destroys the atmosphere when a young Norman Knight says to his Squire, ‘Shut up, Dickie, you’re getting too big for your boots.’ Myself, I try for a middle course, avoiding both gadzookery and modern colloquialism; a frankly ‘made-up’ form that has the right sound to it, as Kipling did also. I try to catch the rhythm of a tongue, the tune that it plays on the ear, Welsh or Gaelic as opposed to Anglo-Saxon, the sensible workmanlike language which one feels the Latin of the ordinary Roman citizen would have translated into. It is extraordinary what can be done by the changing or transposing of a single word, or using perfectly usual one in a slightly unusual way: ‘I beg your pardon’ changed into ‘I ask your pardon.’
- Source: Rosemary Sutcliff, History is People (1971), published in Virginia Haviland’s “Children and Literature: Views and Reviews”.
Extract from Oxford Encyclopaedia of Children’s Literature on Rosemary Sutcliff.
Critics of Sutcliff’s work sometimes comment on its difficulty both in terms of the language she employs and in terms of the historical depth her novels embrace. But for Sutcliff herself, these sorts of evaluations of her writing were welcomed as compliments. She prided herself on never writing down to her readers, expecting them instead to be enticed into enjoying a compelling and demanding tale by the pageantry of history and the warm humanity of people in every era.
She carefully creates dialogue in her novels that recollects the speech of a bygone era without falling into what she termed ‘gadzookery.’ Sutcliff also researched her novels with exquisite care, and they reflect her vast knowledge of military tactics, religious practices, landscapes, and the material conditions and artifacts of everyday life whether in a Bronze Age village or in a Roman legion on the move.
Other commentators have noted the limited role that female characters play in her novels. Except for a few volumes that focus on a young woman, like Song for a Dark Queen (1978), which tells the tale of Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni who led a revolt against the Romans in a.d. 60, this is certainly true. Sutcliff often includes energetic and courageous women among her secondary characters, but providing insights into women’s roles in history is not among her greatest strengths.
The film The Eagle (2011), based upon Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), involves the same start but a different final ending from the book. At the time of the film’s release I commented to reviewers and journalists that I thought Rosemary would have understood that film story-telling had its own needs, and that it was not the same as book story-telling. However, I have come to wonder if that was the appropriate reply. More recently I came across this quotation from Rosemary Sutcliff, speaking of something else:
I do not think that you can be changing the end of a song or a story like that, as though it were quite separate from the rest. I think the end of a story is part of it from the beginning.
Joe Abercrombie is a writer of fantasy novels for adults, including the First Law Trilogy (The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and Last Argument of King). He has now turned his attention to ‘young adults’, with his first YA fantasy book Half a King.
On bookseller Waterstones blog he comments that after writing several fantasy novels for adults he “felt the need to try my hand at something at least slightly different”. He turned to a novel for young adults. He was influenced by Rosemary Sutcliff whose books were “full of authenticity, honesty, moral ambiguity, shocks and tough choices. These were not books that ever preached, or talked down to their audience”.
I was at a ‘zany zone’ with my children one day…soft play, ball bath, slides, you know the type of thing. There happened to be a boy with a malformed hand there, who was having some trouble joining in fully with the rest. I was thinking how tough that must be. Then I started thinking how much tougher it would be in the medieval sort of world I tend to work in. Especially in a Viking or a Saxon inspired world, where fighting in the shield wall was at the heart of their culture. Where standing strong with your brothers, and holding a shield for the man at your shoulder, was the mark of being a man. And that was the seed for Half a King.
… My main touchstones in the young adult arena were things I read and loved when I was younger – notably Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical books (Blood Feud especially) and John Christopher’s post-apocalyptic The Sword of the Spirits. These were books full of authenticity, honesty, moral ambiguity, shocks and tough choices. These were not books that ever preached, or talked down to their audience. I started from the standpoint that young adults are, above all, adults. Just young ones. What they want to read isn’t radically different from what old adults (like me) want to read. People in that 12-18 age range are dealing with serious issues of sex, money, identity, responsibility. The last thing they want to be is talked down to. What adult does?
So my aim was not to pull the teeth of my existing style, but to modify it for a new audience, a younger adult audience, but also a wider adult audience who might have found themselves turned off by the big size of some of the fantasy out there. To write something shorter, tighter, more focused, perhaps a smidge less cynical and pessimistic. A slap in the face on every page. No wasted space. Simpler in its narrative, perhaps, but certainly not simpler in the way it was written or in the themes that it tackles. Something a little less explicit in the sex, violence and swearing but absolutely with the edges left on, with the same shades of grey, moral complexity, shocks and challenges, visceral action, and rich vein of dark humour that I fondly imagine my other books have offered. Whatever I came up with, I wanted it to retain the strength of my other work, to bring new readers to that work, and absolutely to appeal to the readers I already had.
- Source: The genesis of Half a King | Waterstones Blog
- More on Rosemary Sutcliff’s Viking novel Blood Feud, on this website
- Offical website for Joe Abercrombie
From a now discontinued blog by a Canadian, Robin Rowland:
The main theme of many of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books is the life of the soldier. Her father was a naval officer and she grew up in a military atmosphere. Although she was physically handicapped and spent part of her life in wheel chair, she captures the uncertain life of the intelligent human being who must become a fighter whether a member of a regular armed force or a warrior band or an individual trying to survive.
Sutlcliff had a unique viewpoint on the military, the insider who is also a somewhat removed observer, a combination of the kid sister although she had no siblings, the know-it-all cousin or neighbor, and the chronicler somewhat like Princess Irulan in Dune. Marcus Aquila Flavius thought he would be a career soldier, then finds the wound in his leg has changed his life….a fact of life facing many soldiers today. His descendent, Aquila, deserts his army to defend his home, becomes a slave and suffers throughout his life with what would, a millenia and half later, be called post traumatic stress disorder. Her soldiers are rounded human beings, with conflicting loyalties mixed with personal and family problems, always facing uncertainty in campaigns.
An academic might say that all this was reflection of the decline of the British Empire. Sutlcliff had liked Kipling as a kid and it could be said that her books are the Kipling stories of that declining empire. But as our society has become more uncertain in the years since she wrote, the books are more relevant than ever.