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Archive for the ‘Criticism, Reviews, Research, Awards’ Category

Collection of Rosemary Sutcliff covers via Google Images March 2016

Collection of Rosemary Sutcliff covers via Google Images March 2016

According to The  Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) the “ability to create a realistic historical novel for children is in a sense one of the most testing challenges of the fantastist’s art”.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s “masterpieces of historical fiction are vivid re-creations rather than attempts to portray historical fact through story. While rarely straying beyond the boundaries of what could have happened in the later centuries of Roman rule in Britain and the succeeding Dark Ages, Rosemary Sutcliff, like her mentor Rudyard Kipling, set herself to describe history as part of a temporal tapestry.”

”Thus The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), while containing at least one darkly numinous and certainly trans-real scene when its hero Marcus discovers the lost legion’s missing standard in a British shrine, is told very much in the manner of a tale of the Imperial Northwest Frontier, with Marcus in the role of English subaltern and the Druid-inspired uprisings reminiscent of Indian struggles against the Raj. Suceeding novels, such as The Silver Branch (1957) and The Lantern Bearers (1959), portray Marcus’s descendants, with the Romans and British developing elements of each other’s culture and facing another wave of conquest and immigration from the Anglo-Saxons.”

”We see the beginning of the Matter of Britain in the latter novel and in the adult novel Sword at Sunset (1964) which depicts Artos, illegitimate nephew of Ambrosius the High King, as a warlord fighting the Saxon tribes to keep alight the memory of the Romano-British nation. In the events Rosemary Sutcliff describes – especially the ambiguity of Artos’s relationship with the incest-born Medraut and his use of the moon daisy, element of the White Goddess, to unite old faiths and new at the Battle of Badon – are both the Arthur of the later chroniclers and the seed of the later romances.”

Rosemary Sutcliff turned again and again to this period, revisiting the Romano-British ‘frontier’ in Mark of the Horse Lord (1965) – a fierce study of espionage and assumed identity – and Frontier Wolf (1980). She retold Saxon and Irish legends such as Beowulf (1961; retitled

Dragon Slayer 1966) and The Hound of Ulster (1963), and returned to the Dark Ages in The Shining Company (1990) – based on the Welsh poem The Gododdin – and in retellings of the Arthur-story in The Sword and the Circle (1981) and The Road to Camlann (1981). She also wrote about Greece in The Flowers of Adonis (1965), a study of the Athenian Alcibades which provides a multifaceted picture of a charming but hollow genius. Apart from the Marcus sequence, though, perhaps her finest novel – and certainly the most akin to fantasy – is Warrior Scarlet (1958), in which Drem, a boy of a Bronze Age tribe, overcomes the disability of a withered arm to become a warrior. Within the limits of a book for children, this is as powerful as possible a picture of a putative shamanistic society, with the sun-worshipping Golden People contrasted with the outcast Half People from whom they have wrested the Land.”

“Apart from occasional suggestions of paranormal powers, Rosemary Sutcliff remains a realistic writer, exploring the history of our here and now. But her imagination was powerful enough to create startling pictures of what could have been.

via Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) – Sutcliff, Rosemary.

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Signature of Rosemary Sutcliff showing her name is not Sutcliffe with an E

Helen  posted  a comment on this blog about on “the features which make up the ‘sum of parts’ that are a Rosemary Sutcliff  novel” and  “the indefinable minstrel’s magic that makes it all alive”:

  • A hero, set apart from his peers both by his injury and his past
  • Landscape and the seasons as living entities in themselves
  • Friendship
  • Adventure
  • Scenes of slow tension and thrilling escape
  • Flashes of both humour and horror
  • The sense and quest for justice and fairness
  • The clash of two worlds and the places where the distance narrows to nothing between them
  • The relationship between man and dog, and to a lesser degree, man and horse
  • The slow romance
  • Understanding of a military world
  • A hopeful, ‘song of new beginnings’ ending
  • Devon!

 

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UK Hardback Cover Rosemary Sutcliff The Lantern Bearers in 1959

Rosemary Sutcliff was the proud recepient of the Carnegie Medal for 1959 for her Roman historical novel  ( “I write for children aged 8 to 88”) The Lantern Bearers.

An intriguing question is posed this year (2018) by Children’s Literature Lecturer Lucy Pearson about the focus of books awarded the Carnegie Medal. She questions whether the award is moving away from children’s books. The “short version” of her thesis is that “the Carnegie has definitely seen a massive swing in favour of YA (Young Adults) in the last decade”. Her notion of whether a book is for children or for young adults is based on a combination of the readership aimed at, and the age of the protagonists.

Rosemary Sutcliff wrote for children of all ages, about people of all ages. She was promoted in the 1950s to adults as for children and juveniles (sic). She was no stranger to the Carnegie Medal. She was commended  in 1954 for The Eagle of the Ninth, 1956 for The Shield Ring, and 1957 for The Silver Branch. Authors originally could not be awarded the medal a second time. But by 1971 they could, and Rosemary Sutcliff was ‘highly commended’ for The Carnegie Medal for Tristan and Iseult in 1971

Source: https://carnegieproject.wordpress.com/2018/03/17/ya-and-the-carnegie-medal-growing-away-from-childrens-books/s

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One Alan Myers once compiled an ‘A to Z of the many writers of the past who had a significant connection’ with the North-East of England. It seems now to have disappeared from the web . He writes of Rosemary Sutcliff:

“One of the most distinguished children’s writers of our times, Rosemary Sutcliff wrote over thirty books , some of them now considered classics. She sets several of her best-known works in Roman and Dark Age Britain, giving her the opportunity to write about divided loyalties, a recurring theme. The Capricorn Bracelet comprises six linked short stories spanning the years AD 61 to AD 383, and Hadrian’s Wall features in the narrative.

The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) is perhaps her finest work and exemplifies the psychological dilemmas that Rosemary Sutcliff brought to her novels. It is a quest story involving a journey north to the land of the Picts to recover the lost standard of the Roman Ninth Legion. A good part of the book is set in the North East around Hadrian’s Wall (a powerful symbol) and a map is provided. The book has been televised, and its sequels are The Silver Branch (1957) and The Lantern Bearers (1959), which won the Carnegie medal. Sutcliff returned to the Romano-British frontier in The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965) and Frontier Wolf (1980).

Northern Britain in the sixth century AD is the setting of The Shining Company (1990), a retelling of The Goddodin (v. Aneirin) a tragedy of epic proportions. The story, however, is seen from the point of view of the shield-bearers, not the lords eulogised in The Goddodin, and treats themes of loyalty, courage and indeed political fantasy.”

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How relevant are Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels to contemporary politics and society?

Screenshot 2016-07-13 10.50.40

John Fitzgerald writes a piece about the referendum, about which he himself says (in his own words, in a comment elsewhere here)

It’s written from a pro-Leave standpoint and is quite religious in its outlook … So, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope it goes to show just how relevant RS’s novels are to contemporary politics and society.

Source: Londinium: The Fourth Rome? Guest Post by John Fitzgerald

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From the cover of Rosemary Sutcliff's autobiography The Blue Remembered Hills

Rosemary Sutcliff‘s 1954 children’s classic The Eagle of the Ninth (still in print more than 50 years on) is the first of a series of novels in which Sutcliff, who died in 1992, explored the cultural borderlands between the Roman and the British worlds – “a place where two worlds met without mingling” as she describes the British town to which Marcus, the novel’s central character, is posted.

Marcus is a typical Sutcliff hero, a dutiful Roman who is increasingly drawn to the British world of “other scents and sights and sounds; pale and changeful northern skies and the green plover calling”. This existential cultural conflict gets even stronger in later books like The Lantern Bearers and Dawn Wind, set after the fall of Rome, and has modern resonance. But Sutcliff was not just a one-trick writer.

The range of her novels spans from the Bronze Age and Norman England to the Napoleonic wars. Two of her best, The Rider of the White Horse and Simon, are set in the 17th century and are marked by Sutcliff’s unusually sympathetic (for English historical novelists of her era) treatment of Cromwell and the parliamentary cause. Sutcliff’s finest books find liberal-minded members of elites wrestling with uncomfortable epochal changes. From Marcus Aquila to Simon Carey, one senses, they might even have been Guardian readers.

Michael Rosen commented on this editorial:

Interesting that she was writing about the end of an empire at the end of…er…an empire. And does the search for the lost legion echo/refract Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?

Some of us drank in The Eagle of the Ninth two ways: once as a BBC Children’s Hour serial and second time as the book. I can remember hurrying to get home to hear it – moody, dangerous, mysterious – a quest for something real but long gone, a possible solution to an unsolved story…and somehow it had something to do with events that happened a long time ago just where you walked when we were on holiday: on moors, or on wet fields where we were camping. The book made a connection for me between a past and that particular present.

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The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature has an entry on historical novelist and writer of literature for children, Rosemary Sutcliff. It comments on her use of language:
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.”
  • Source: The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Ed. Jack Zipes. Oxford University Press, 2006.

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