(Chicago Review Press, 2008, 495 pages)
First published in 1963, Sword at Sunset is perhaps Rosemary Sutcliff’s best known adult novel, a vivid re-imagining of the myth that is King Arthur. Sutcliff strips away the medieval ‘romance’ here, instead drawing sparingly on Welsh tradition, and grounding her tale very much in the realities of the post-Roman era, as the inhabitants of Britain struggle against not just the rising tide of the Anglo-Saxon ‘Sea Wolves’ and their allies, but dangerous division amongst themselves.
The story is narrated by Sutcliff’s Arthur, Artos, as he lies dying of a battle wound in the monastery of the Island of Apples, and takes us on a journey from his early years as the Count of Britain, the canny head of a roving warband whose purpose is to break Anglo-Saxon power in Britain, through to his election as High King and beyond. But the novel doesn’t charge straight into battle: Sutcliff starts slowly, building up a detailed sense of Artos’ world and his character, so that although I was unsure about him at first, I gradually came to respect, and then to like him. Artos makes a thoroughly believable post-Roman warleader, not above using trickery and threats – even towards his own people – if it allows him to further his cause; but although he has his flaws, he’s also very human: dogged and made vulnerable by a fateful encounter in his home hills, committed to his cause, afraid of the loneliness accompanying authority, and in many respects honest, decent and loyal, it’s easy to empathise with him, and of all the characters in the book, he was my favourite. Sutcliff said that she was more 'deeply involved' with this novel than any other, and described herself as 'living' as Artos during the time she was writing it, and it’s perhaps a mark of this involvement that whilst her style is very distinctive, I never felt I was listening to anyone other than Artos himself. Her other characters were well drawn, their natures often deftly conveyed by just a few well chosen words, and the relationships between them are emotionally powerful and compelling – especially between Artos and his two closest companions, Guenhumara and Bedwyr.
The descriptions of surroundings and events are, as ever, detailed and vibrant, especially visually – the passages depicting sunsets stand out particularly – which leaves a strong impression of having actually experienced them. Sutcliff, from what I’ve read of her work so far, wasn’t one to shy away from describing bloodshed and cruelty either, and this novel is no exception: there are several images of gut-wrenching violence, although it’s never gratuitous.
As might be expected given the novel’s grounding, there’s no real magic in this book – and no Merlin, either, for that matter – only a strong sense of Fate, the whims of which some people can discern, and others can’t. At first I felt that the way in which Artos picked up each of his companions along the way seemed somewhat neat and linear, but viewed as part of the current of Fate, it makes perfect sense.
My only real niggle with the novel was the portrayal of the Little Dark People, a semi-subterranean race of pygmy people (rather like the Picts of legend) with Neolithic aspects, which occasionally brought me up short. But if I’m honest, they eventually blended in with the rest of the tale, and it ended up seeming as if they always had.
Overall, a masterful imagining of who and what the original ‘King Arthur’ may have been, well written and with deft references to the old legends. Towards the beginning of the novel, Artos, when trying Ambrosius the High King’s sword, speaks of it being ‘perfectly balanced’. I think the same can be said of Rosemary Sutcliff’s tale.