I think it took me well over a month to read Rosemary Sutcliff’s Arthurian epic, Sword and Sunset. It is a book just a few pages short of 500 and I had to put it down for a bit when school took over my life. But it is good reading.
Originally published around 1963, Sutcliff took the interesting step at the time of removing Arthur from the realm of legend and myth and writing his story based on the historical record. There is no magic in the book, no mystical religious rites, just a story told pretty much in a realistic style. I say pretty much because at time Artos the Bear (that’s Arthur) believes a little too much in Fate and does absolutely nothing to try and change it especially when it comes to his relationship with his son Medraut. But then however close to history and the realistic you are writing, everyone knows Arthur’s story and so perhaps Sutcliff’s way of keeping Artos from making an effort to change his Fate is a result of not being able to change the ultimate outcome of the story. Which makes me wonder, if an author is writing a story that has been told and retold countless times, does that make it easier or more difficult to write?
This Arthur story is placed in Britain after the Romans have left. Artos was born in the hills near Snowden (Yr Widdfa) mountain in Wales, his father was a Roman and his mother British, or Welsh I suppose (the people who are not invaders from outside the country are simply called British there is no Wales or England or Ireland there is a Scotland though). After the Romans left, the country was broken up among princelings and tribes but the seat of power remained at Venta (Winchester), an old Roman city that had seen better days. Artos’s half brother, Ambrosius, is King of Britain though this doesn’t really mean all that much since the British aren’t very united.
The Saxons have always been a problem but it is growing worse. At the appropriate age, Artos asks his brother permission to leave to go north and try what he could to keep out the Saxons. All he asked was for 300 cavalry. These 300 come to be known as the Companions. There are other troops that come and go as the Saxons are fought here and there, but the Companions are sworn to serve until death or Artos releases them from service.
About two-thirds of the book is spent with Artos fighting the Saxons and more and more men from across Britain coming to join him. He does not become King until after his brother dies and the culminating battle for Britain is fought and won. He is king for the last third of the book and this zips along, skipping over years of time because Artos as administrator of a kingdom is not as interesting as Artos building a kingdom. But we all know it falls apart in the end.
The battle scenes are tense and well written, much more detailed on the strategy than the gore that you know is going on. And while when I started the book I was bugged that everyone had different names and I didn’t know who was who, it didn’t really matter that much when things really got going. Sutcliff writes some beautiful descriptions of the countryside and she is marvelous at picking out the seemingly insignificant detail that gives scenes a fullness and depth that bring them to life.
Sword at Sunset is a well done telling of the Arthur story, less fantasy than it is historical fiction. It is a book that I think will appeal to fans of both genres. I’m sure it won’t take anyone as long to read as it took me with all my stopping and starting. But if it does, the book is easy to fall back into as though it had never been put down.