No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, July 28, 2011

2011/33: Sword at Sunset -- Rosemary Sutcliff

... we rode into a ghost town, the roofs long since fallen in and the walls crumbling away, the tall armies of nettles where the merchants had spread their wares and the Auxiliaries had taken their pleasure in off-duty hours, where the married quarters had been, and children and dogs had tumbled in the sunshine under the very feet of the marching cohorts, and the drink shops had spilled beery song into the night, and the smiths and sandalmakers, the horse-dealers and the harlots, had plied their trades; and all that moved was a blue hare among the fallen gravestones of forgotten men, and above us a hoodie crow perching on the rotting carcass of what had once been one of the great catapults of the Wall ... (p. 147)

When I was in primary school The Lantern Bearers was my favourite book: I read it again and again, far more than either The Eagle of the Ninth or The Silver Branch. I didn't realise for many years that the story continued: that Sword at Sunset, as well as being an account of a Romano-British King Arthur, actually begins mere days after the end of The Lantern Bearers.

Thirty-five years after falling in love with The Lantern Bearers, I finally read Sword at Sunset.

I don't like it.

I don't mean that it's a bad book (it's not) or that I was sad because my favourite characters died (I was, but that wouldn't make me dislike a book). Nor do I think my problem with the novel is simply the change of tone -- though, unlike the other books in the sequence, this is very distinctly not a book for children. (Incest, rape, murder, prostitution, treachery, adultery, homosexuality, torture: none of it sensationalised, but all perfectly clear, without obfuscation or allusion.)

I think my problem is with the narrative voice, that of Ambrosius' adoptive son Artos. While the previous books were in third person, which lends itself to description and world-building, Sword at Sunset is first-person -- almost claustrophobically so. It's not the most promising of voices:
It is all without life in my mind as a badly tempered blade ... so far as might be, I stopped feeling, in those years, and the things that enter only by the head, no man remembers as he does the things that enter by the heart. (p.450)

Artos' focus, and his suppression of emotion, produces a narrative where deaths (human and animal) are mentioned in passing; where battle-strategy is set out in grim and bloody detail, but joy is mostly absent; where, because it's a familiar myth and because it's framed as the retrospective of a dying man, we already know there are no happy endings.

There is still a great deal of beautiful prose, and Sutcliff still draws our attention to the telling detail: a flower crushed and thrown into the fire, the streaked malachite on a whore's eyelids, two boys tending one another's briar scratches. This is the Matter of Britain stripped down to its core. Artos, the warleader who is born between the Roman world and the British, and never quite belongs to either; Medraut, the son conceived in treachery, who will be his doom; Guenhumara, the wife who falls in love with her husband's best friend (Bedwyr rather than the medieval Lancelot-come-lately). No magic, no Merlin, no Ancient MysteriesTM except for the secrets of the 'little dark people'. There are echoes of the earlier books: Trimontium, 'the place of three hills'; the emerald ring carved with a dolphin; the seven stars of Orion; the image of the lights going out, one by one.

It's a beautiful novel in many respects, but a very cold one.


  1. Anonymous11:46 am

    I've come across other people who have this reaction to Sword at Sunset. I guess first person is always a risky approach, you are so close to the narrative voice that way, and if you don't like it...

    I don't read it that way myself : for me, Artos' tragedy is that he's a warm person who desperately wants friends and lovers, and his position pushes him away from all that, which to me felt desperately sad. He knows he's going to fail ultimately, he knows that he can't have the life he wants, everything falls apart in his hands, including his marriage... poor Artos. And poor Guenhumara.

    Thanks for the review, love reading others thoughts on old favorites.

  2. @ bunn:
    I think what the book lacked, for me, was continuity with the others in the sequence.

    Artos might have started out as a warm person, but I think what froze him was earlier and more personal than the loneliness of command.