Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A Rosemary By Any Other Name...

... would not read the same as Rosemary Sutcliff.

I first discovered Rosemary Sutcliff as a boy of 14, thanks to a recommendation by my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. McElheny. My teacher knew of my love for King Arthur stories, and suggested I read The Lantern Bearers. I loved it. Here, for me, was something new. A book about King Arthur that had nothing to do with wizards or round tables or magic swords, but instead sprung from the shadowy history of Post-Roman Britain as the Romanized British fought a long struggle to hold back the Anglo-Saxon invaders. Here I first read of the Roman Empire's decline. I saw in the tale of Flavius how civilizations fail and fall, how cultures change or even disappear, and how that is simply the way the world works. And I met for the first time a cavalry leader named Artos, who may (or may not) have been the real King Arthur.

What a delicious, wonderful, beautiful, lyrical and exciting book. Battles. Swords. The Legions abandoning Britain. A legionnaire abandoning his duty to Rome for his duty to home. Desperate escapes. Bitter losses. Bitter anger. Useless revenge. And a war that began a legend. Forget the lousy Bruckheimer movie or the over-rated Zimmer-Bradley book. Rosemary Sutcliff's Artos will always be to me the real King Arthur.

Oddly, though I loved the book at the time, I did not read anymore Rosemary Sutcliff books for nearly twenty-five years. Then, in a game rulebook, I stumbled across a reference to her name and another title— The Eagle of the Ninth— and my memory of The Lantern Bearers came back. I promptly sought out The Eagle of the Ninth, bought it, and devoured it. That sent me to seek other books: Outcast, The Silver Branch, The Lantern Bearers, The Shining Company, The Mark of the Horse Lord, The Shield Ring, Sword Song... all of which have left me in awe of Rosemary Sutcliff's imagination, language, and gift for capturing vanished ages and filling her tales with people who are wonderfully real. And though her characters may never know each other, or even live generations apart in time, she skillfully weaves links between them— an heirloom, a trinket, or even simply a shared place, though centuries parted— like little hidden treasures for readers to discover. In the midst of real history, she gives her own creations a history as well. The result is like whispers echoing through time, a reminder that we, too, are connected with our past, and will send our own echoes down into the future.

And now for a little taste of the present. Though I have sought and read every book I could find of Sutcliff's saga of Britain, one book has remained elusively out-of-print: Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff's treatment of the life of Artos himself and his final fate at the battle of Camlann against (or alongside?) Medraut... known to legend as Mordred. For an Arthurian fanatic like myself, it has been a Holy Grail that I despaired of finding. But no more. I just learned that Sword at Sunset has been reprinted. My quest will soon be at an end.

Take up the quest yourself and discover the treasure that is Rosemary Sutcliff. You'll enjoy every stroke of her pen.

--- Howard Shirley

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