Rosemary Sutcliff: “One of the Minstrelsy”

“And then suddenly the wolf was there. With a crashing of twigs and small branches it sprang into the open, then, seeing the hunters all about it, checked almost in mid spring, swinging its head from side to side, with laid-back ears and wrinkled muzzle: a great, brindled dog wolf, menace in every raised hackle.”
(From Warrior Scarlet)

Rosemary Sutcliff’s splendid stories take place in Britain’s distant past. Shining Roman spears. Cloth woven red for warrior valor. A broken bit of barley cake on a hearth whose ashes grow cold. The last signal fire against the darkness of a massing enemy.

This author makes her characters—-whether queens and kings, shepherds, or slaves—-as familiar to her readers as their own friends. To read one of her historical novels for young people is to enter another age, as gripping as the finest fantasy books. But unlike the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, these worlds truly existed. How did Rosemary Sutcliff learn to pattern her words and tell her stories in such a gripping way?

As with many successful children’s writers, her talent arose from a love of books. Born in England in 1920, she might have been raised by nannies and The Silver Branch governesses and eventually sent off to school to follow a perfectly ordinary life.

But Rosemary suffered terribly from juvenile arthritis. Her mother decided to school her at home. Part of her mother’s devoted care included reading aloud. Rosemary was in hospital, as they say in Britain, very frequently, and her mother read to her hour after hour. These tremendous stories—-Rudyard Kipling, tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood and many more—-flowed into her mind day after day. In a hospital library she found a book that was to be her childhood treasure. Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, told of a young Canadian girl who follows her dream of becoming a published writer. And so a seed was sown.

Yet her childhood was more than just sheltered. It was almost horrifically isolated. She was in frequent pain, with no friends her own age, and her father’s military job moved them around from town to town. Rosemary finished up her regular education, such as it was, by age 14. She promptly took an entrance exam for an art school and got in.

Her teachers told her she would be wonderful at painting miniatures, and she did do this for a while with some success. But at last the writing fever hit her in earnest. She wrote one story and had it rejected, but the publisher asked her to write another on a topic of their choosing. She much more enjoyed writing a biography of Queen Elizabeth I for children, her second assignment, but she realized even as she was writing them that these early books were a kind of apprenticeship.

In 1954, her first book of the Roman trilogy was published. Eagle of the Ninth and its sequels would have been notable if only because no writer for young people had ever evoked this dark period of Britain’s past with such reality. But the trilogy (Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers) did much more that. Rosemary’s storytelling style was so strong that the clashes between the warriors and cultures resonated through the pages of the books, gripping the readers long after the last chapters were finished.

Rosemary Sutcliff went on to write more than 50 books before her death in 1992. She was most at home telling stories about Britain’s early periods—-when the Little Dark People of the Isle clashed with the invading Celts or the advent and departure of the Roman legions.

The Romans first came in 55 BC, and by 407 AD the last legion had been withdrawn. But the warriors left behind remembered the Roman ways and, as told by Rosemary, put them to good advantage in the wars against the invading Saxons. She looked carefully for the fire behind the smoke of legend and came up with a realistic British hero who just might have become the once and future king of legend--Arthur.

Readers who have not tried her books would be well to begin with either Eagle of the Ninth or Warrior Scarlet.

Eagle follows an embittered Roman soldier who travels to Britain’s hinterlands to seek out his father’s lost legion. In the latter book, a young Celtic boy with a maimed arm must either prove his ability to defend his tribe in single combat with a wolf or be abandoned by his people. Both stories continue in their ways from generation to generation through other books.

An excellent example of the meaning of honor and kingship in a tribal society can be found in The Horse Lord. Here a gladiator newly-freed from slavery drifts into the role of a lifetime when his resemblance to a missing heir puts him back in the action.

In a 1986 interview with Raymond H. Thompson, Rosemary Sutcliff described herself as a person who belonged to the minstrelsy, getting the history as right as she could but always putting the storytelling first. The old Anglo-Saxons had a peculiar expression: to unlock one’s word-hoard. Rosemary Sutcliff’s treasures of words are available for everyone, “from nine to ninety,” as she was fond saying, at the local library.

Sources for this article:

“Rosemary Sutcliff,” Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2007. Entry updated 09/05/2003Lantern Bearers

“Rosemary Sutcliff,” St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd ed. St. James Press, 1999

(Both of the above come from the database, Biography Resource Center. They contain more complete biographical notes, including full lists of her publications and many awards.)

Rosemary Sutcliff: An Appreciation by Sandra Garside-Neville.

Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff by Raymond H. Thompson.

Note: Rosemary Sutcliff also wrote a poignant biography of her early years, The Blue Remembered Hills.

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