Sword at Sunset

Written by Rosemary Sutcliff
Review by Susan Cook

Although fans of Arthurian history and fiction have long been familiar with the depiction of Arthur as the last of the Romano-British warriors, recent movies based on the same premise (King Arthur and The Last Legion?) have brought the idea to a wider audience. Thus Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1963 novel rings with a modernity that will no doubt find her new readers as well as old friends raised on her many children’s novels.

The question that Sutcliff sets herself is how the historical Arthur could have become such an enduring legend, and the prose she weaves effects just such a transformation. In this rendering of the Matter of Britain there is no Round Table but men bound to one another in life and death by a warrior culture, no magic but the ‘thin places’ of Celtic spirituality, and no chivalric deeds but the struggle to hold back the darkness of the inevitable Saxon invasion in the hopes that a little of what is Britain may live on. Artos the Bear tells us his story in retrospect from his deathbed, and a tone like the lament of a harp plays through the entire novel as he moves towards the fate set in motion by the dark sin of his youth.

Yet as I read, it struck me that the reissue of Sword at Sunset is timely in more important ways. In a period when immigration and the cultural destiny of Britain have been a cause for much anxiety and speculation, not to mention violent words and deeds, this story of the struggles of a country of many peoples and faiths offers an almost prophetic, and ultimately hopeful, allegory: a reminder that values can remain even as the face of a nation changes.