Dec 30, 2016

A "historical" Arthur in SWORD AT SUNSET

The only book I had ever read of Rosemary Sutcliff's before this one was Outcast (just remembering the plot now thanks to Wikipedia), which I must have picked up at a school book fair once upon a time. I hadn't realized how prolific and well-known a children's author (particularly on Roman Britain) she was until I read several mentions of her on other blogs/pages dedicated to historical fiction. But I did remember being captivated by her book when I read it as a child, so when I saw she had written an "adult" novel on King Arthur, I just had to check it out! 😁

Sword at Sunset is Rosemary Sutcliff's telling of the Arthurian legend, under the premise that he was a historical figure and imagining how that could have been. She places the tale a generation or so after the Roman Legions have left Britain, and with the Saxon invasions increasing in number and strength. In an interview with author Raymond Thompson in 1986 she said something which reflects how I feel on the matter:
"I always believed very strongly that there could be no smoke without a fire. A legendary hero almost always has a basis in a real person, around whom bits of legend and bits of other people's stories gather and collect, rather like amber collecting little bits of paper. I was convinced that there was a real man in the middle somewhere."
So who is her King Arthur?

Well, to start out his name is Artos, and he is NOT a king! At least not until the very end. He is still Uther's illegitimate child (not even a pretense of him marrying the mother after), but in this version he was acknowledged by his father and raised at court by his uncle Ambrosius the High King after his father died (unlike Uther's other illegitimate child Ygerna whom he left with the mother because she was a girl and thus of no interest).

The tale is a first person narrative told from Artos' point of view, his reminicences on his past life as he lays dying on the Isle of Apples (Glastonbury) from Medraut's mortal blow in the final battle... Unlike other versions we start out with a grown (young) man, determined to set out on his own, out from his uncle's sphere, in order to make his own mark in the battle against the continuous Saxon invasions. He has the idea of a mobile cavalry unit, similar to in Roman times, formed of brave Companions sworn to him as warlord and to defend all of Britain (not just their own tribes). He puts this idea to his uncle Ambrosius, arguing that the tribes of Britain are now fractured and no longer united as they were under Roman rule, even if they nominally accept Ambrosias as their High King. He sees the need of this unit that he can take wherever the need is greatest, which must be independent so it will be accepted by all. And so Ambrosius makes him Comes Britanniorum, or Count of Britain.

"'And with three hundred men you believe that you can save Britain?' (...) 
'With three hundred men properly mounted, I believe that I can thrust back the Barbarians at least for a while,' I said at last. 'As for saving Britain - I have seen the wild geese flighting this autumn, and who can turn them back? It is more that a hundred years that we have been struggling to stem this Saxon flighting, more than thirty since the last Roman troops left Britain. How much longer, do you think, before the darkness closes over us?' It was a thing that I would not have said to any man save Ambrosius. 
And he answered me as I do not think he would have answered any other man. 'God knows. If your work and mine be well wrought, maybe another hundred years.' 
The shutter banged again, and somewhere in the distance I heard a smothered burst of laughter. I said, 'Then why don't we yield now, and make an end? There would be fewer cities burned and fewer men slain in that way. Why do we go on fighting? Why not merely lie down and let it come? They say it is easier to drown if you don't struggle.' 
'For an idea,' Ambrosias said, beginning again to play with the dragon arm ring; but his eyes were smiling in the firelight, and I think that time smiled back at him. 'Just for an idea, for an ideal, for a dream.' 
I said, 'A dream may be the best thing to die for.'"

This is one of the elements that I found quite interesting in this book, the weariness of the warrior knowing he ultimately fighting a lost battle, but he still fights 'till the end in order to uphold the dream of something better. There are quite a few similar conversations throughout the book, about how pushing back the tide - however long as possible - would make the end result be less dark, would allow for more of a melding of two peoples and less of a complete disappearance of the one. An apt description for the forging of the modern Britain over centuries of invasions throughout Ancient History and the Middle Ages...

So we depart with Artos to get the necessary horses, slowly find men and resources (sometimes to the Church's discontent) to build up his company and fight battles across the length and breadth of Britain, including the famous battle at Badon. His Companions are a force to reckon with, and are fiercely loyal to him and each other. And when it comes to who will inherit the High Kingship when Ambrosius dies, although a bastard who cannot "officially" be named heir by the High King, it is clear where the preference lies, and with the support of the Companions it is a forgone conclusion.

So the tale ends with Artorius Rex, Higher King of Britain, as he wins his last battle against combined forces of Saxons and Picts (Scots), joined by traitors led by Medraut.

Because of course Medraut (aka Mordred) is part of this tale, as are the counterparts to Guenevere (Guenhumara), Lancelot (Bewdyr), Gawain (Gwalchmai), Kay (Cei) and (briefly) Morgana (Ygerna!). No Merlin though. No magical aspects to this telling, adding to its grounding in reality.

This was a page-turner for me, and although I wasn't as captivated by this version of Arthur as much as I have been by other tellings, he did seem very real to me, very much alive.

Elements from Arthurian Legend

  • Artos/Arthur
    • Count of Britain and later High King, is the bastard son of Uther, Ambrosius' brother (deceased long before the book starts).
    • Has ties in both the Roman and Celtic worlds, through his mother (from the Welsh hills around Snowdon).
    • Is a strong and intelligent leader who inspires loyalty in his Companions and respect in his enemies.
  • Bedwyr
    • Lancelot. Arthur's great friend and companion who betrays him with the woman he loves, but returns in the end.
    • Scarred and ugly, his voice in song makes him unique.
    • From "Little Britain" (Brittany/Armorica), same as in other versions.
  • Gwalchmai
    • A crippled novice who leaves his monastery to join Arthur's Companions as their physician, he fills the role of Gawain.
  • Cei
    • One of Arthur's oldest and closest companions (but not his "brother" as Kay is in other versions).
  • Guenhumara
    • This Guinevere is from a tribe north of the Wall, and is married to Arthur in an arrangement with her father to supply Arthur with horses and men (I guess they would be her dowry).
    • The marriage is happy at times, soured at others. There is a child... They respect each other but although Arthur does come to love her, it's not really clear if she ever feels quite the same about him.
    • The circumstance which lead to her and Bedwyr are quite convincing... And the discovery (through treachery by Medraut) results in conclusions close to the original tales (the both of them leaving Court for life together, her ending up in a Convent at the very end).
  • Cador & Constantine
    • Arthur's cousin in Dusnonia (Cornwall) who through the maternal line could claim the High Kingship but doesn't knowing it would split Britain in two (considering the strong support for Arthur among the troops), in exchange it is made clear that his son Constantine will be Arthur's heir.
  • Ygerna
    • NOT Igraine! This is Morgana... here she is Uther's other bastard child, who was never acknowleged (because a girl so of no interest) and was raised in hatred of Uther by the scorned mother.
    • Also from the Welsh hills, she "ensares" Arthur on a trip home and wickedly and gleefully informs him the next morning of who she is and their relationship (to his horror) and how what she has done is her vengeance upon Uther and upon him as she hates him as well for having been able to live a life she was not granted. She seems very clear that their night will leave her with child, a child to be raised in hatred of his father, same as she was.
  • Medraut
    • Is that child, Mordred as he is know in most stories, raised in hatred of his father (and having to live with his mother's hate for himself as his father's son, very twisted!), he seeks out Arthur upon his mother's death and asks to join the Companions. A wish that is granted as Arthur takes responsibility for his conception, although he can see the evil in him and knows he will ultimately be his doom.
    • He inevitably betrays Arthur and leads other young Companions (impatient with the "old" King) to fight against him together with the Saxons in the Final Battle.
    • Delivers the death blow, but immediately after is killed by Arthur.
  • Saxon foes - the Sea Wolves
    • Similar to the traditional foes of Arthurian legend:
      • Hengest
      • Octa
      • Aelle
      • Cerdic

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