More than half a century after the last legions marched out of Britain, a man lies dying in a monastery, with apple trees stirring in the wind beyond his window. His name is Artos, and he has been many things: bastard-born nephew and adopted son of the old High King, Ambrosius; the Count of Britain; the leader of the Companions, a band of heavy cavalrymen sworn to his banner, who have devoted their lives to defending what remains of civilisation against the growing dark of the Saxon invasions.
Artos has even been called Caesar, the highest honour that the tattered remnants of the Roman West can offer him. But, although the poets and the harpers will remember his knights; his nobility; his great sword; and the fact that his beloved wife betrayed him with his closest friend, they will not remember his true name. They will call him by another name. Arthur.
What remains? … This. That when Rome fell … certain men
Uncouth, untutored, of our island brood
Loved freedom better than their lives; and when
The tempest crashed around them, rose and stood
And charged into the storm’s black heart.
Francis Brett Young, Hic Jacet Arthurus,
Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus
I don’t remember having read any Rosemary Sutcliff before, which beggars belief. Surely I read The Eagle of the Ninth as a child? But I don’t recall it. I bought Sword at Sunset more than a year ago, on a whim, and it’s waited patiently ever since for its moment to come. And then, in the aftermath of Blood of Kings, when I needed something to restore my faith in classical-period fiction, that moment came.
Sutcliff’s writing has the cadences of epic poetry: its heroes are larger than life in their virtue and courage; and the prose has a thrilling bronze shimmer to it. Yet it manages to tell the story of a warlord with eloquence and a quiet grace, shot through with the calm regret of a man who is leaving all of its troubles behind. There is something of Yourcenar’s Hadrian here. At the same time, its evocation of atmosphere is so immediate that both characters and locations have a vivid reality to them: in crumbling basilicas and villas, the last shreds of Romano-British life cling on, and in the wild openness of the mountains on a cold autumn day, mists coil in the hollows of the hills. Sutcliff describes a landscape that few of us have actually seen but which, somehow, feels familiar. From a very personal point of view, there are large parts of Artos’ world that are familiar to me: the reed-beds and marshes of the Somerset Levels; the place that would become Glastonbury; Bath; and the shadow of the Mendip Hills, not far from where I was born.
Sutcliff cleverly avoids the outright magic of wizards and ladies in lakes, but she infuses her world with a sense of mysticism that comes from rituals whose origins are lost in time (I felt there were parallels with Renault here). Artos himself is half-Roman and half-British, a symbol of this world where several different peoples are struggling to coexist. The stoic practicality of the Romans sits alongside the earth gods and ancient practices of the mysterious indigenous hill-tribes, whom Artos calls the Little Dark People. Then there are the remnants of the old faith, in the traditions of the Midsummer Fires and the Horned God, sitting alongside the rise of Christianity and the enduring military cult of Mithras.
The richness of this mongrel culture gives Sutcliff plenty of chances to throw in playfully subtle allusions to the legend. Artos speaks of the weapon stones where warriors sharpened their swords before battling, and the crowning stone in the White Horse Vale where he raises his sword over his head and is acclaimed. We even have a glimpse of the end of the Excalibur myth, where the great sword is cast into the waters of a lake. And there are allusions to other things too. Artos, like Ambrosius (and Renault’s Theseus) knows that in ruling you make a pact with the gods. You rule in the knowledge that one day the gods might call you and, when they do call, you must go joyfully and openly to the sacrifice, for in doing so you save your people. The Adonis myth is referenced several times: willingly embracing death, in order for life to return.
At the heart of Arthur’s legend is the great betrayal of his wife, but Sutcliff characteristically softens this and makes it almost unbearably sad. Her Artos, for all his martial vigour, is a clumsy lover. Heartbreakingly, he can hardly find the courage to love: he realises how deeply he cares for his wife Guenhumara only when struck by jealousy’s ‘black pain’. And, although these two care for one another, they never truly learn how to break down each other’s boundaries. Guenhumara is plagued with the knowledge that, at least initially, Artos wanted the horsemen of her dowry rather than her self. Artos himself is tormented and unmanned by the memory of his monstrous union with Ygerna and the birth of Medraut. And so, inevitably, the story turns. Yet in Sutcliff’s world the betrayal is all the more tragic because this genuinely is a love triangle: the friendship between Artos and Bedwyr is no less powerful than the love between each man and Guenhumara herself (though it differs in essence). There is nothing more painful than watching people who love each other fail to understand one another. It is one of the most beautifully handled and bittersweet relationships that I’ve read for a long time.
The most poignant thing, however, is that the characters know their war must eventually be lost. They have no hope of ultimate victory. Their triumph will be in staving off the darkness for just a little while longer. They fight not for what Britain will become, but for what it once was, for a dream of Rome. But even that dream is beginning to fade. As Artos notes:
The young ones are of a lesser stature, a lesser breed …
The giants and heroes are dead, and … the men grow
smaller than they used to be when we were young.
And yet they fight. I have a notorious weakness for doomed heroes (really: give me beautiful writing, a man who laughs in the face of death, and a couple of good battles, and I’m sold). I’m desperately susceptible to characters who ride out nobly against impossible odds, knowing that they must fail in the end, but knowing too that someone must make a stand. With the poignant love story, the pervading sense of gentle sadness, and the rousing battle against the dying of the light, there’s no wonder that I was absolutely enchanted by this book. Turning the final page, my eyes were moist and my throat choked. It has the poise of Yourcenar, the humanity of Kay and a similar spirit to Renault, in that a world so very far from our own suddenly acquires a clarity and immediacy that makes us care deeply, wholeheartedly, about these characters.
Powerful and simple, this is a superb rationalisation of the Arthur legend, and it has shown me that I should have started reading Sutcliff long ago. It may not have quite reached the pinnacle of complete perfection, but nevertheless it’s one of the few, the very few books that I’ve finished feeling aggrieved that I will never again be able to read it for the first time. I leave you with a particularly beautiful passage:
I have seen wild sunsets in my time, but seldom, surely never, a sky quite like that one. It was as though beyond the dark, gold-fringed cloud bars of the west, the world itself were burning… Far off towards the Island of Apples, the winding waters of the reed country caught fire from the burning west, and earth and sky alike blazed into an oriflamme. It was a sunset full of the sound of trumpets and the flying of banners, a sunset that made one feel naked under the eye of God… ‘If tomorrow we go down into the Dark,’ Cei said at last, … ‘at least we have seen the sunset.’