Author Pantheon: Rosemary Sutcliff, A Summary of Her Greatness

My favorite of the different covers for this book.

Anthony Lawton, of the Rosemary Sutcliff blog, asked his readers to write in about why they like her books so much, which is their favorite book, which is their favorite character, and why. This is my response. It is also the first in what might be a “series” of posts for me, called the “Author Pantheon.” These posts will be my thoughts on the writers that I, personally, think are the greatest. Mostly fantasy authors, though in the case of Sutcliff this includes historical fiction. The posts differ from my “Features” in that they are all my thoughts and ideas, whereas “Features” are mostly the works of others that I find inspiring and relevant.

Now, can I summarize why I love Rosemary Sutcliff’s writing so much? Ah, that is hard. To figure out the nuances of why her writing style seems to affect me more than almost any other. Hm. I have used the phrase “textured grace” to describe it before, though that is more a poetic phrase that only scrapes the surface.

She is able to paint beautiful pictures in my mind without over-reaching into “purple” prose. Her settings and characters feel real, down-to-earth, even when they become mysterious (as in the Little Dark People and the distant Scottish hills they live in), magnificently epic (Ambrosius, particularly in Sword at Sunset), deeply dramatic (Aquila’s meeting of his sister at Hengest’s camp in The Lantern Bearers, or the end scenes of the same book), or rousingly adventurous (as in the chase scenes of Eagle of the Ninth or the intrigue of The Silver Branch).

But other authors of the highest caliber have managed that kind of beautiful balance as well. I haven’t found the words yet to communicate what is truly so unique about Sutcliff’s writing in comparison to the other greats of English literature. She writes strong male characters with solid moral centers, in a believable and complex fashion — that’s part of it. Many excellent writers fail at at least one aspect of that (usually with the solid moral sense or the complexity). But others manage such characters too. About Sutcliff, I can only attest to the affect she has on me. Beginning a book of hers, whether a new one or an old one, is something like returning to a dear friend after a journey. Reading a new book of Sutcliff’s is like catching up on your friend’s life, while rereading one is like reminiscing about good old times.

I guess that says one more specific thing about her: she’s invested in her stories. Some authors, even great ones, feel slightly distant from their stories. Not her — she’s telling them directly to you, the reader, and she wants you to listen. I like that.

My favorite book of hers is The Lantern Bearers, and the character that moved me the most is Aquila. It was amazing how clearly she saw how Aquila saw himself and how others saw him. To see him struggle for so much of his life against himself, against the bitterness that he held and the hardness he built up in himself, and to finally find peace so late in his life…well, it’s just beautiful. His relationship with Ness is also fascinating, since they both have to learn, gradually, to forgive and love each other. It’s not quite a romance, I don’t think (and part of me wishes it was), but I do think it becomes love. I don’t know if I’ve read another novel so tender and mature at the same time.

That this all comes in the midst of great adventure and intrigue helps too!


  1. Doni says:

    I have trouble describing what’s so great about Sutcliff, too, but I think one of the things is her beautiful (slightly Shakespearean?), evocative prose style. She picks words that aren’t always the obvious ones, but that prove absolutely perfect for describing both physical settings and emotional atmospheres in her books. She captures little gems of poignant beauty and emotion that are just striking. I was recently moved by a passage in The Eagle where she simply described the silence in Uncle Aquila’s hall as a few embers fell to ashes in the brazier.

    Also, I loved finding in The Eagle that Marcus’s feelings at having lost the life of the Legions were pretty much spot on to the way I felt after graduating college. It was like being able to say to Marcus, “AHA! You’re real and I’ve felt that way, too!”

    1. David says:

      Good points, I agree! She’s remarkably, beautifully concise with her vivid descriptions, often finding just the right image to illustrate a character’s mood or personality; definitely something I’m trying to learn from her. And ditto for finding characters who feel the same way you do.

  2. David,
    You are definitely making me more and more interested in Sutcliff’s writing. I wasn’t really a big fan of “Sword at Sunset” but now I will have to read her whole series and reread that book. Keep the interesting posts coming!

    Tyler Tichelaar

    1. David says:

      Glad to hear it, and I’ll do my best!

  3. On feeling like you’ve met up with an old friend again – I have said the exact same thing about C.S. Lewis.

    It’s hard finding believable characters with strong moral characters nowadays. If you had to recommend one Sutcliff book to start with, which one?

    1. David says:

      Probably her most accessible and most-liked book is The Eagle of the Ninth (a movie version is currently in theaters as The Eagle). I’d recommend that one as a starting point — it’s a reliable favorite. As I say above, The Lantern Bearers is my personal favorite, and I think is quite original. Visit the Rosemary Sutcliff blog on my blogroll — one of its pages has a list of all her books with plot summaries. She’s one of the very very few authors whose books I will buy on sight, if it’s one I don’t own.

  4. I found your blog yesterday and have been reading my way around. We may disagree on Voltaire but I can only second everything – absolutely everything – you say about Rosemary Sutcliff. Everything she writes is pretty near perfect, from retellings of Greek myths and tales of Robin Hood for younger children on; the loose series of novels that starts with ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ and ends with ‘Sword at Sunset’ are masterpieces. For me, it’s the detail of the landscapes coupled with her spare, graceful prose: she notices the beauty of a hawthorn tree in blossom and the music of a blackbird’s song even when the world is falling into ruin. She’s also very good on the delicate relationship and balance that must be negotiated between women and men in a world where men hold almost all the power. Often, and certainly in the central relationships of ‘Sword at Sunset’, ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ and ‘Frontier Wolf’, I feel the strongest bonds between Sutcliff’s characters are in the male friendships. ‘The Lantern Bearers’ is perhaps an exception and you’ve given an excellent analysis elsewhere of the relationship between Aquila and Ness, which starts with him choosing her with rather less thought and enthusiam than he might a pair of shoes. The marriage between Artos and Guenhumara is, for me, even more moving as they never quite manage to close the space between them. The scene where Bedwyr returns to Artos always makes me choke up.

    Thank you for an interesting series of posts on a truly favourite author.

    1. David says:

      Well said, and thank you for the comment! I’m always happy to find another Sutcliff fan.

      Artos and Guenhumara are achingly tragic, although they did not move me quite as much as Aquila and Ness. I was moved most by Ambrosius’ death, and the mentions of the deaths of Ness and Aquila (which makes sense considering how much I love The Lantern Bearers).

      Check out The Libation Library, where J. Holsworth Stevenson has some very intelligent reviews of Lantern Bearers and Sword at Sunset.

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