Sword at Sunset

Teresa Edgerton

Goblin Princess
Staff member
Nov 1, 2004
Recent mention of Sword at Sunset, by Rosemary Sutcliff, in a thread here discussing Arthurian sources and retellings made me curious to read the book again.

I read it first when I was in high school, and reading it now I found I remembered very, very little about it—and even that little I might be conflating with the many books based on the Arthurian legendarium I have read in the interim—so the experience was very much like reading a book for the first time. Not surprising, perhaps, after almost sixty years.

I believe this is one of the earliest novels to treat Arthur not as a figure of myth or fantasy but as if he were a genuine historical figure, and to tell the story in a realistic manner—NOT set in the Medieval period, but in the Dark Ages, which is the only time that Arthur (or whatever person or persons the Arthur of legend was originally based on) might have existed. To accomplish this, Sutcliff draws on some of the earliest sources that mention Arthur—in this novel known variously as Artorius, or Artos the Bear—on what is known or has been theorized about the lives of romanized Celts after the legions withdrew from Britain, and on her own imagination. Many familiar characters people the story, but often in early (and what may be less familiar) versions of their names and roles. Cei, instead of Kay, Bedwyr instead of Bedivere (and he takes the Lancelot role), Guenhumara instead of Guinevere, etc. There is no Merlin, and as far as any possible supernatural elements are concerned, Sutcliff leaves it to the reader to decide whether something uncanny is actually involved, or whether that is just how Artos, a product of his time, perceives things. Because the story is set in an earlier period than novels based on Malory or the Grail cycle, there are no tournaments or quests, no courtly love, no Camelot. What remains is an often grim tale of hardship and endurance, implacable foes, and the loss of many well-loved companions.

The narrative is told in first person by a dying Artos, reflecting back on his life as a warrior and leader of men. Despite the focus on the grim struggle against the seemingly endless Saxon incursions, the style is often quite beautiful, even lyrical, especially when it comes to vivid descriptions of the landscape and the weather, giving the sense that Artos is not only fighting for his own people, and for an ideal handed down by the Romans (exactly what that ideal is exactly remains a bit fuzzy), but also quite literally for the land that he loves.

The story he relates begins when he is in his mid-twenties, and a warrior pledged to his uncle, Ambrosius the High King. His father, Utha, has long been dead, and Artos is widely known to be illegitimate, conceived under a hawthorn bush—briefly claimed by his father after his mother died, and then raised since the age of four by his uncle. Ambrosius has been kind to the boy as he grows up, serving as an admirable father figure, but he is also very busy defending his realm from invading Saxons, so their personal relationship very much revolves around war and their own roles within it.

On a short visit to the region where he was born and spent the earliest years of his life, Artos becomes lost in a mist, is offered shelter at an isolated farm by an unknown woman (though she knows very well who he is), where he is bespelled—or perhaps just drugged— and seduced by the woman. He is shocked, afterwards, when it is too late, to discover that she is his sister, the daughter of the woman raped or seduced under a hawthorn bush—and possibly the daughter of Utha as well, because Artos perceives a strong resemblance between her and his uncle. So she is likely his full sister, rather than his half-sister as in later versions of the story, but if so that is never made explicit. After revealing the incestuous nature of their encounter, Ygerna declares that if a son is the result of their brief mating, that son will be raised to hate him (as she and her mother hatred his father for abandoning them—this being her motive for seducing her own brother), and also that she will send their son to Artos when the son is a grown man. The young man is filled with dread by this threat, has no doubt that any child they conceived will be his own death, but believes that he can’t escape the consequences of sleeping with his sister—innocent as he was in the matter—and so simply leaves the woman and future events to take their own course. Though this whole encounter casts a long shadow over the rest of the story, and sets up the plot for tragedy and betrayal decades before it comes to pass, it is quickly over.

In the meantime, the plot largely concentrates on Artos as war-leader, first for several decades under Ambrosius, then at the battle of Badon Hill after the High King’s death, the way his troops, drunk on victory, acclaim him as Emperor, and the final battle against Saxons, various turn-coat Britons, and of course Artos’s own son Medraut. (Medraut’s mother has died before he enters the story, but while she lived she kept her promise and spent all the years she was raising him not only poisoning him against his father, but being the most toxic parent possible herself, so that by the time we meet him he is thoroughly twisted in heart and mind. Artos fears him, but still convinced that their end is predestined, gives him a place among his warriors and close companions, despite his own instincts and the warnings of his friends.) The period in between the victory at Badon Hill and the last battle, years when Artos rules a mostly peaceful Britain, are passed over swiftly.

What sort of ruler he becomes, we really aren’t allowed to see. Based on his actions earlier in the story, we can only guess that he will be conscientious but unenthusiastic about taking on the role, but Sutcliff basically leaves that to the reader’s imagination. The doomed romance of his Queen and his best friend is also given short shrift—although that, I think makes a certain amount of sense, since neither Guenhumara or Bedwyr ever serves as a viewpoint character. The story is entirely being told by Artos, and the affair is simply too deeply painful for him to want to dwell on it. It happens, he finds out,
he immediately banishes both of them
, and he has little else to say on the subject afterward. Later we learn
that guilt over betraying Artos prevents the lovers being happy in their life together. Ultimately, Bedwyr drops her off at a convent, and rejoins Artos for the last battle.
So though the telling of it in the way that it is told does work in context, it is nevertheless somewhat disappointing to see one of the great enduring love stories reduced to a few unsatisfying pages.

The major characters are well-drawn—Sutcliff doesn’t skimp on characterization—but so much of the novel is devoted to preparations for battle, battle tactics, and then long set-pieces of the battles themselves, we rarely see Artos except as a warrior, loyal to the men he leads and to his closest comrades in arms. While it is clear that he is capable of great tenderness, this largely takes the form of nostalgia for the place of his birth and for the customs of his mother’s people. Also in his love for his dog, his horse, and his fighting men. He loves his wife, too, but guilt over sleeping with his sister poisons his marriage from the very beginning, so that he is almost entirely incapable of physical affection.
The one time they are able to be intimate does result in the birth of a much-loved daughter, but Hylin is born too early, is weak and sickly, and dies before the age of three. Her death drives a further wedge between Artos and Guenhumara, and the more so because of his inability to share the grief or offer comfort through any physical expression.
This leaves a certain hollowness at the core of their part of the story. The battles themselves are well-written, exciting and suspenseful, but I did get tired of so much focus on war at the expense of so much else. I was pretty much fed up with that subject by the final battle, especially because, for anyone familiar with the Arthurian mythos, the end of that one is a foregone conclusion.

However, despite my mixed reactions to the story, I do think it is a remarkable book, and for those with a greater appetite for scenes of war and battle than mine, probably a brilliant one as well.
It's a great read and Ive recommended it quite a bit. :cool:
One of my favourite books by Sutcliff. It follows on from The Lantern Bearers and both books feature the Aqulia family of The Eagle of the Ninth if memory serves me right. Might take it down from the shelf and give it a read.

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