Friday, May 20, 2011

Adventure classics -- An Arthur for our time

Sword at Sunset
by Rosemary Sutcliff
Rosemary Sutcliff's reimagining of the history behind  Britain's King Arthur opens with a scene in a sickbed, an awakening in pain like those she knew from her own experience of hospitals and operations.  And like the legends that transformed a Dark Ages war chief into a figure of towering chivalry, she transforms pain and fear and loneliness into story.

"Now that the moon is near to full," her Arthur says, speaking directlyto the reader, "the branch of an apple tree casts its nighttime shadow in through the high window, across the wall beside my bed. . . I reach out in the grayness and touch the familiar grip that has grown warm to my touch in so many fights; and the feeling of life is in it, and the feeling of death. . . "

Stricken with Still's disease, a form of juvenile rhematoid arthritis, as a girl, Sutcliff lived a restricted life -- enduring frequent operations, her schooling fragmentary, her freedom of movement often restricted to a wheelchair.  But although she didn't learn to read until age nine, her imagination roamed far and wide, fed by her mother's tireless storytelling.

At age fourteen, she entered the Bideford Art School, graduating to work as a painter of miniatures before she began to write stories.  As a comment on the site notes, "her sense of place was uncanny, in that she could get no nearer to a site than the seat of a car on an adjacent road.  Friends often served as her eyes, and also as her researchers, but it was the conclusions she drew from the evidence, and her re-creations of them, that made her contributions to the literature of the ancient world so distinctive."

Her most famous children'sbook, "The Eagle of the Ninth" (which would be classified as YA in today's market)  recently appeared in a movie adaptation, but it was "Sword at Sunset" that sealed her reputation as a writer for adults.  From the wealth of material about the legendary King Arthur, Sutcliff kept what she thought was the earliest.  She assigned, for instance, the character of one of Arthur's earliest recorded companions, Bedwyr, the part of the guilty lover instead of Lancelot, whom she considered a late medieval French addition.

"Most of the actual research I did for the book," Sutcliff said in an interview a few years before her death in 1992, "apart from knowing the Arthurian story from the romance versions, was into Dark Age life and history as far as they were known.  Then I worked into this setting the  Arthur who seemed to me to carry weight, to be the most likely kind of person.  It was very strange because I have never written a book which was so possessive. . . it absolutely rode me throughout the entire time."

(Next Friday:  From another hospital bed, Josephine Tey's fictional detective Alan Grant unravels the mystery of Richard III and his nephews in the Tower of London in "The Daughter of Time.")

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