Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sword at Sunset

How many times has the Arthurian Legend been retold? How many series, movies, songs, and television shows have told the tale? Each tries to give its own take  - "Musical!" "Young Arthur!" "Merlin!" "Guinevere!" "Historically Accurate!" Until now, my favorite rendition has been T. H. White's classic "The Once and Future King."

I was in the bookstore two months ago and browsing through the clearance section when the name "Rosemary Sutcliff" jumped out at me. Sutcliff is far and away the best writer of fiction set in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain that I have ever read. Her works are deeply haunting, and draw a romantic but not romanticized picture of the terrifying and harsh existence of those times. Her most famous book is "The Eagle of the Ninth" which is actually the first in a loosely connected trilogy, of which the last, "The Lantern Bearers" has always been my favorite of her works.

So when I saw her name on this clearance book, I snatched it up immediately. It was just $1 and I'd never heard of it before. "Sword at Sunset," huh? Well, it's worth a try.

Turns out this is Sutcliff's retelling of the story of King Arthur, drawing on the historical facts available to the modern writer and tying it into the tapestry of the Britain she knows so well.

In fact, "Sword at Sunset" directly follows "The Lantern Bearers," which featured Arthur (Artos) as a youth. Although they bear appropriately Celtic versions of their names, the main cast of the legends (save Merlin) are all here. It's a blend of romance and war campaign, a novel that is deeply masculine and yet gives honor to the importance of femininity on the Arthurian tales. In an age where Arthur often looses masculinity, and Guenevere is reduced to a shallow, unfaithful woman, "Sword at Sunset" gives us a refreshing hero and heroine who are all that are best in man and woman without loosing the falleness of human nature. There is a love triangle here, but it is written in a very believable way, a way that hurts one's heart but does not ruin the characters.

Although the story of Artos and Guenhumara was by far my favorite thread in this story, it is only one piece of a larger picture that focuses on the war against the Saxons. It's a picture that often gets corrupted in the modern day, as our ideas about Camelot have been greatly affected by the romanticism and love stories imported from the French. We forget that the point of Arthur, what makes him great and worth remembering, is that he united Britain and held back the dark of the barbarian invasions. Sutcliff doesn't forget this for a moment and does the great work of Arthur true justice.

Was Arthur a real man? We may never know for sure. But if he were, this is what his world and his story would have been.

"Sword at Sunset" is an adult book, and contains some sex (which is a key part of why Camelot fell in the legends). However it is well-done and anything bordering on graphic (non-explicit, more poetical) has a very real purpose in the story. Recommended for 16 or 18+

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