A neverending story: Sword at Sunset

Rosemary Sutcliff, Sword at Sunset (1963)

Can a story still be compelling when we already know how it ends? In the case of the Arthurian legend, the appeal never seems to wane. Something about this doomed hero, who will be betrayed by friend and wife and sister and son, yet still strives for goodness and truth, continues to fascinate us through many generations of retellings. To hear of the nobility of the human soul, its unfulfilled yet undying promise, never becomes old — unless we ourselves have succumbed to the dark.

In Sword at Sunset, Rosemary Sutcliff knows we know how the story goes — she begins with Arthur’s end, as he lays dying and contemplating the course of his life. Artos, rather, for this is a version which places the legend shortly after the withdrawal of the Roman legions from Britain, and imagines the hero as a Roman-trained war leader battling the Saxon hordes who are descending on his small island. And it’s her detailed, thoroughly imagined world and characters that make this particular retelling compelling indeed. The tale may be old, but here it comes to vivid life again, with a raw, elemental edge that makes it feel convincing, almost essential. “Yes, it must have been like this,” we feel.

Emerging from Sutcliff’s story-spell, we may realize the “real” Arthur will likely always elude us, that there are flaws in her historical research (a Goodreads review put these into one word: stirrups) and that her Artos, Gwenhumara, Medraut and Bedwyr are figments of the writer’s imagination. But that doesn’t keep them from becoming lodged in our hearts and living on, as surely as Arthur sleeps in Avalon.

Sutcliff strips away the medieval trappings of the legend and tries to return to some of its earliest roots. No grail quests or visions of the Virgin here; Christianity itself has not fully taken hold in Britain, and while respecting and trying to protect the monasteries threatened by the Saxon invasion, Artos gives allegiance to an older mystery. Those old, chthonic forces are not always benign, and Artos falls prey to them through the malice of his half-sister, who begets a son on him to serve her hate.

This dark thread winds through the story of Artos’s military rise and triumph; it poisons his marriage to the tribal princess Guenhumara, rendering it fruitless and marked by death. With that energy at work, it is inevitable that betrayal by his captain and friend, Bedwyr, will come in to complete the misery. How three people can love each other so deeply and yet hurt each other so much has seldom been so movingly rendered. Sutcliff can write thrillingly of battle and adventure, yet this inward drama is the emotional center of the novel, and will stay with me for a long time.

Medraut, the product of Artos’s youthful error, is also more than a cartoon villain. “He is a destroyer,” Artos says, one who has fallen into the love of killing for its own sake rather than for any higher cause. But he is also a victim, a human soul warped by being raised in an atmosphere of hatred, trapped in a cycle of trauma and abuse. Could this evil have been redeemed and healed, rather than bringing about disaster?

Artos is troubled by this question on this deathbed, but he must go into the night without an answer. Maybe it is for us, Arthur’s heirs, to continue to try to find a way to rekindle the light of love even in the face of such determined opposition. Maybe that’s why this story will never end, will continue to intrigue and inspire us.


20 thoughts on “A neverending story: Sword at Sunset

  1. I very much enjoyed Rosemary Sutcliffe’s memoir, but I’ve yet to read any of her novels, though I’ve had The Eagle of the North on my shelves for years.

    Do you have a favorite story of Arthur? Mine is Mary Stewart’s. It wasn’t the first I read, but somehow it became *the* version for me (more because of Merlin, I think actually).


    1. The Dark Is Rising was probably the most important to me growing up, though the Arthurian elements are somewhat peripheral. More recently I enjoyed Elizabeth Wein’s different take on the legend (with Medraut as a central character) and also Mary Stewart’s. I loved The Once and Future King once upon a time, but on recently trying to reread I couldn’t get through it. Lancelot was my sticking point – I much prefer Sutcliff’s Bedwyr.


  2. You’re encouraging me to reread this sooner rather than later, Lory: I’ve not revisited it since the late sixties when indeed there would be long discussions about the non-use of stirrups in the Arthurian society I’d joined then.

    You’ve captured well here my lasting memory of the emotional core of the novel, the terrible love triangle that was long sustained by friendship and love before the strains arising from respect conflicting with lust tore things apart. In other hands I remember the inter-relationships succumbing to clichés, but in Sutcliff’s treatment it felt all too plausible.


    1. Too bad about the stirrups, and who knows what other anachronisms. Sutcliff could convince me of just about anything, her history feels so alive and real.


  3. I’ve loved a lot of Sutcliffe’s Roman Britain books, and I don’t remember reading this one, so I should. The first Arthurian legend I read, at about ten years old, were the Mary Stewart books, so I was introduced to the legends through the Roman lens.


    1. It took me a few chapters to get into it, but especially once Gwenhumara came in I was hooked. I wish she had had more of a role to play at the end; she was dismissed rather abruptly.


  4. I’ve enjoyed some of Rosemary Sutcliff’s other books, but haven’t read this one yet. After reading Mary Stewart’s Merlin series a few years ago I made a list of other Arthurian novels I wanted to read and this is one of them, so I will definitely get to it eventually!


  5. “The tale may be old, but here it comes to vivid life again, with a raw, elemental edge that makes it feel convincing, almost essential. “Yes, it must have been like this,” we feel.” Exactly!! She has such a talent for sending you back to the times she’s writing about. It’s quite amazing. I have to pick up one of her novels soon …. the last one I read was on Roman Britain but that was awhile ago. Time to do some used book shopping!


    1. I think someone else used that “it must have been like this” line, but it’s true, so I said it as well. I’m so glad this one is back in print from Chicago, also The Mark of the Horse Lord was brilliant.


  6. I’ve read a couple of Sutcliffe’s Roman novels – but I haven’t read this one and it looks like I should try to get hold of it. Many thanks for a wonderful review!


  7. It’s so long since I read this that I can’t remember it any more! I do love Sutcliff, and I think I should pick this up again. Your post is an eloquent argument for it! I also want to read Eagle of the Ninth…


    1. I want to read Eagle of the NInth now too. I gave that to my son for Christmas – he’s doing Roman history in school so I thought it would be perfect – but he finds it too slow. His attention span is not of the best, but I expect I will love it.


  8. This book predates Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave by about 7 years, and given your description and review, I have to think Stewart was familiar with Sutcliffe’s version. I’m almost embarrassed that, Arthurian buff that I am, I haven’t read this… but I intend to. I also want to reread The Eagle of the Ninth, which I had Robin read when we were studying British history.


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