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.