Atlantic, £16.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Sword at Sunset, By Rosemary Sutcliff

This anniversary edition of Rosemary Sutcliff's 'Arthurian' adult novel proves it was her 'odd one out'

Rosemary Sutcliff is most famed for Eagle of the Ninth, but there was much more to her than that. In the 1950s, historically-minded children found her books a magic carpet into the past. I began with Brother Dustyfeet (1952) and The Armourer's House (1951), and never looked back an insatiable interest in history has remained the backbone of my life.

In 1954, Eagle of the Ninth introduced Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young Roman who chooses to stay in Britain after the legions leave. Seven subsequent books follow his family's fate, usually directly. The odd book out is the fifth, Sword at Sunset, now published in a new edition to celebrate its 50th birthday. In 1963, it was firmly announced to be for adults, and given the (for their time) graphic and violent scenes of sex and slaughter, it deserved to be.

It is also unusual among Sutcliff's books in that it is told in the first person. Artorius, devoted nephew of the High King Ambrosius, has a bit part in the fourth Aquila book, The Lantern-Bearers, but now takes centre stage. He recalls on his death bed how he was charged by the ageing Ambrosius with leading a crack fighting force known as the Companions against invaders from Saxony, Jutland and Norway.

In time, he becomes the High King of Britain, even Caesar Britannicus, but his doom has threatened ever since he was drugged and seduced by his half-sister Ygerna and begat Medraut, a boy filled with hate by his mother. Memories of this bedevil his marriage to Guenhumara, and she and the Gallic harpist and warrior Bedwyr (rather than Lancelot) grow perilously close.

When Sutcliff first began to consider how Arthur would fit in to her saga of Aquila, she drew as much upon the archaeology of Celtic and Saxon Britain as on the ancient legends in Malory's Morte Darthur and Guest's Mabinogion. She also admired TH White's four idiosyncratic Arthurian novels (now known as The Once and Future King), and the intensity with which she inhabits the mind of her hero Artos has echoes of White's extraordinary characterisation of Arthur. "I have never written a book that was so possessive," Sutcliff said in an interview in 1986. "It was almost like having the story fed through me". Writing as a man possessed her; afterwards, "I had great difficulty getting back into a woman's skin."

Her narrative amazes in the sheer vigour of its visualisation and its sure sense of purpose. Lanterns, sunsets, fires, the aurora borealis and other manifestations of light recur: Artos is holding back the coming of the dark long enough for there to be hope that the civilised light that was Rome will survive to be adopted by its conquerors. Battles are heart-stopping, tense and unpredictable, winter weather effects are frostbite-inducing, and Artos's travels across Britain are confidently mapped (the glossary of Roman names will be needed).

No-one would dream from reading Sword at Sunset and Sutcliff's other action-packed, fast-moving tales of Roman and Celtic warriors that she remained severely crippled all her life with the juvenile arthritis she contracted as a very small child. Once one is aware of this, a recurring theme of incapacitating wounds is better understood; as is the important role she gives to the hounds and horses in which she found such consolation.

Christian Hardyment's life of Thomas Malory is published by HarperCollins

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'