Something Beautiful and Mysterious and Magical

In the beginning of her book, The Sword and The Circle, the first volume of her Arthurian trilogy for young people of all ages, Rosemary Sutcliff wrote the following:

“Many people believe, as I do, that behind the legends of King Arthur as we know them today, there stands a real man. No king in shining armour, no Round Table, no fairy-tale palace at Camelot, but a Roman-British war leader, who when the dark tide of the barbarians came flooding in, did all that a great leader could do to hold them back and save something of civilisation. In The Lantern Bearers and Sword At Sunset, I have written about this war leader, trying to get back through the hero-tale and the high romance to the real man and the world he lived in.

But if the hero-tale had never grown up, and gathered to itself the mass of Celtic myth and folklore and the medieval splendours that we know now as the legends of King Arthur, we should have lost something beautiful and mysterious and magical out of our heritage.”

This trilogy has all the beautiful, mysterious and magical stories about King Arthur told by a wonderful storyteller (minstrel as she called herself in that same introduction to the first volume). Sutcliff is known for her books of historical fiction, and her passion was for the early history of Roman Britain. She is the perfect storyteller to introduce “children from 8 to 88” to these legends.

I have alway loved the King Arthur stories, and I enjoyed each of these books and recommend them highly. The first volume, The Sword and the Circle, focuses on the more familiar stories of Arthur, his birth, how he got his sword, Excalibur, his marriage to Guenever, the fellowship of the Round Table. We are also told stories of Sir Lancelot and Elaine, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Tristan and Iseult, and Geraint and Enid. The book ends with the coming of Percival. Sutcliff brings them all to life with her rich detail and description.

The second book, The Light Beyond the Forest, is about the quest for the Holy Grail. I was not as familiar with all of these stories as I was with the beginning stories of the legend, so I found them fascinating. In the beginning of this volume, Rosemary Sutcliff tells her readers:

“In reading The Light Beyond the Forest try to remember, as I have done all the time I was writing it, the shadows and the half-lights and the echoes behind.”

This set of stories is full of shadows, half-lights and echoes. Things are changing, tragedy is set in motion, and there’s an air of melancholy as these stories progress.

The final book in the trilogy is call The Road to Camlann, and is a moving account of King Arthur’s final days and the events leading to the final battle of the Knights of the Round Table at Camlann. There is a lot of darkness in these stories, and I found many of them to be haunting. As Lancelot said to King Arthur at one point, “We shall have made such a blaze that men will remember us on the other side of the dark.”

If you haven’t read any of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, you have a lot to look forward to. One Canadian blogger called her his “J.K. Rowling,” because when he was growing up he waited for her books to come out, one by one, just like we wait for the Harry Potter books today. Sutcliff was a prolific writer, with over 50 books published. My husband and I both loved listening to the audio version of her book The Shining Company, a story set in 600 A.D. in northern Britain. Young Prosper becomes a shield bearer with the Companions, an army made up of 300 younger sons of minor kings and trained to act as one fighting brotherhood against the invading Saxons. It’s an incredible story based on an old epic poem, The Gododden, and was a riveting tale.

You should also read some more about Rosemary Sutcliff herself, because she was an amazing person. She suffered from Still’s Disease, a form of juvenile arthritis, and spent most of her life confined to a wheel chair. Sandra Garside-Neville wrote an excellent article on her life and writings. I also recommend Sutcliff’s own lovely memoir called Blue Remembered Hills.

This trilogy is a wonderful, very readable, introduction to the legends of King Arthur, and they make great family read-alouds. I read them for Carl V’s Once Upon a Time reading challenge, and although I read them as 3 separate books, they are also available in one volume.

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7 thoughts on “Something Beautiful and Mysterious and Magical

  1. Nymeth

    What a great review. I absolutely love books based on Arthurian legend. After reading “The Mists of Avalon” one summer and “The Once and Future King” the following, I made a promise to myself that I’d read one Arthurian retelling every summer. Unfortunately I ended up breaking my promise, but these books sound like a wonderful way to catch up.

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  2. Robin

    Nymeth, I loved Mists of Avalon and The Once and Future King, also! These Sutcliff books are short and nicely told, so they’re a fast read. I haven’t read her other two about Arthur in the more historical, real person setting, but I’m sure they’d be good. I really like her storytelling.

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  3. danielle

    Thanks for posting about these. I like Arthurian tales, but I have only read a few. I really need to pull more of my books out and get them read! I will look for these as well.

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  4. Carl V.

    Great review. I too have been a fan of the King Arthur legends for as long as I can remember. These books sound great!

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  5. Pingback: Review in 2007 of Rosemary Sutcliff Arthurian trilogy « Rosemary Sutcliff

  6. David

    Thank you for solving a mystery for me. While my favorite books of hers are “The Lantern Bearers” and “Sword at Sunset,” I have known little about this other trilogy. I was confused to hear of it; an Arthurian trilogy? But she already retold the story of Arthur in her way! But now I see she retold the legend as well as the history, and I am more eager than ever to track it down.

    I discovered Sutcliff shortly before high school, I think, and in the years since have made it a life goal to collect everything she has ever written. Her books are so hard to find, although many have started to come back into print. I once spent $50 in a used bookstore for a first edition of “Warrior Scarlet” and a 2nd edition of “Eagle of the Ninth.” Worth. Every. Penny. What a magnificent writer!

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