Reflections on Rosemary Sutcliff's Sword at Sunset
Fifty-seven years had elapsed since Kirk had first drawn his literary sword and blown his literary trumpet ... What he might do to rouse others imagination and courage, that he had done, to the best of his limited talents. It remained to keep keen the edge of his sword of imagination for another decade or conceivably longer. As no great cause ever is wholly lost – to borrow a sentence from Eliot – so no great cause ever is wholly gained.
Russell Kirk, The Sword of Imagination
Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992) was a prolific British writer, renowned for her renditions of Gaelic, Greek and Arthurian myth, as well as her suite of novels set in Roman and post-Roman Britain: The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), The Silver Branch (1957), The Lantern Bearers (1959) and Sword at Sunset (1963).
Though primarily a children's author, the depth and quality of Sutcliff's canon resonates strongly with readers of all ages. As with numerous British children's writers (Alan Garner and Susan Cooper, for example) whose formative years co-incided with the struggle against Hitler, Sutcliff's work displays clear distinctions between good and evil, right and wrong, civilized conduct and barbarism. There is no post-modern ambiguity, equivocating or hedging of bets here. We also find a firm commitment to the value of law and order (inherited from the Pax Romana) and an overarching belief in the significance and intrinsic worth of Judeo-Christian civilization.
Her novels, at times, have a distinctly valedictory feel, almost as if Sutcliff herself was waving goodbye to what she recognised as civilization. Take, for instance, this exchange between the Emperor Carausius and his young admirers, Flavius and Justin, in The Silver Branch, a story set at the end of the third century:
'Always, everywhere, the Wolves gather on the frontier, waiting. It needs only that a man shall lower his eye for a moment, and they will be in to strip the bones. Rome is failing, my children.'
Justin looked at him quickly, but Flavius never moved: it was as though he had known what Carausius would say.
'Oh, she is not finished yet. I shall not see her fall – my Purple will last my life-time – and nor, I think, will you. Nevertheless, Rome is rotten at the heart, and one day she will come crashing down. A hundred years ago, it must have seemed that all this was forever; a hundred years hence – only the gods know.'
The impressions that remain, however, once a Sutcliff book is finished, are poles apart from any kind of bitterness or impotent nostalgia. Her oeuvre is imbued instead with kindness, courage, a sense of the Divine shaping the lives of individuals and communities, and a compassion and understanding (though never a backsliding tolerance) of the enemy and his bleak material and spiritual situation.
Sword at Sunset (a rare Sutcliff adult novel) is soaked in all these themes. A tempestuous 448 page narrative, spanning a forty year period, from approximately 470 to 510 AD, it tells the proud, mythically-charged tale of British resistance to those same 'Wolves' that threatened Carausius' frontiers – Saxon pirates turned invaders in the post-Roman vacuum.
The story is told in the first person singular by Arthur himself. Called Artos in this book, he leaves no stone unturned in his attempts to restore the vanished world of Rome-in-Britain. This memory and dream inspires both Artos and the High King, Ambrosius, in Chapter One, in the face of gloomy, initially unsettling, long-term demographics:
The shutter banged again, and somewhere in the distance I heard a smothered burst of laughter. I said, 'Then why don't we yield now, and make an end? There would be fewer cities burned and fewer men slain that way. Why do we go on fighting? Why not merely lie down and let it come? They say it is easier to drown if you don't struggle.'
'For an idea,' Ambrosius said, beginning again to play with the dragon arm ring, but his eyes were smiling in the firelight, and I think that mine smiled back at him. 'Just for an idea, for a dream.'
I said, 'A dream may be the best thing to die for.'
Twenty years later, shortly after his coronation, Artos asks the same question. His lieutenant, Bedwyr, comes close to an articulation of what truly lies at stake:
We were silent again. And then I heard my own voice, as it were thinking aloud. 'I remember once, long ago, Ambrosius said to me that if we fought well enough we might hold back the dark for maybe another hundred years. I asked him, seeing that the end was sure, why we did not merely lie down and let it come, for the end would be easier that way. He said: "For a dream."'
'And you? What did you say?'
'Something about a dream being often the best thing to die for. I was young, and something of a fool.'
'Yet when there is no dream left worth dying for, that is when the people die,' Bedywr murmured, 'and there is the advantage to it, that the dream can live on, even when hope dies.'
Here we arrive at the heart of the matter. It is the unquantifiable and intangible – not the immediate material reality – that carries most weight. The bare historical record tells us that Arthur ultimately failed in his mission. He was killed in battle, and his restored Roman Britain crumbled before renewed Saxon onslaughts two generations after his death. Yet as an icon and exemplar, his achievement is unparalleled. His legacy can be glimpsed in figures such as Joan of Arc, Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, individuals who set the odds at nought and fought on for their dream when surrender seemed the only common-sense option.
These themes are pregnant with significance for our own times. 'When there is no dream left worth dying for, then the people die.' Would Carausius recognize in our society the same germs of dissolution that compromised the Roman Empire? Civilisations, history tells us, tend often to disintegrate from within. The Soviet citizenry, for example, ceased in large measure to swallow the ideology driving the USSR long before that totalitarian edifice fell. There was a time lag, certainly, but once the Marxist state had lost its imaginative grip on the populace, its demise was assured.
The same holds true for the creaking spiritual and intellectual foundations of the West. Enfeebled from within by a sceptical, overweening secularism, we turn our backs on our patrimony, 'refusing to inherit' (in Roger Scruton's phrase) the deposit of religious, philosophical and political wisdom handed down by our ancestors. Our moorings have been cut, and we are without recourse to that transcendent Deity who once animated our civilisation. If my truth is as good as your truth, then all 'truths' are equally worthless, and we leave nothing more than a vacuum for our children to inherit. Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum. Vacuums will be filled, one way or another. In rejecting its past, the West has laid itself open for conquest and exploitation, either at the hands of a corrupted ruling class or through the ascendancy of a rival civilization with a clearer sense of mission and identity.
Artos and Ambrosius refuse to submit. They rage hard against the dimming of the Roman light. The key question, as we have seen, is why? Why battle on, with all the costs that entails, when the long-term prognosis is so pessimistic? Would it not be easier, wiser even, to 'lie down and let it come'?
This takes us back to Russell Kirk and the question he puts to his readers at the end of The Sword of Imagination – is life worth living? Kirk's reply is a resounding yes, and it is affirmation, this sense of shaping Divinity, this intimation of a wider, embracing pattern, that is so conspicuous by its absence in the contemporary West. We have killed our Kings (Charles I, Louis XVI, Nicholas II), then turned our blades on God Himself. Without God, as Dostoyevsky foresaw, our lives, both on the individual and the corporate planes, are divested of meaning and value. A numbing, insidious despair – oblivious to the myriad distractions we fling at it – chips away at our vitality, draining our civilisation of energy, hope and healing, restorative vision.
Artos, in his discussions with Ambrosius and Bedwyr, seems tempted at times to lay down his sword and make an accommodation, however uneasy, with the Saxon presence. This occasional propensity to gloom is part of the fallible, charmingly human character Sutcliff has drawn for us. Artos is no 'man of steel'. A battlefield champion and unrivalled leader of men, Artos is almost comically gauche in his relationships with women (especially with his wife, Guenhumara), and far from sure-footed in his dealings with the Church and officialdom in general. He is a sensitive, thoughtful individual, prone to bouts of anxiety and boredom that only find relief with the return of the fighting season each spring. There, around the camp fire, sheltered by his brotherhood of hand-picked 'Companions', Artos is happy – in tune with himself, his men and the world around him.
Despite his vacillations and disappointments, Artos never subsides. He pursues his course to its end. Though no philosopher or theologian, he seems to sense a wider web of meaning weaving its way through his story, above and beyond the triumphs and disasters, personal and political, that line his path. Dimly conscious throughout of a deeper, underlying harmony, Artos is most reluctant to act precipitously, sacrifice his principles and break the threads of fate, even when it would be most expedient to do so. He marries Guenhumara against his better instincts, releases the young Saxon chieftain, Cerdic, when any other commander would have had him killed, and turns down one opportunity after another to dispense with his troublesome son, Medraut, a corrosive influence bent on corrupting the esprit de corps Artos has so lovingly built up among his Companions.
It is as if he somehow intuits the great body of legend growing around him many years later, sustaining and inspiring not only poets, scholars and soldiers, but countless men and women when all seems lost and the odds are piled remorselessly high. This is the archetypal context propelling his life and work, compelling Artos to stay his hand and sacrifice short-term gain for eternal, mythic renown. He is humble enough to recognise, however opaquely, this greater reality, and play his part without rancour or resentment.
Even in the quantifiable, strictly historical realm, the 'real-life' Arthur was far from the failure he might have been deemed a century after his death. We can appreciate now, a millennium and a half later, just what a towering figure he was, the last Roman Emperor in the West and the first Medieval King. He stands as a bridge – a Pontifex – looking back to classical antiquity on the one hand and forward to the staggering achievements of Christian Europe on the other.
Medieval Christendom, as the historian Christopher Dawson elucidated so eloquently, was a civilization that focused not on its own comfort and well-being, but rather on its author and creator, God. We might almost feel tempted to define the fruits of this outlook as civilization itself: the establishment of civic society, the foundation of the universities, the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas, the mysticism of Eckhart and Hildegaard, the creative vision of Dante, and the construction of the great Cathedrals that glorify the continent to this day.
It is this spirit of service, this dedication to a higher principle, that we need to find again if our civilisation is to survive. We need to rediscover a scale of values, and reconnect with the depth and richness of our religious, intellectual, cultural and political patrimony. This is no time for self-abasement. Quite the reverse. We are called instead towards a declaration of faith in everything we believe in, stand for and hold dear, everything good, beautiful and true, in the face of encroaching darkness from within and without.
Here is the clinching truth grasped by Artos in a flash of lucidity at the zenith of his career. In a tumultuous, near-Dionysian scene, he is crowned Caesar by his jubilant troops after their destruction of the mightiest Saxon army yet ranged against them. He stands on top of the Royal Stone, lifts his sword to the sky and salutes his soldiery with this ringing proclamation:
'Soldiers! Warriors! Ye have called me by the name of Caesar, ye have called me to be your Emperor as your great grandsires called mine, whose seal I carry in the pommel of my sword. So be it then, my brothers in arms. After forty years, there is an Emperor in the West again ... It is in my heart that few beyond our shores will ever hear of this night's crowning, assuredly the Emperor of the East in his golden city of Constantinople will never know that he has a fellow; but what matter that? The island of Britain is all that still stands of Rome-in-the-West and therefore it is enough that we in Britain know that the light still burns ... Together, we have saved Britain, that the things worth saving shall not go down into the dark!'