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The Best King Arthur of Them All

Rosemary Sutcliff has been overshadowed, but her novels of Britain after the fall of the Romans are a delight for children of all ages.

The Knights of the Round Table, ca 1475

A wag once said that the best known fact about the Roman Empire is that it declined and fell. How hard it fell is still a matter of debate. Accounts of bearded savages storming frontiers and sacking cities have lately fallen out of favor. Instead, modern historians emphasize elements of continuity between the tottering Western Empire and its successor states. The study of Late Antiquity now extends well beyond 476 AD, when the last Emperor in Rome was hustled off to an early retirement by Odoacer. 

In one province, however, the end of Roman civilization was nasty, brutish, and hard fought. We know this from modern archaeology, which has uncovered burned villas and buried corpses that bear the telltale marks of combat. We know it from recent advances in genetics, which show a native population that was almost completely replaced in certain areas by invading Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. And we know it from the language you’re currently reading, which is one of the few Germanic tongues to supersede Latin in a former Roman province. The persistence of Romance languages in Spain, Italy, and France suggests that the transition from Roman landowners to Frankish or Gothic chieftains was less a civilizational collapse than a change in upper management. The ascent of English is strong evidence that the end of Roman Britain was a shattering event that touched all levels of society. 

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Ironically, the story of Romano-British resistance gave the English language its most enduring epic matter. The tale of King Arthur has been adapted, with varying success, by everyone from Sir Thomas Malory to Mark Twain to Hollywood. But the kernel of truth at the heart of “The Matter of Britain,” passed down from Dark Age chroniclers to Medieval French troubadours to Malory and beyond, is that a Romano-British warlord fought to save the last remnants of civilization from the barbarians. Extensive scholarship has been devoted to reconstructing this obscure historical period. The best fictional version of the “real” King Arthur was created by Rosemary Sutcliff, a pioneer of young adult fiction who has been sadly overshadowed by lesser imitators. 

When the legions left, the remaining Romano-British did not go gently into that good night. For centuries after the final Roman withdrawal in 410 AD, independent Britannic kingdoms survived the barbarian onslaught. From Cornwall to Wales, the modern United Kingdom’s “Celtic Fringe”' is a legacy of this tumultuous period. 

Many elements of the legend of King Arthur—Camelot, chivalry, courtly love—are anachronistic flourishes added by later medieval chroniclers. Sutcliff’s bright idea was to take the best known features of classic Arthuriana and imagine their Dark Age origins. Thus King Arthur becomes Artorius, a Romano-British cavalry commander, the Knights of the Round Table are reinterpreted as his mounted Companions, and Queen Guinevere is transformed into the Celtic Princess Guenhumara. Bedwyr replaces Lancelot, a later French invention, as Artorius’s right-hand man and eventual betrayer. 

Though she is typically classified as a young adult writer, Sutcliff insisted that her “books are for children of all ages, from nine to ninety.” One remarkable feature of her Roman Britain series is how seamlessly the young adult novels mesh with Sword at Sunset, Sutcliff’s mature retelling of the Arthurian myth. Sword at Sunset is longer and more frank about violence and sexuality than its predecessors, but the book is enriched by themes, locations, and characters from earlier installments.  

To her great credit, Sutcliff never stopped writing for children of all ages. In defiance of another hoary literary convention, she also never bothered to “write what you know.” Confined to a wheelchair from a young age, Sutcliff drew from Celtic and Saxon myths and fragmentary sources to explore a period in British history that is still mysterious. When the time came to plot Artorius’s military career, she consulted with a British army officer to painstakingly lay out campaigns and battle maneuvers. 

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Capturing the visceral intensity of hand-to-hand combat was a remarkable feat for an invalid. More remarkable still are Sutcliff’s evocative descriptions of a civilization under siege. Dark Age warbands clatter across Roman roads that can no longer be repaired. Saxon raiders creep up estuaries to burn isolated farmsteads. Cities are put to the torch or abandoned while marble baths crumble from disuse and neglect. As the old world fades, pagan spirits and Christian mystics stalk the hills and hollows of Dark Age Britain.    

The last days of Roman rule, which combine elements of classical civilization, Celtic culture, paganism in its Gaelic, Germanic, and Roman varieties, and the uncertain beginnings of Christianity, are an irresistible canvas for an imaginative author, and Sutcliff makes full use of its possibilities. When writing about the enigmatic Dark Ages, said Sutcliff, “if you can’t prove your interpretation is right, nobody else can prove it wrong.” 

The idea of a great civilization in terminal decline has long fascinated the English-speaking world, perhaps because the last two global hegemons are descended from the tribes that conquered Roman Britain. One of Rudyard Kipling’s lovely minor poems is about a centurion ordered to abandon his British home after 40 years of faithful service (the poem supposedly inspired Sutcliff). The anthem of the Welsh national soccer team references Magnus Maximus, a fourth century Roman usurper who, according to legend, stripped Britain of her youth to pursue his imperial ambitions. 

Sutcliff was clear eyed about the material and civilizational consequences of the end of Roman rule, but her books are leavened by the hope that something of value will survive the looming collapse. In The Lantern Bearers, the young adult prequel to Sword at Sunset, it’s Briton and Saxon children playing together during a fragile truce. In Dawn Wind, the final barbarian victory is followed by the arrival of St. Augustine and the impending Christianization of the British Isles.    

Yet the question still lingers: Was King Arthur a real person? Academic historians may roll their eyes, but someone fought to save what was left of civilization from the barbarians. This mysterious figure may have been called Artorius, or Ambrosius Aurelianus, or Artuir mac Áedán. Perhaps Arthur is a composite of several different heroes whose names have been lost to history. Whatever the case may be, the story lives on in Sutliff’s books, as do at least a few important things from Great Britain’s “Dark Ages.” 

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