Thursday, June 13, 2013

Rosemary Sutcliff's King Arthur Trilogy (Book Review)

The Sword and the Circle (1981); The Light Beyond the Forest (1979); The Road to Camlann (1981), by Rosemary Sutcliff.  Published in one volume as The King Arthur Trilogy or King Arthur Stories.

How do you compare the work of two storytelling masters like T.H. White (The Once and Future King) and Rosemary Sutcliff?  I recently finished Sutcliff's King Arthur Trilogy, and then went back and re-read a good part of White's version, which I'd forgotten a good deal of since reading the first two books of it with The Apprentice years ago.  (Ambleside Online recommends that only the first two books of TOaFK be read in Year Seven, since the other two are darker and more adult.)  I've been looking for a good King Arthur choice for Crayons for next fall, when she will be in Year Seven, and I'm leaning towards The Sword and the Circle. It's not that the two wouldn't be complementary, but, as a trilogy (Sutcliff) or a four-"book" novel (White), they're both pretty long.  Not to mention intense.

And this is where King Arthur, any King Arthur, becomes problematic for school reading.  White points out somewhere in TOaFK that there is a reason Malory's 15th-century Le Morte d'Arthur is called what it's called ("The Death of Arthur").  The beginning of the story is the beginning of the end, and the end, we are led to believe, is inevitable.  Friendship leads to betrayal, and laws intended for justice bring grief.  Evil women conspire and seduce, friends and family members kill each other, and knights described as gallant and gentle also destroy and are destroyed.  To take the story to its end is to explore tragedy.  But how far do you want to go with that exploration, say with a twelve-year-old?

Sutcliff's rendering--she draws heavily on Malory as well as on other ballads and legends--is more traditional and straightforward, not as satirical as White's.  It's also much less talky; White's characters have long philosophical conversations about might and right, and he spends pages trying to set straight our romanticized ideas of the "Arthurian age."  Sutcliff takes less of a world-weary tone, makes fewer all-over-the-place analogies (White compares one battle to a scene from the Wild West), and does not include White's gruesome and detailed descriptions of magic practices and other disturbing images (parental previewing is seriously recommended).  Neither is particularly explicit about the relationship between Lancelot and Guenever. On the other hand, even the first of Sutcliff's three books is full of sword exploits, bereaved maidens, and the evil half-sisters.  These are fairy tales grown large and serious, and when the wizard and the enchantress characters have faded out partway through the story, what's left is a seriously confused bunch of human beings, most of them decent-hearted but with a couple of apparent sociopaths among them to keep things stirred up.

If, like the book Peter Pan, you (and the twelve-year-old) can accept the story, in either Sutcliff or White's telling, mostly as fairy tale, as legend, as a stage drama; if you can view it as the inspiration for dozens of later storytellers, poets, painters; then probably either volume, or limited parts of it as AO recommends, will work as literature for junior-high age.
"He said then, that when Percival came to join us, it would be as though he were a herald."
"A herald?"
"A sign, then.  For by his coming we should know that within less than a year the Mystery of the Holy Grail would come--will come, upon us here at Camelot...and the knights will leave the Round Table and ride out upon the greatest quest of all."
"We shall come together again," said Lancelot, trying to console him.
"Some of us," said the King.  "But it will not be the same; never the same again....We shall have served our purpose; made a shining time between the Dark and the Dark.  Merlin said that it would be as though all things drew on to the golden glory of the sunset.  But then it will all be over."  ~~ Rosemary Sutcliff, The Sword and the Circle


Dawn said...

Thank you for this review. I recently noticed that Sutcliff was an option for this, and I greatly appreciate you sharing your thoughts on the matter. Most helpful.

Mama Squirrel said...

Dawn, what do you mean by "an option?" There are some other Sutcliff books in the AO curriculum, but I don't think these ones were ever included.

Annie Kate said...

Thanks for the comparison!

de Looze Family said...

Thank you for writing and sharing this review. We are also homeschoolers from Australia, and are half way through reading the first book in this Rosemary Sutcliff trilogy. I am wondering if you have any advice on what supplementary literature reviews or work programs you can use with this book. If I am not clear: I mean examining plot/ character analysis. Have you come across any good accompaniments?

Mama Squirrel said...

Dear de Looze Family,

No, sorry, we are not doing indepth plot/character analysis. Oral and written narrations, a bit of dramatization, and a drawn "action figure" of one of the characters (an idea I got from a teacher's site). What we are reading, though, is some of Christopher Hibbert's book In Search of King I guess you'd say we're doing more of the history-of-literature aspects.