A Guide for Parents
Rosemary Sutcliff was a prolific writer of historical fiction for children from the 1950’s through the 1980’s. Her fascination with ancient England in its earliest days led her to write primarily about this exciting time period. Although often labeled juvenile historical fiction, her well-researched and finely written books can be enjoyed by readers of all ages. Although most of her books are refreshingly clean, enjoyable stories, a few of her books contain more adult content that Catholic parents might not appreciate their younger children reading. In this review, I include plot summaries and guides to objectionable content for over 10 of Sutcliff’s best known books.
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The Eagle of the 9th
The Eagle of the Ninth is a fantastic story of Roman-occupied Britain and one of Sutcliff’s most beloved books. A young Roman centurion embarks on a quest to clear his father’s legion from the dark rumors which surround it. There are great themes about friendship, loyalty, true freedom, and coping with disabilities. There’s also a subplot of a clean, sweet romance, though parents might want to know that the girl is quite young: earlier teens. This is true to the historical time period in which girls married quite young and therefore didn’t bother me. Appropriate for 10 year old advanced readers; I recommend age 12 or older for most readers.
The Silver Branch
Generations after the events of The Eagle of the 9th, a young Roman surgeon lands in Britain and finds himself thrust into a pivotal role as Emperors rise and fall in the disintegrating Roman empire. The Silver Branch is a completely clean and enjoyable book with a shy, brave protagonist. Great for 10 and older.
The Lantern Bearers
Another volume which follows the descendants of The Eagle of the 9th hero, The Lantern Bearers is a more serious look at the repercussions of Rome withdrawing from Britain. A major theme is trying to save bits of civilization from the darkness of barbarian invasion. Other themes include the horror of slavery and family loyalty. There is a forced marriage which turns out all right in the end; clean and appropriate for young readers.
Sword at Sunset
Sword at Sunset, a retelling of the Arthurian legends, is one of my least favorite Sutcliff books. This sequel to The Lantern Bearers unexpectedly jumps into all sorts of more adult content, such as a steamy incestuous seduction scene. A theme throughout the book is homosexuality among the “knights.” Artos, the Arthur character, says he wishes his whole army was homosexuals since it saves trouble with girls. The homosexual couple is highly romanticized, actually having the most stable and loving relationship in the book. This stable homosexual couple is a foil to Artos and his queen’s troubled marriage. There is also an adultery scene with some explicit details. Definitely avoid this one for younger readers.
Mark of the Horse Lord
The Mark of the Horse Lord is a darker, more violent Sutcliff book. In several ways reminiscent of The Prisoner of Zenda, The Mark of the Horse Lord is the story of an ex-slave who is asked to impersonate a British king. Parents will want to be aware that the ending involves the protagonist committing suicide in an attempt to protect his tribe from annihilation. Suicide is portrayed as the noble course of action and admirable. Better for older teen readers.
In Outcast, Sutcliff is at her best with a clean, intriguing story about a Roman boy, raised by a British tribe, then outcast due to superstition. The story of this boy’s sufferings is sad, but there are great themes about the horror of slavery and the light of friendship. Younger sensitive readers may be upset by the cruelty of the slave treatment described. Readers who enjoyed The Eagle of the Ninth will also enjoy Outcast.
Song for a Dark Queen
Song for a Dark Queen is another darker Sutcliff story. This book tells the tragic story of Boadicea, the British queen who was treated unjustly and cruelly by the Romans. In addition to being a very tragic, dark story, this book is relatively high on sexual references, including jokes, tribal customs of fornication during the Harvest Festival, and an erotic naked dancing scene.
Black Ships Before Troy
In this retelling of the Iliad, Sutcliff succeeds in capturing some of the splendor of this epic while simplifying the language to make it accessible for younger readers. Black Ships Before Troy follows the original plot closely, so plot elements include Paris abandoning his wife to pursue Helen, and Helen in turn abandoning her husband to run away with Paris. There are no explicit scenes. However, the terrible repercussions of their sins are very clear; the message is that Paris and Helen acted dishonorably and caused incredible suffering to many in a ripple effect. Appropriate for 14 and older.
Flame-Colored Taffeta is an unusual Sutcliff story insofar as the protagonist is a young girl and the setting nearly a millennia later than most of her works. This is a clean, interesting book about two children who act mercifully towards a Jacobite spy. The caveat with this book is a plot element involving Damaris, the protagonist, using a witch charm to blackmail someone into helping her. Damaris knows she’s doing something wrong; it is a classic scenario of the ends justifying the means in the author’s eyes.
Blood Feud is a fascinating book which delves into the movements of the Saxon races south to Constantinople. It also explores the dark custom of blood feuds among the Saxon people where sons fight to the death to right family wrongs. This is not portrayed as particularly right or wrong but rather the way the custom went. Another interesting theme in this book is Sutcliff’s “tolerant” approach to religion. She portrays religion as being more rooted in an individual’s ethnicity and family history than in a conviction of absolute truth. Better for older teen readers.
The Sword and the Circle
The Sword and the Circle is Sutcliff’s second take on the Arthurian legends. In a more typical courtly style than Swords at Sunset, Sutcliff recounts the tales of Arthur’s knights of the round table. Sutcliff uses the unsavory version of Arthur’s origins: his father lusted after a married duchess and started a war to have his way with her. Arthur himself ends up committing incest with his sister which leads to Mordant. Various knights fall into sexual sins, such as Lancelot being seduced and committing fornication with Elaine, and Tristan and Iseult committing adultery. Overall these scenarios are recounted factually rather than with graphic details.
A Mixed Bag
As you can see, Sutcliff’s books are a bit like Russian roulette if your children pick them up at random. A few of her books contain a fair amount of sexual references, though they are generally not graphic. However, many of her other books are completely clean and excellent historical fiction. The best part of her books is an ongoing theme about saving “keeping the light burning,” by which she means saving culture, art, civilization itself from being smothered.
Guides to more books will be added here as I read them.