Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Before and Beyond Camelot:  The Historical Fiction of Rosemary Sutcliff  

Tristan and Iseult

After this week, we'll be moving on from the British Isles, but before that happens I wanted to make mention of one of the best writers of historical fiction I've ever read, Rosemary Sutcliff.  

Historical fiction is hard to write; historical fiction for children even more so.  All too often, the story is sacrificed to an overload of historical facts presented in such a manner as to make even the most dramatic events of the past appear as exciting as last month's grocery list.  That's never a problem with Sutcliff.

The story of Tristan and Iseult is an ancient one, with about as many variations and versions as there are storytellers.  The earliest direct mentions of the characters are found in Celtic literature; later on, in the twelfth century French Court's version, it became a tale of courtly love, comparable to the tale of King Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot, but with the addition of a love potion.  The University of Rochester maintains an excellent website The Camelot Project that offers a wealth of information on the Arthurian tales and others.

Book #6:  Tristan and Iseult (1974) by Rosemary Sutcliff, 150 pages.

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-1992) was a British author of books for both children and adults.  She is one of the great storytellers of Arthurian legends, and many of her novels are set in the historical periods of Roman Britain (The Eagle of Ninth series) and Dark Britain. Sutcliff won numerous awards for her novels, including the 1959 Carnegie Medal for The Lantern Bearer, the 2010 Phoenix Award for The Shining Company, and was one of three runners-up for the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1974.

Sutcliff was the daughter of a Royal Navy officer and moved frequently throughout her childhood.  She  suffered from Stills' Disease, a form of juvenile arthritis that resulted in chronic pain and numerous physical disabilities, throughout her life.  She did not learn to read until the age of nine, but was read to constantly by her mother, who also regaled her daughter with stories from Celtic legends, fairy tales and the works of Rudyard Kipling.  She began writing in 1946, starting with retellings of her mother's stories, and had her first book published in 1950, The Chronicles of Robin Hood.

Rosemary Sutcliff's Life and Works

Sutcliff's version of Tristan and Iseult is based on earlier versions, and deliberately excludes any mention of a love potion.  She has her reasons for doing so, which she explains in the Forward of the book.

Tristan leaves his home in Lothian, where he is the son of the king, and journeys out with his faithful companion, Gorvenal, to seek adventure.  Eventually, they arrive at the Kingdom of Cornwall, ruled by King Marc, whose sister was Tristan's mother.  Tristan does not reveal himself to the king as his nephew until after he kills the Morholt, the Irish champion, in a challenge.  Ireland and Cornwall are enemies of longstanding.  King Marc is a widower with no children.  He is convinced by others that he should remarry, but states that he will only marry the woman whose strand of red hair he possesses.  Tristan goes off to find this woman, and is injured in the process.  The woman who heals him is none other than Iseult, Princess of Ireland, and the strand of red hair is hers.  There is dragon slaying and treacherous dealings abound.  Tristan and Iseult fall in love, but she marries King Marc, who also loves her.  And so it goes from there.

This is a book for middle school and up.  Tristan and Iseult are sexually involved, there are threats of torture and burning alive at the stake, and complex emotional situations.  Sutcliff portrays these characters with all of their human frailties and strengths, dealing with complicated situations and relationships in a way recognizable to today's readers.

Question #6:   Anyone?  Still looking for an answer to Week #1's lost story.

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