I was probably about 14, just a freshman. and had been a devoted LotR disciple and Tolkien-ite since the age of ten. At eleven I had read Beowulf under the professor’s influence as a scholar of Anglo Saxon and by the time I reached high school age had tackled Hamilton’s and Bulfinche’s mythology compendiums, the Icelandic Sagas, The Mabinogion, “The Tain Bo Cuailnge” and the stories of the Red Branch and Cu Chulainn–some of which my mom had already told me. I vividly remember the local librarians of my small town library shaking their heads in bewilderment and consternation as this teenager requested the,
(indent)“…what is it called again, honey?”
(indent)“The Poetic Edda, ma’am. It’s a poem J.R.R. Tolkien used when he wrote The Hobbit.”
(indent)“How old are you again, young man?”
God bless them if they didn’t find it for me and I spent my time on the bus heading for high school reading it and discovering just where Tolkien had gotten all the dwarf names for those who attended Bilbo’s “Unexpected Party.”
I had serious dreams of one day becoming an Arthurian scholar. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that when I was seven, I screwed off and got behind on my reading scores. The teacher was sure I had a reading problem and sent me off to remediation in the afternoons. “Run, Dick. Run!” My mother was not amused and when she found out, she nearly flipped. She knew I was just acting stupid and being lazy. She told the teacher so, but Mrs. Kennedy was sure I needed remediation as the academic test results indicated I was a poor reader.
Mom hung up the phone smokin’ pissed and gave me the look. I knew a reckoning was coming but wasn’t sure what form it would take. Honestly, I kinda liked remediation as the lady there gave us cookies afterward if we read well to her.
Mom decided that what I needed was more reading and had me sit on the horse-hide couch and made me read to her every evening after that. No cookies. The only grace she did allow was my own choice of book from the home shelves. I narrowed it down to either Robinson Crusoe or L’Morte d’Arthur and for whatever reason, I chose Mallory and the world changed overnight. For whoso pulleth out this sword from this stone and anvil is the rightwise king-born of all England.
All I had really known was that it was about knights and next to dinosaurs, knights were the coolest. Ever read L’Morte? It reads like the King James Version of the Bible only worse, but coming from a family where Bible reading, though not done regularly, was not out of the ordinary, I took the language in stride and was soon lost in the Matter-of-Britain.
When she finally felt I’d had enough, she had me read a passage to my second grade teacher and explain to her what I’d read. I was summarily removed from remediation. No more cookies.
By the time I was a freshman in high school and had read Tolkien, I was an armchair expert on all things Arthurian having read quite a few re-tellings and adaptations of the legends. Eventually, however, I became a little jaded with each new author’s predictable spin and began to explore the truth behind the legend…what little of it there was. I began to read the works of Geoffrey Ashe and other Arthurian scholars and books that explored the archeological findings at Romano-British digs. I eventually ran across a retelling of the legend from the point of view of how it actually might have been, how it might really have started, written by a lady named Rosemary Sutcliff called, The Sword at Sunset. It was with these books, and those like them, that I found my greatest affinity for the legend and fell in love with historical fiction.
When I saw the Eagle of the Ninth was to be made into a movie, I was excited and went to dig out my copy but was dismayed and upset when I couldn’t find it. I don’t know what happened to it, so I bought a new one, now called The Eagle, and the two sequels as well, and spent a wonderful week back in the Romano-Britain of my youth.
Rosemary’s work is subtler and more subdued when it comes to violence. She does not avoid the issue as the era she depicts is one hallmarked by action and upheaval, but she does not sensationalize or concentrate on it. She does not need to aggrandize it to sell her story, as the very nearly pornographic and ultra-violent specialty series so popular on pay-TV now do. Her stories have strong characters that sell themselves to the reader as believable and real. Her descriptions of the countryside are a naturalist’s dream, but they do not overshadow or intrude on the action. And though the novels of hers I have read were all geared toward young men, being the Young Adult Fiction of the ‘50s as it were, they are stories I believe a girl or woman would like because the author depicts her characters with such pathos, empathy and sympathy.
The film version of the book, while not drastically different, is definitely its own interpretation. I enjoyed the print version more as the plot seemed much more plausible than the heroic, yet impossible, journey taken in the film. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed them both, but the book offers so much more and is written so well.
Originally posted on my Goodreads profile in March of 2011 and in The Salamander’s Quill 1.0 now deleted.