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Literature: Sword at Sunset

Sword at Sunset is a Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff published in 1963, one of the first modern novels to Demythtify King Arthur. A generation after the departure of The Roman Empire, Artos, bastard nephew of the High King Ambrosius Aurelianus of Britain, forms a Company of three hundred cavalrymen to spearhead a united British front against the invading Anglo-Saxons.

Sword at Sunset strips out the magical and courtly tropes of medieval Arthuriana, drawing instead from sub-Roman archaeology; older written sources like The Mabinogion, the pseudo-historical Historia Brittonum and Historia Regum Britanniae; and Victorian anthropological treatise The Golden Bough. The core of Arthurian tradition is present in the figures of Artos’s Companions Bedwyr, Cei, and Gwalchmai; his troubled marriage to the chieftain’s daughter Guenhumara; and the vendetta of his mad sister Ygerna and her corrupted son Medraut. But the knights in shining armour are Roman cavalrymen in captured chainmail; the independent British princelings cannot be united round a table; and the Quest for the Holy Grail is the endless struggle to supply food, men, and mounts to a Dark Age army; to hold together, for a few years longer, the cut-off, broken-down remnant of a vanished empire.

Sword at Sunset is the fifth novel in The Dolphin Ring sequence, and the only entry in the series aimed primarily at adults. It is immediately preceded by The Lantern Bearers, and has distant sequels in Dawn Wind and The Shining Company.

An interview with Rosemary Sutcliff about the writing of Sword at Sunset can be read here.

Sword at Sunset contains examples of:

  • All First Person Narrators Write Like Novelists: Artos manages to compose a doorstopper in several days while writhing in agony on his deathbed.
  • All Hallows' Eve: Bedwyr and Guenhumara meet for the first time on Samhain, and then she asks for news of her recently dead acquaintance Gault. In other words, the omens are not favourable.
  • All Part of the Show: Invoked by Hengest when the Saxons use to cover of Beltane Eve celebrations to mask their signal fires. Unfortunately for them, Artos and Company notice while hanging out drinking on the battlements of Deva that some of the bonfires are in entirely the wrong direction.
  • Anyone Can Die: Pretty much everyone does, because the story covers forty years of warfare and Dark Age medical expertise.
  • Antagonistic Offspring: Medraut, obviously. His mama didn't raise him right.
  • Arc Villain: The forty years of Artos's reminiscences covers several campaigns in different parts of Britain against various other warlords.
    • Battle of Deva: Hengest
    • March to Eburacum: Octa Hengestson
    • Northern campaign: Huil Son of Caw
    • Battle of Badon: Aelle of Sussex
    • Peacetime: Medraut
    • Final battle: Merdaut and Cerdic of Wessex
  • Author Filibuster: Artos makes a point of mentioning that he'd rather Yaoi Guys Gault and Levin form a stable Battle Couple, a la Theban Band, than have his Companions fight over women or divide their loyalties with their wives (a point eventually exemplified by his situation with Bedwyr and Guenhumara). The book was published during the debate on decriminalising gay sex in the UK.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Artos is spontaneously acclaimed the Emperor of the West at the White Horse of Uffington using the rituals of all the allied British war host after the Battle of Badon Hill.
  • Band of Brothels: The Company are forbidden to have wives and families, but they do inevitably attract camp followers who can live rough and provide the extra service of nursing the wounded. One of the ringleaders of the Eburacum slave revolt is a madam named Helen.
  • Band of Brothers: Artos's Company, or Brotherhood, of three hundred cavalrymen. Their unity eventually weakens and a youthful faction follows Medraut into the last battle.
  • Bastard Bastard: Medraut, Artos's son by his insane sister, herself a Bastard Bastard, has been raised to hate and undermine him, and engineers Guenhumara's downfall as well as giving Artos his mortal wound. He can pose as a loyal follower, however, because illegitimacy per se isn't the issue – Artos himself is a Heroic Bastard.
  • Battle Couple: Gault and Levin, two of Artos's warband who tried out Situational Sexuality and never looked back. They become a captain and second of a squadron and the subject of a heroic subplot.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Artos never does much to avert the evil he anticipates from Medraut, like kill him, because he's convinced that he and Medraut are meant to make an end of each other as his punishment for committing incest.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: Various, but most especially the Battle of Badon Hill, the action that breaks the united Saxons under Aelle of Sussex for the remainder of Artos's reign.
  • Bring Help Back: Levin disappears from starving, snowbound Trimontium in an apparent (but unconvincing because he's a Death Seeker) Screw This, I'm Outta Here!, but actually travels cross-country in the dead of winter to summon the supply train back weeks early with desperately-needed food, dying in the process.
  • Canine Companion: Artos's second dog named Cabal is an Irish wolfhound left behind at Guenhumara's dun by a dead raider. Artos's eagerness to adopt him is juxtaposed rather hilariously with his desperation to avoid becoming engaged to Guenhumara.
  • Cannibalism Superpower: Invoked. The Little Dark People believe that eating their dead's hearts gives them their strength. Noni Heron's Feather reproaches Artos for not eating Cabal's after he dies at the battle of Badon.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin' : Guenhumara and Bedwyr sleep together just once, after months of opportunity and restraint. Naturally, Medraut catches them.
  • Changing of the Guard: Almost the only direct sequel Sutcliff ever wrote, Sword at Sunset takes up where The Lantern Bearers leaves off, with Artos as the point of view character. Aquila, Ambrosius, Flavian, and various others remain secondary characters in Sword.
  • Characterization Marches On: In The Lantern Bearers, Artos is a cheerful and charismatic secondary character. In his own narration in Sword at Sunset, he's a joyless martyr to duty and his crippling psychological issues.
  • Celibate Hero: Artos's long-lost half-sister Ygerna tricks him into sleeping with her, and he's so traumatised he loses interest in sex. He doesn't realise he's impotent until he marries Guenhumara ten years later, and their difficulty in conceiving strains the marriage. Ambrosius the High King is also celibate, claiming that he’s Married to the Job.
    • Good People Have Good Sex: Averted. The problem isn't explicitly described, but Artos and Guenhumara's sex life is. . .lacking.
    • Glad-to-Be-Alive Sex: Except that one time. An inversion, because they think they're about to die of scurvy in a snowbound fortress.
  • Cool Horse: The first part of the story is taken up with the difficulty of aquiring enough horses large enough to carry Artos's heavy cavalry, which are critical for the mobile force he intends to deploy, and he meets Bedwyr because he's the only person who can control a prize stud horse called the Black One. Artos's White Stallion Signus is the Black One's son, and he fights the greatest victory of his career in the White Horse Vale and is crowned on the White Horse itself. The Saxons, meanwhile, also fight under the banner of a white horse, and one of them tells Artos that their ancestors served in the Second Legion, whose badge was the winged horse Pegasus.
  • Crown of Horns: Maglaunus the chieftain dons an antlered mask to preside as the Horned God over the Lammas feast. Hengest is said to be a "Royal Stag", and the High King Ambrosius commits Suicide by Cop by going on foot to kill a king stag.
  • Dark Is Evil: The Saxon conquest and the doom of the Roman British civilisation is metaphorically described as night falling on Britain, to be forestalled as long as possible in the hope of saving more of their culture from the dark. The title Sword at Sunset points to this metaphor, as do the prequel and sequel The Lantern Bearers and Dawn Wind.
  • Darker and Edgier: Sword at Sunset is the only book in the Dolphin Ring sequence written for adults. Besides the sexual content, it's more pessimistic and depressing, which is saying something.
  • Death Seeker: Levin, after Gault's death. Artos also observes that Ygerna reveals her Evil Plan partly because she wouldn't mind if he just killed her.
  • Defiled Forever: Artos after Ygerna. Also, Guenhumara begs Artos to marry her because if he rejects her father's very public offer, everyone will think he'd already slept with her...and not found her worth marrying.
  • Demythtification: No Merlin, no Round Table, no shining armour, no magic.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: It's implied after the final scene, in which Bedwyr holds the dying Artos.
  • Divided We Fall: Persuading local rulers to support a united front (led by him) against the invaders rather than protecting their own territories is the ongoing struggle of Artos's life. Artos points out that it's not the treachery of the conquered Saxons but of his own son, Companions, and Welsh countrymen that leads to the final battle.
  • Double Standard: Rape, Female on Male: A stranger named Ygerna, in whose house Artos takes shelter one night, withholds the fairly important fact that they're half-siblings, drugs his meal, and seduces him, then reveals that she wanted to screw him over because their dead dad took care of him but not her (and she's a nutter.) Both the Bed Trick and the Slipping a Mickey are rape by modern standards, but Artos doesn’t refer to it that way, though he feels Defiled Forever by the Surprise Incest.
  • Due to the Dead: After taking Trimontium, the Companions find the body of a Little Dark Woman who had been gang-raped. Artos solves their concerns about her ghost by burying her with honour in the fortress that night under nine dead warhorses.
  • El Cid Ploy: Artos refuses to have his imminent death officially proclaimed for reasons of morale, but lets it be known that he is injured. The only person who will be definitely informed is be his successor Constantine, whom he leaves in charge "until his return”.
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: They hate Medraut.
  • Five-Man Band: Artos's closest companions fit the roles, though Guenhumara isn't a member of the Company: Artos is The Hero; Bedwyr is The Lancer; boisterous Cei is The Big Guy; The Medic Gwalchmai is The Smart Guy; Guenhumara is The Chick.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: Guenhumara and Artos don’t fall in love when she nurses him through the wound fever he got while defending her dun. But ten years later, her friendship with Bedwyr turns to something else while she nurses him after the wound he took at Badon.
  • Foreshadowing: Early and often.
  • Founder of the Kingdom: Several of Artos's Saxon opponents: Hengest of Kent, Aelle of Sussex, Cerdic of Wessex.
  • Gambit Roulette: Ygerna's epic scheme to get Revenge on her (dead) absentee father is to have a one night stand with her long-lost half-brother when he wanders unknowingly and at random into her clutches, get pregnant, have a son, raise that son to hate his father, and unleash him on Artos, but only after she dies. Justified in that she's quite mad.
  • Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!: Various British chieftains, notably Huil Son of Caw, the Pict rebel leader, would rather do anything, including ally with the Saxons or the Irish, than be subject to the High King.
    Huil: Like you, I would be free, but for me, freedom is a different thing.
  • The Good King: Ambrosius and Artos.
  • Green-Eyed Epiphany: Artos marries Guenhumara, though he likes her, for her dowry of cavalry. He realises he loves her after Lovable Sex Maniac Cei jokes about seducing her.
  • Handicapped Badass: Gwalchmai, the Hawk of May, a clubfooted infirmarian brother who abandons the monastery to become a cavalryman and battlefield surgeon.
  • Heroic Bastard: Artos, though the obvious choice for Ambrosius's heir by virtue of talent and being effectively his adopted son, cannot technically inherit because he is illegitimate, an objection that comes mainly from the Church rather than any political rival.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: A major theme of the novel is the belief that a king must sacrifice himself for the good of his people, in both a practical and a mystical sense. The Little Dark People believe that "victory must be bought with deliberate and willing sacrifice." Ambrosius orchestrates his own death in order to leave his kingdom to its best successor, Artos, but does it in a manner reminiscent of Human Sacrifice, killed by a deer linked symbolically to the Horned God of prosperity. Artos refuses to make Medraut his heir because he knows Medraut has no comprehension of the king's duty to his people, and sacrifices his life to prevent Medraut from taking power.
    Artos: [on Ambrosius's death] I saw it for the face of the King Sacrifice; older than either Christos or Mithras, reaching back and forward into all time until the two met and the circle was complete. Always the god, the king, the hero, who must die for the people when the call comes.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Artos and Bedwyr, until Bedwyr falls in love with Guenhumara.
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Also Artos and Bedwyr.
  • Infant Immortality: Averted. Artos and Guenhumara have one child, Hylin, whose early death drives a permanent wedge between them. Guenhumara also explains to Artos that the Company's camp followers have indeed borne children – they just practice infanticide.
  • It Has Been an Honor:
    Bedwyr: I have always been one to choose with care the company I die in...I never saw a place more to my mind, nor a company.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Well over a hundred named characters, many of them mere extras, for an average of more than one every five pages. There are four Red Shirts introduced in the last chapter alone.
  • Lonely at the Top: Invoked. Artos never wished to become king because he dreads loneliness, and he gets it after Bedwyr and Guenhumara leave him.
  • Lookalike Lovers: Gault and Levin, because they represent a partnership of perfect equality and unity of purpose in Artos's mind (as contrasted with civilian wives.) As members of the Brotherhood, it also gives them a faint zest of Incest Subtext.
    Artos: Seeing them there with the lantern spilling its pool of dim yellow radiance on the two wild-barley-coloured heads, I realised as I had never quite done before, how alike they were. It was as though the link between them was so potent that even in their outward seeming they could have nothing apart from each other.
  • Lured Into a Trap: Artos finally defeats the Saxon conqueror Hengest, having received advance notice of Hengest's surprise attack, by digging a series of concealed trenches across the approaches to Deva to break the Saxon infantry charge. At the final battle, the remnants of the Company draw out Medraut's squadron in order to lead him away from his superior forces and kill him before his Welsh reinforcements arrive.
  • Magnetic Hero: Artos, of course, draws a few new Companions to his following everywhere he goes, most notably Bedwyr and Gwalchmai, though he doesn't exactly imagine he's the stuff of legends:
    Artos: [on Huil Son of Caw] The man before me was not a Great One in the way of Hengest, but he was a man whom other men follow; I am such a one myself, and I recognised the kind.
  • The Marvelous Deer: A "king stag", i.e. a many-pointed buck, sighted in the Forest of Spinaii allows Ambrosius to engineer a Hunting Accident for himself, committing suicide in a manner both unsuspicious and worthy of a king.
  • Mixed Ancestry: Artos's father is a Romano-Briton and his unknown mother is a Welsh Celt, which he believes gives him a feeling for both cultures. Meanwhile, Cerdic is the son of a Welsh father and Saxon mother, and has some claim to the British throne despite identifying with his Saxon family.
    Artos: At the worst, it might be to be torn between the tree and the stallion. At the least, it is to be always a little in exile.
  • My Beloved Smother: Artos believes Medraut had a creepy, stifling relationship with Ygerna, who figuratively "devoured" him.
    Artos: He is a stranger in the world, and at odds with it, because his mother never truly gave him birth until her own death tore him from her. He wants to get back to the warm darkness of his mother's womb; and failing to escape from it, he will be revenged on the world if he can.
  • Our Fairies Are Different: The Little Dark People, secretive subterranean-dwelling aboriginal Britons whom Artos befriends by paying one the respect Due to the Dead, who become his scouts and messengers. Guenhumara is convinced that they steal Hylin's life after she is forced to give birth in one of their villages.
  • Plain Jane: Bedwyr's face is noticeably asymmetrical and fantastically ugly, and by middle age he's almost The Grotesque. Guenhumara is unremarkable looking aside from her blond hair. Ironically the member of the love triangle described as beautiful is Artos, as are Ygerna and Medraut.
  • The Resenter: Ygerna hates Artos, whom she'd never met, for two reasons: a) she's insane and b) their father's family came back for him because he was a boy.
  • Secret Stab Wound: Gault dies of blood loss after leading his patrol home with an arrow in his ribs, unbeknownst to them.
  • Self-Sacrifice Scheme: Ambrosius, who is Secretly Dying of cancer, arranges a Hunting Accident to make himself a Human Sacrifice.
  • Shadow Archetype: Medraut to Artos. Medraut looks uncannily like Artos and has his skill as a soldier, but none of his morals.
  • Shout-Out: Guenhumara tells Artos that the Damnonii's horses are descended from Roman cavalry mounts captured from a legion destroyed in Valentia, i.e. the Ninth Hispana of The Eagle of the Ninth.
  • Situational Sexuality: Discussed.
    "I write mostly about men in a man's world, fighting men; and the homosexual relationship, or at any rate very deep friendship between men, tends very much to occur in this kind of society." — Sutcliff in 1977
  • Slave Revolt: The citizens of Eburacum enslaved by Octa's Saxons conspire to open the gates during Artos's attack, resulting in the recapture of the city.
  • A Storm Is Coming: Invoked. The night before Ambrosius's death there is a massive display of the northern lights. The eve of the final battle has a flaming sunset.
  • Succession Crisis: Ambrosius deliberately creates one, because he needs to leave Britain to Artos but can't do it legally. So he kills himself without naming an heir and leaves Artos to reluctantly seize power.
  • Taking the Veil: Guenhumara retires into a nunnery when Bedwyr rejoins Artos. She had hated being confined in one for a single campaign season during her marriage to Artos.
  • Tangled Family Tree: Artos is distantly related to his favourite enemy Cerdic. Cerdic's father Vortigern was a Welsh prince, like Artos and Ambrosius, whose first wife was Ambrosius's aunt.
  • Threesome Subtext: Artos, Guenhumara, and Bedwyr.
  • Three Successful Generations: Aquila, Ambrosius's cavalry commander and the hero of prequel The Lantern Bearers, here has his adult son Flavian, one of Artos's squadron captains, and Flavian's teenage son the Minnow. Aquila dies at Badon Hill, while Flavian falls in the last battle, which Artos sends the Minnow away from with the family ring. Artos's own line is a subversion, since Artos loves and succeeds his uncle and foster-father Ambrosius, but his own son Medraut is his enemy.
  • Triang Relations: Artos and Guenhumara enter into an Arranged Marriage, to his best friend Bedwyr's dismay. Artos falls in love with Guenhumara, but his sexual dysfunction hurts their marriage and Guenhumara blames him for the death of their only child. Years later Guenhumara and Bedwyr fall in love, and Artos repudiates them both. Years later still, Bedwyr leaves Guenhumara behind to rejoin Artos.
    • A platonic, filial version in which Medraut is jealous of Artos's regard for Cerdic son of Vortigern, their enemy kinsman whom Artos would have liked to have as a son.
  • Trope Maker: According to one scholar, the Ur Example of the Bedivere-Lancelot Composite Character:
    "Another interesting feature of Sword at Sunset is the fact that, if compared to other contemporary novels, it also shows the emergence of a new Arthurian tradition: Sutcliff’s elimination of Launcelot, whom she replaces with Bedwyr as the queen’s lover, has been accepted by Mary Stewart, Joan Wolf, Gillian Bradshaw, and others and has thus been included in the recognized catalogue of adaptable features."
    – Nicole Dentzien, The Openess of Myth: The Arthurian Tradition in the Middle Ages and Today
  • Turbulent Priest: Artos clashes with the Church throughout his career over the issue of whether they ought to pony up supplies for protecting their property or whether he ought to defend God for free. Despite this fraught relationship, the Archbishop of Venta is the deciding vote in allowing him to become the war leader and effective king of Britain.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The Battle of Badon is associated with King Arthur and Ambrosius, a Historical-Domain Character, but no one knows the true details.
  • "Well Done, Son!" Guy: Medraut, possibly, but Artos is too suspicious of him to respond to it.
  • Why Are You Not My Son?: Artos's estimation of the relative merits of his enemy Cerdic and his son Medraut is all too apparent.
  • You Are Worth Hell:
    Bedwyr: You fool, Artos! Don't you know that if you were deservedly frying in your Christian's Hell for every sin from broken faith to sodomy, you could count on my buckler to shield your face from the flames?
    Artos: I believe I could. You are almost as great a fool as I.
    • and
    Artos: You would take this stain [of murder] on your soul?
    Bedwyr: Yes. But you must say the word.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Although Artos receives word of the outcome of the final battle, Cerdic's personal fate is never mentioned.
  • Worthy Opponent: Most of them that Artos meets personally, including Cerdic, Huil Son of Caw, and the Anglian negotiator, but especially the Jutish warlord and nation-builder Hengest.
    Artos: He was a Royal Stag. Thank God he is dead.
  • You Have Waited Long Enough: Guenhumara's father Maglaunus had allowed her five years to get over the death of her beloved fiancé in her teens. When Artos arrives, the five years are up, and Maglaunus publicly throws her at Artos's head, to their mutual horror.
  • Your Cheating Heart: Artos says that he'd always resolved not to object if Guenhumara had a lover, because he's impotent. It's the fact that she and Bedwyr cheated on him that he can't bear.

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