The Dying of the Light

I am not quite sure when I discovered Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels; it was sometime in my teens. The public library had several copies of Rider on a White Horse, which I thought immediately was the most perfectly evocative historical fiction ever, knocking such lesser lights like Gone With the Wind effortlessly into the shade. Besides, I was a Unionist and an abolitionist; and I thought Scarlett was a spoiled, self-centered brat and Melanie a spineless simpleton and I usually wanted to throw GWTW across the room so hard that it banged against the opposite wall when Margaret Mitchell began complaining about Northern abolitionists. Anyway, the only book that came close to Rider was Sutcliff’s adult Arthurian novel – Sword at Sunset. This was the book that had me taking my poor younger brother and sister to every significant site of Rome in Britain, the summer that we spent there. Here and now I apologize here for dragging them to the remains of Galava Roman Fort, near Ambleside in the Lake District. In 1976 it was on the map, a clear and distinct quadrangle … but when we went to see it then, there was nothing but some shaped rocks edging a grassed-over stretch of ditch in a field full of cows. A thing of less interest could hardly be imagined … but I wanted to see it, anyway, being haunted by the sense that Sutcliff conveyed in Sword at Sunset and in books like Lantern Bearers – that of men and women who were living at the end of things, among the half-crumbled ruins of a great and dying empire, wistfully seeing all the evidence around that things had been better, greater, grander once, and now they weren’t – and wishing there was something that could be done to call those days back again.

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