The Sword and the Circle
(This review also covers the two sequels, The Light Beyond the Forest and The Road to Camlann.)
These retellings of the Matter of Britain stick closely to the traditional materials; Sutcliff’s source was Malory for the most part, and she deviates from him rarely if at all. The first book covers the prelude material, Arthur’s ascent to the throne, and the individual tales of many of the Knights of the Round Table. The second book tells of the quest for the Holy Grail, and the third includes the events leading up to the battle on the field of Camlann, culminating in the battle itself and its tragic conclusion.
Because she takes her story entirely from traditional tales, the sound moral content of these books is to be credited to the original source material rather than to Sutcliff’s own invention. The familiar stories, while containing a few illicit sexual relationships, show the tragic outcomes of such wrong actions in the divisions, grief, and heartache which they cause. Never preachy, Sutcliff maintains a rather detached perspective toward these unlawful relationships, allowing their consequences to speak for themselves.
The real triumph of this trilogy, as in all of Sutcliff’s books, is the writing itself. Sutcliff molds her prose brilliantly, in a poetic, gorgeous style that fits the content of the books perfectly. Her style is absolutely perfect for legendary material. Through her lyrical prose, she grasps the poetry of the stories and the distance and immediacy of the setting and characters. She perfectly portrays the glory of the legend, the height of the drama, the soaring joy and crushing sorrow, in a consummate retelling of the classic tales.