Knight’s Fee, by Rosemary Sutcliff

May 12, 2012 at 08:38 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , )


The old stories retold are always the best, and just as Sutcliff turned her hand to the magnificent retelling of the legend of Tristan and Iseult, so now she turns to a recasting that is mostly David and Jonathan, and partly Roland and Oliver. Leaving behind her beloved Roman Britain, there is nonetheless a golden thread wending its way from The Eagle of the Ninth, following the emerald ring through Marcus’ family and into the Arthur legend and The Shield Ring; and now, by virtue of a Saxon protagonist being remade amongst the Normans into an Englishman, landing solidly in the Middle Ages.

Almost certainly because of the sudden abundance of historical record from which to draw on, this novel will appeal to the serious historian much more than the fantastical Eagle of the Ninth; its verisimilitude is infinitely more convincing, and there begins to be something recognisably English in her peerless and intimately warm reconstruction of the south of Britain. Probably partly due to this new commitment to historical accuracy, the first few chapters are unfortunately a little dull. Now, Sutcliff has always been an author to take her time in the stories she is telling. Spurning the traditional story arc of equalibrium shattered by crisis quest, followed by failure, followed by success, she tends always to begin with a rambling and intertwined mixture of equalibrium mixed with tragic failure, before beginning on the pith of her story as late as halfway through the book. Almost all of her characters suffer this lingering doom early in their stories: Marcus has his wound, Phaedrus his death sentence, Aquila his slavery, Justin and his cousin their disgrace. Knight’s Fee is much the same, but unlike some of her other books its brevity does call into question the wisdom of lingering so long in the passing of seasons and the building of two young men.

“‘Checkmate, Sir Thiebaut’…’No, only stalemate,’ he said, very, very gently. ‘And I think that one day you shall weep blood for this day’s work, my kennel-bred squire.'”

-Knight’s Fee

In fact, Sutcliff might well be accused here of writing not an adventure novel, but a character study. Certainly Bevis and Randal are two of the strongest and most appealing characters she has written, and her writing has not suffered for an abrupt switch of era. Although shocking twists have never been a trademark of her books, it is a little disappointing that the chapter headings themselves give away so much of the plot, and a discerning reader will avoid them inasmuch as this is possible.

A careful verdict will hardly judge this brief story as among Sutcliff’s best, but it does show her perhaps at her most mature, and is a thrilling look at an era of history that those who tire of King Arthur or terrible Tudors will devour gladly. There is a slight feel of artificial sanitisation about Sutcliff’s Norman writing, but not enough to taint the beauty and fragility of the story. To borrow her style, it is a precious and slight thing, that might be cupped in one’s hands to preserve it. A story that one will look back at the end of with fond nostalgia. Those are the very best kinds of stories.



  1. David said,

    Your own writing has grown more eloquent! I have not yet read Knight’s Fee, though I think my local library has it. I do look forward to exploring Sutcliff’s serious forays into time periods other than Roman Britain. I have recently finished Warrior Scarlet, and was struck more than ever by how she does away with conventional plot arcs and builds everything on her characters. And it works, in its own slow way. I can see why some readers get frustrated with her, expecting Action! and Thrills!, but I wouldn’t have her any other way.

    • J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

      Thank you for those kind words, my fellow Sutcliff devotee. I was forced to wait several weeks for my library to get me this one, so at least somebody somewhere is still appreciating the classics of Miss S. Needless to say, even before I was finished I contrived to find a nice elegant copy for my collection. This one’s a keeper.

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