sword at sunset: study guide

1st assignment

As Sword at Sunset opens, Arthur lies wounded at Glastonbury following the fatal battle with Mordred (here, Medraut). The following worksheet will help you focus on references to Celtic mythology and Geoffrey of Monmouth's History, which will aid in your understanding of the novel.

Celtic mythology forms a subtle but profound backdrop for the novel. The following story is particularly important:

The Silver Tree (and Silver Branch)

There is an otherworldly land called the Mysterious Isle, Emain, the Land of Women, etc. where a Silver Tree grows. On the tree are singing birds (The birds of Rhiannon-see below) From this tree, sometimes a Silver Branch is taken and used by a fairy/faery/fay to lure a hero to the enchanted place. Once there, it is hard for a mortal to return because everything is perfect (no sin or sorrow, good food, etc.) The hero will likely forget his original home or purpose in life.

The Silver Tree often is an apple tree, and apples in these stories have magical effects. Avalon, known in Geoffrey of Monmouth's History as the Island of Apples, may be another version of the enchanted Celtic land. (The world "Avalon" is probably derived from the Celtic word for apple--"afal" in Welsh.)

Celtic harpers carried a branch, betokening the Silver Branch, from which bells hung, representing the birds on the Silver Tree. The ringing of the bells would announce the harper's coming. The implication is that the harper's songs cast a spell of timelessness like that to be found on the island. Those "enchanted" by the song are carried away in imagination to the Mysterious Isle.

1. Quote references to this Celtic myth.









Rhiannon was a beautiful Fairy Queen in Welsh myth whose father insisted that she marry someone (Gwawl) she did not love. As Pwyll, King of southern Wales, sat on a magic mound of visions, Rhiannon appeared to him riding a white horse. Pwyll helped her escape this marriage and marry him. She and Pwyll reign as Queen and King of the enchanted otherworld. Rhiannon’s birds sing on the Silver Tree.

2. Quote a reference to the birds of Rhiannon.





Geoffrey of Monmouth

The following characters from Geoffrey of Monmouth appear in Sword at Sunset. Briefly

identify who they are in Geoffrey's History. Then identify by page number where

they appear in Sutcliff's novel (one page is enough when references recur).

3. Maximus (Maximiamus):

Identity in Geoffrey of Monmouth:


Page in Sword at Sunset:

4. Ambrosius Aurelius:

Identity in Geoffrey of Monmouth:


Page in Sword at Sunset:

5. Hengist:

Identity in Geoffrey of Monmouth:


Page in Sword at Sunset:

6. Constantine:

Identity in Geoffrey of Monmouth:


Page in Sword at Sunset:

7. Octa:

Identity in Geoffrey of Monmouth:


Page in Sword at Sunset:

8. What is Ygerna's reason for seducing Artos?





9. What is the content of the song which Bedwyr sings for the group seated around the fire at the horse fairs of Narbo Martius?






10. What premonitions of doom or foreboding surround Bedwyr ?


sword at sunset: study guide

2nd assignment

The British legend of the Hollow Hills and the Little People or Little Dark People also figures prominently in the novel. The Little People, a dark complexioned, fairy/faery-like race, were believed to be the aboriginal inhabitants of the island. They lived in the Hollow Hills but were rarely seen, appearing only occasionally to everyday folk, and then with an air of mystery and possibly ill will.

1. Where do these people show up in Sword at Sunset? (Name 2-3)





More characters from Geoffrey of Monmouth's History appear in this assignment. Identify the following from Monmouth and tell where they appear in SS:

2. Hengest:

Identity in Geoffrey of Monmouth:


Page in Sword at Sunset:


3. Rowen (Rowena):

Identity in Geoffrey of Monmouth:


Page in Sword at Sunset:

4. Cerdic:

Identity in Geoffrey of Monmouth:

Which one do you think Sutcliff has in mind?

Page in Sword at Sunset:

5. Vortigern:

Identity in Geoffrey of Monmouth:


Page in Sword at Sunset:

6. What personal feelings color Artos' reaction to Cerdic?



In ancient British legend, the Horned One is a ritualistic character who demonstrates the correspondence between the King of the realm and the Stag King. His death (real or symbolic) was a sacrifice to insure the renewed fertility of the land and people. The Midsummer Fires (Beltane Fires) also symbolized the annual renewal of field, livestock, and people.

7. Where do references to these customs appear in Sword at Sunset?




8. How does Malory's story of Guenever's dowry come into Sword at Sunset?





sword at sunset: study guide

3rd assignment


1. How does the story of Gault and Levin illustrate the heroic qualities which make Artos' brotherhood strong. Speak of each man individually. (Levin's moment of heroism comes quite a bit later.)








2. Sutcliff bases the failure of Artos and Guenhumara's marriage on several problems. List what you see to be the 3 most important ones, looking at events throughout the readings thus far.













3. Why would the Old Woman not let Druim Dhu bring word to the starving companions at Trimontium that help was on the way? Why did she say "there were taller crops than mouse grass"?






4. Why does Guenhumara hold against Artos his decision to leave her in the Hollow Hills immediately following the birth of her baby?






5. Why is the timing of Medraut's arrival ironic?


sword at sunset: study guide

for last assignment

The Welsh monk Nennius (Historia Brittonum, circa 830) relates the story of Arthur’s dog, Cafall:

In the district which is called Buellt there is another marvel. There is a pile of stones there, and one stone with the footprint of a dog on it placed on top of the heap. When he hunted the boar Trwyd, Cafall—who was the dog of the warrior Arthur—imprinted the mark of his foot on it; and Arthur afterwards assembled a heap of stones under the stone on which was the footprint of his dog, and it is called Carn Gafall. And people come and carry away the stone in their hands for a period of a day and a night, and on the following day it is found on top of the heap.

1. In Sword at Sunset, how does Cabal prove a hero?




Nennius also speaks of Arthur’s twelve battles as follows:

Then Arthur fought against them in those days with the kings of the Britons, but he himself was leader of battles [dux bellorum]. The first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. The second and third and fourth and fifth upon another river which is called Dubglas and is in the district Linnuis. The sixth battle upon the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the Caledonian wood, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was in Fort Guinnion in which Arthur carried the image of St. Mary, ever virgin, on his shoulders and the pagans were turned to flight that day and a great slaughter was upon them through the virtue of Our Lord Jesus Christ and through the virtue of St. Mary the Virgin, his mother. The ninth battle was waged on the shore of the river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle took place on the mountain which is called Agned. The twlefth battle was on Mount Badon, in which nine hundred and sixty men fell in one day from one charge by Arthur, and no one overthrew them except himself alone. And in all the battles he stood forth as victor.

Entries in the Annales Cambriae report for the year 518:

The battle of Badon in which Arthur carried the cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights and the Britons were victors.

2. How does Sutcliff adapt these descriptions of the Christian symbolism used by Arthur in battle at Badon Hill?








3. What arouses Medraut's jealousy in the Briton-Saxon peace meeting at Londinium following the Battle of Mount Badon?








4. How does the behavior of Maelgwn's eagle deepen the impact of the scene in which Arthur learns of his betrayal by Medraut?







Of whom might the eagle be symbolic and how?








5. How does Sutcliff adapt Malory's version of the fate of Arthur's sword? Explain what happens in Sutcliff's version and why.