Restoring honour

The Eagle of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff has been heralded as one of the most outstanding childrens' books of the twentieth century. I don't however really think that it is a childrens' book - the central characters (with one exception) are young adults rather than children, and although it's a stonkingly good adventure story, many of their pre-occupations are also equally adult. Think of it more as a great novel that will appeal to a wide age-group.

Marcus Flavius Aquila's military career is brought to an abrupt halt when he is seriously injured defending a Roman fort in Isca Dumnoniorum (modern day Exeter). While recovering at his uncle's home in Silchester, he hears a rumour that an eagle from a Roman legionary standard is being worshipped at a remote shrine in northern Britain. In the wrong hands the eagle could lead the northern tribes to revolt with catastrophic results for the Romans in Britain. Marcus and his one-time slave and friend, the Briton, Esca, set off north to recover the eagle. But for Marcus this is more than a heroic quest, it is highly personal, for the eagle belonged to the standard belonging to his father's legion, who had marched north only to disappear into the mists of Britain. Marcus hopes to both recover the eagle and to restore the honour of his father and the legion.

The opening of the book is reminiscent of many an adventure story of the twentieth century. The rising of the tribes reminded me very strongly of novels such as John Masters' Nightrunners of Bengal (published only a few years before The eagle of the Ninth) and Rudyard Kipling's Kim. It's interesting to note that both of these novels revolved around uprisings in India while under British Imperialist rule, and I think that it's no coincidence that Sutcliff evokes similar emotions when portraying a British uprising against Roman rule. Here too, there is the contrast between the brutality of putting down the uprising, and individual acts of humanity on the part of the conquerors.

For a modern day child, or for that matter an adult, reading Eagle, there may be some problems in understanding the background to the novel. Sutcliff was brought up in an educational system where Latin was commonly taught, and a certain amount of knowledge of Roman history and religion was standard. So there's the odd Latin phrase, and snippets of history and religion which may be incomprehensible, or confusing, and are often not really necessary, they're there more for scene-setting - "look, we really are in ancient times". However don't let that put you off, once the main adventure starts - the quest for the eagle - Sutcliff's writing picks up pace, and it's stunningly well written. And there are odd snippets that are truly fascinating - did you know, for example, that the cult of Mithras, beloved by Roman soldiers, may have been the inspiration for the Christmas story.
Eagle is as good an adventure story as you could hope to read with beautiful characterisation of the two principal characters. Perhaps unusually in an adventure novel, there is not a completely happy ending, and Marcus is forced to acknowledge that dreams and reality are not the same thing, so this proves to be not just an adventure story but also a novel with true depth and character.

Eagle of the Ninth was inspired by two unrelated events - the discovery of a wingless eagle (shown above) at Silchester, and the disappearance of the Ninth Hispana Legion en route to Caledonia. Since 1954, when Eagle was first published, Sutcliff's version of events has been disputed, but this doesn't really matter. Eagle is a grand romantic telling of what may possibly have happened, what did happen truly is swallowed in the mists of time. For more information on the background to Eagle see Wikipedia.


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