Title: The Eagle of the Ninth
Author: Rosemary Sutcliff
Series: No, though it forms a thematic trilogy with The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: Around A.D. 117, the Ninth Legion marched north of Agricola’s Wall to deal with an uprising of Scottish tribesmen and was never seen again. Years later, the commander’s son, Marcus Aquila, decides to venture north to find the lost Eagle standard of his father, taking with him only Esca, the former British slave who has become his friend. The Eagle means Rome, honor, and good faith kept – but in the hands of Rome’s enemies, it could become a powerful weapon.
Reason for Rereading: The release of the film adaptation The Eagle prompted me to return to the book, some of which I’d forgot.
Reason for Finishing: It’s simply a really good story, exceptionally well told.
Story Re-readability: There are reasons this is considered a legitimate classic of both young adult literature and historical fiction in general; reasons I hope to expound below. This was my third read, and I can’t wait until I have a good excuse to return to it again.
Author Re-readability: Sutcliff is one of the very few authors whose books I will buy just on her name alone, as long as I have enough money available and it’s a book I don’t own. Her prose style is so consistently graceful, warm, and personal, that rereading her books feels like reminiscing about shared halcyon days with a fond old friend, and reading a new book by her feels like catching up on the life of a good friend whom you haven’t seen in a long time.
Recommended For: Surely everyone could get something from Sutcliff’s writing, but those who might especially appreciate The Eagle of the Ninth are: history buffs, particularly of Roman and “Dark Age” history, those who love adventure stories, and writers (because anyone who loves words and the good use of words should appreciate Sutcliff’s work)
More information on this title: HistoricalNovels.info
One thing I had forgotten is how clear-minded, honest, and thoughtful is Marcus Flavius Aquila, qualities that are exhibited especially in his tact. Look at how he chooses to confront Guern the Hunter about his past identity. While watching Guern shave in the comfort of the man’s hospitality and family, Marcus’ suspicion is confirmed when he spots a very specific physical detail that outs the Hunter as a Roman. However, he decides not to confront Guern about it while in the middle of the new life Guern has made for himself. It would be rude and awkward to do it in front of his wife and children. Instead, he waits until he, Guern, and Esca are out on the trail to the next village, where they have more privacy and it is more appropriate to discuss painful old secrets. The whole way he approaches the issue, so vital and dangerous as it is, displays his intelligence, sensitivity towards others, and ability to think clearly through difficult situations.
Returning in thought to the The Eagle, I must admit my disappointment at the lack of these traits in Channing Tatum’s portrayal and the way the movie Marcus was written. I said in my review that while Tatum’s portrayal is one-dimensional, it was the right dimension: simple, stoic honor. You cannot have a Marcus without it, this is true, but at the same time the hero of Sutcliff’s novel is so much more than that. He is not a clumsy bruiser, hotheaded and culturally illiterate, as the movie’s portrayal is; rather, he quickly learns a number of Celtic dialects and speaks to tribesmen easily, gaining the respect of all he comes across.
Politically, of course, Marcus is an imperialist, as is to be expected of a Roman Centurion. Rome means civilization and the rule of law over man’s capricious whims. He views the tribes of Britain as savage not because of some belief in their racial inferiority, but because the very wildness and disorganization of their societies that gives them their passion seems also to make their lives harsher and more brutal. He remains faithful to Rome, even while he learns of the negative repercussions of imposing its civilization on others by force. And he does want to learn, for he, like Sutcliff herself, cares about individuals and the ways they find value in their lives. Consider this passage where Marcus and Esca, still master and slave, yet also friends, discuss the differences between their two cultures in terms of art styles on a Roman dagger sheath and a British shield:
‘But these things that Rome had to give, are they not good things?’ Marcus demanded. ‘Justice, and order, and good roads; worth having, surely?’
‘These be all good things,’ Esca agreed. ‘But the price is too high.’
‘The price? Freedom?’
‘Yes—and other things than freedom.’
‘What other things? Tell me, Esca; I want to know. I want to understand.’
Esca thought for a while, staring straight before him. ‘Look at the pattern embossed here on your dagger-sheath,’ he said at last. ‘See, here is a tight curve, and here is another facing the other way to balance it, and here between them is a little round stiff flower; and then it is all repeated here, and here, and here again. It is beautiful, yes, but to me it is as meaningless as an unlit lamp.’
Marcus nodded as the other glanced up at him. ‘Go on.’
Esca took up the shield which had been laid aside at Cottia’s coming. ‘Look now at this shield-boss. See the bulging curves that flow from each other as water flows from water and wind from wind, as the stars turn in the heaven and blown sand drifts into dunes. These are the curves of life; and the man who traced them had in him knowledge of things that your people have lost the key to—if they ever had it.’ He looked up at Marcus again very earnestly. ‘You cannot expect the man who made this shield to live easily under the rule of the man who worked the sheath of this dagger…
‘…We know that your justice is more sure than ours, and when we rise against you, we see our hosts break against the discipline of your troops, as the sea breaks against a rock. And we do not understand, because all these things are of the ordered pattern, and only the free curves of the shield-boss are real to us. We do not understand. And when the time comes that we begin to understand your world, too often we lose the understanding of our own.’ (79-81)
Note Sucliff’s extraordinary ability to build character in a very short span of time through sharp, specific details. Consider also the first time we get to overhear an extended conversation between Marcus and his old Uncle Aquila, at whose villa Marcus lives while he recuperates from his battle wound near the novel’s beginning. Neither the reader nor Marcus knows hardly anything about his uncle until, on a rainy day over a game of draughts, Marcus asks him why he bothered to settle in cold, barbarous Britain rather than in warm, civilized southern Europe. Uncle Aquila explains:
‘What have I to do with the South? A few memories, very few. I was a young man when first I saw the white cliffs of Dubris above the transport galley’s prow. Far more memories in the North…If I settled in the South, I should miss the skies. Ever noticed how changeful British skies are? I have made friends here—a few. The only woman I ever cared a denarius for lies buried at Glevum.’
Marcus looked up quickly. ‘I never knew—‘
‘Why should you? But I was not always old Uncle Aquila with a bald head.’
‘No, of course not. What was—she like?’
‘Very pretty. She was the daughter of my old Camp Commandant, who had a face like a camel, but she was very pretty, with a lot of soft brown hair. Eighteen when she died. I was twenty-two.’
Marcus said nothing. There seemed nothing to say. But Uncle Aquila, seeing the look on his face, gave a deep chuckle. ‘No, you have it all quite wrong. I am a very selfish old man, perfectly well content with things as they are.’ And then, after a pause, he harked back to an earlier point in their discussion. ‘I killed my first boar in Silurian territory; I have sworn the blood brotherhood with a painted tribesman up beyond where Hadrian’s Wall stands now; I’ve a dog buried at Luguvallium—her name was Margarita; I have loved a girl at Glevum; I have marched the Eagles from end to end of Britain in worse weather than this. Those are the things apt to strike a man’s roots for him.’
Marcus said after a moment, ‘I think I begin to understand.’
‘Good. Your move.’ (51-52)
The importance of these passionate memories to Uncle Aquila is clear to the reader, as is his level-headedness and ability to move on with his life. This is a middle-aged man who has reflected on his life and understands it, is comfortable and content with the way things have turned out, in spite of the hardships and tragedies he suffered to get there. It is one of a very few such passages with Uncle Aquila, and yet Sutcliff is able to quickly make this man feel almost like family to us. Remarkable.
For an adventure novel, I was surprised at how gentle its pace is. Nearly half the book takes place in civilized Roman Britain, at the fort of Isca Dumnoniorum and at Uncle Aquila’s villa, before the heroes leave on their quest for the Eagle of the Ninth Legion. Sutcliff uses this time to develop her characters through specific moments, conversations, and themes, and you must believe me when I say that none of it is boring in the least.
The moments she chooses are beautiful, meaningful ones that many of us can relate to. A friend of mine said she fell in love with the book when she realized that Marcus’ feelings of emptiness upon being discharged from the Legions was the same exact feeling she had upon graduating college and leaving the dorm life behind. And, for me, the moment at the Saturnalia Games where Marcus sees a wealthy family bringing a young girl to observe the fights between animals and men and is suddenly furious that they would expose an innocent like her to that violence, even while he does not object to it for adults, that called to my mind theater-going experiences where I’d be furious at the irresponsible parents who brought their toddlers and infants to see The Lord of the Rings, with orcs getting hacked to pieces and fiery demons terrorizing the heroes. Marcus and I share some key values: the importance of innocence in youth, and disgust towards irresponsible parenting.
This being a historical fiction novel, the author has certainly worked her research into the tale. Not in the sense of having the characters meet famous historical figures or taking part in famous battles – she writes that stuff in The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers – but in the little details that make up a person’s everyday life 1,900 years ago. I have not yet met an author who can integrate historical fact into a riveting story as gracefully as Rosemary Sutcliff; although I am quite sure there are others who do equal her in this regard, I am equally sure she should be regarded a master for how effortlessly, and unpretentiously, she does it. There is a part in Chapter 22 “The Whistler in the Dawn” when Marcus and Esca have searched Valentia (the Scottish lowlands) coast to coast in vain, and have no idea where to search next. They decide to flip a coin:
The disc of silver lay in Marcus’ palm, showing the head of Domitian crowned with laurel; a small thing to hold their destinies. ‘Heads we push on, ships we try a cast back,’ Marcus said, and sent the coin spinning into the air. He caught it on the back of his hand, clapping the other over it, and for an instant their eyes met, questioningly. Then Marcus lifted the covering hand and they looked down at the winged victory on the obverse side of the coin, which had been called ‘Ships’ from the days of the Republic, when the design had been the prow of a galley. ‘We turn south again,’ Marcus said. (128)
And that example is one of the less graceful ones, by Sutcliff’s standard. Never does she lecture to the reader – everything you learn flows naturally from the story. Take also this passage, where a Legate explains how the legacy of the lost legion haunts its old fort:
‘Oh, I do not mean that their spirits have wandered back from the fields of Ra, but the place is haunted, none the less. By the altars to Spanish gods that they set up and worshipped at; by their names and numbers idly scratched on walls; by British women whom they loved and children with Spanish faces whom they fathered. All this lying, as it were, like a sediment under the new wine of another Legion. Also they linger strongly, almost terrifyingly, in the minds of the people.’ (106)
This book is very near perfect, for what it is and wants to be. If I have one criticism, it is that on occasion the Romans’ dialogue sounds too much like it comes from young British gentlemen of the early or mid-20th century; at worst (which only happens for less than a handful of lines in the entire book), it can be almost stagy. Marcus calls the girl he loves “my sweet” and “my heart,” and she, though British, gets this line: “Oh, Marcus, I am so glad! So very glad!” Which, while it fits her character, almost pulled me out of the moment because it seemed right from a 1950s family film, rather than something any person would really say. These examples, rather mild by themselves, are only remarkable because they are the only bits of dialogue that don’t sound utterly natural. Throughout the rest of the book, and especially with British and Scottish tribesmen, Sutcliff finds voices for her characters that are timeless, poetic, and specific all at the same time. She does not use archaisms, real or false, but neither does she indulge in overt modernisms. Instead she pays great attention to the ways different cultures might use words, and their diction and sentence structure reflects their worldview. Her Romans are chatty, using small-talk as a way to pass the time until a more proper moment for business comes, while native tribesmen tend to be brief and to the point, though never rude.
Comparison with the film version “The Eagle” (2011)
My comments on the film’s Marcus as portrayed by Channing Tatum are above. The film’s Esca, as played by Jamie Bell, was much closer to the person in the book, but the circumstances of their relationship were changed. In the novel, as I have said, the two become fairly close friends before they start on the quest – in fact, Marcus voluntarily frees Esca before they depart, saying that the quest is too dangerous to force a slave to go on it, and that Esca must choose to come if he wants to. In the film, the moment of Esca’s manumission is reserved until the climax at the end, where Marcus is in danger and Esca demands freedom so that he may run to get help. This, of course, changes everything – Tatum’s Marcus freed Esca only under duress, as a way to save his own life. The film’s end makes it clear that he does approve the decision, but still, it’s a far cry from Marcus’ spontaneous act of grace in the book, which surprises Esca and serves to bind them closer together. The film’s Esca follows Marcus out of an oath of honor, and possibly out of a desire to visit lands that are out of Rome’s reach. Sutcliff’s Esca follows Marcus purely out of free will, bound by no oath, caring only to help his best friend.
Of course, there are many other complexities the film left out. The domesticated wolf Cub and the British girl Cottia, so important to Marcus, have no screen time, as neither do the Egyptian Legate Claudius or the Tribune Placidus. The Seal People are utterly different in both incarnations as well: in the film they are frightening savages, while in the book they are actually quite dignified and civil, if quite serious and hard in nature. Also, the film inexplicably leaves out the entire artifice of Marcus’ oculist disguise, which is utterly crucial to the plot. Without it, Marcus really is a fool to just traipse north with no disguise, traveling from tribe to tribe looking for a Roman Eagle. But the book gives them a well-thought out plan.
The story behind the Eagle’s losing is far more interesting and dramatic in the book as well, compared to the film’s stark simplicity of “The legion marched north, was attacked and slaughtered in the mists, and lost it.” Marcus learns that the real story was far more tricky and depended much more on the personalities at play among the Legion’s commanders.
Everything I said in my review of the film still stands – I do like it, and am glad that it is pointing more people to Sutcliff’s book. I cannot say what Rosemary Sutcliff’s own opinion of the film would be – Anthony Lawton is far more qualified, and he seems content that she would appreciate it for its own merits. I must admit, though, that her story was radically changed for the silver screen, moreso than was necessary. For whatever reason, director Kevin Macdonald was inspired by Sutcliff to tell a story with very different dynamics and a different message. That is fine, and I enjoyed the story he told. But I still hold out hope of one day seeing a true adaptation of Sutcliff’s most excellent tale.
I could fill this page with many more words on the lovely warmth of this book, its status as a near-perfect work of fiction, and its unpretentious beauty. But all would merely be further illustrations of the points I have already made, and that must grow tiresome for you, my reader, who would certainly be better entertained by reading The Eagle of the Ninth itself. I leave you now to that adventure.
It was twilight when they reached the dun on its hill shoulder above the still waters of the loch; the soft mulberry twilight of the west coast, through which the firelit doorways of the living-huts bloomed like yellow crocus flowers dimly veined with red. (155)