One of Rosemary Sutcliff’s acclaimed books set in Roman Britain. The Eagle of the Ninth tells the story of a young Roman officer who sets out to discover the truth behind the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion, who marched into the mists of northern Britain and never came back.
Rosemary Sutcliff spent most of her life in a wheelchair, suffering from the wasting Still’s disease. She wrote her first book for children, The Queen’s Story, in 1950 and went on to become a highly respected name in the field of children’s literature. She received an OBE in 1975 and died at the age of 72 in 1992.
The Eagle of the Ninth is a story that plods its way through a beautifully detailed setting.
Rosemary Sutcliff found her inspiration for The Eagle of the Ninth in two real stories of Roman Britain – one, the legendary (and somewhat historically disputed) disappearance of the Ninth Legion after it was sent north of Hadrian’s Wall to battle the Picts in 117 AD; and two, the discovery of a wingless Roman Eagle at an archaelogical dig in Silchester. And so Marcus was created, the son of the leader of the lost Ninth legion – and yet his search for the Eagle doesn’t start until a hundred pages into this book. This story doesn’t revolve around the search for the Eagle, the search is just something that lands in Marcus’ lap and that he undertakes out of a sense of duty. Honestly, there is no clean line through this story, no overarching plot or theme – it wanders without a larger sense of purpose.
Yet at the same time, this book imparts a wonderfully detailed sense of what life was like in Roman times, on both sides of Hadrian’s Wall. From hunts to coming of age rituals, from chariots to weapons, the heart of this book is the vivid way it recreates everyday Roman life on the edge of the Empire. Marcus’s journey into the heart of enemy territory also brings him into contact with Celtic culture, and seeing the Roman take on Celtic ways is fascinating. I can easily understand why this book is called a classic of historical fiction, because it is wonderful to explore this living past Sutcliff has created, and to watch Marcus slowly come to think of Britain as home.
Unfortunately the beautiful detail isn’t enough to overcome the meandering nature of the plot. Aside from some nice action sequences at the beginning and end of this story, by and large this book is very slow. The first half is largely Marcus recuperating from an injury, and the second half is mostly Marcus and Esca wandering around Britain and chatting with the various Celts they encounter. But there is a nice chase sequence at the end.
This story further suffers from a lack of character detail. Marcus is a perfectly fine hero, the honorable soldier who always does what he believes is right, the type of guy who willingly places himself in danger to save the men under his command, but he never really manages to get past the stereotype. There was no individuality to him, and frankly not much emotion at all – even when Marcus was going through major life events, like his career-ending injury, I never got to see the personal side of his trauma, the doubt, the helplessness, the despair. There was just something impersonal about the character.
Similarly Esca, the slave Marcus rescues and who becomes like a brother to Marcus, is another character that never really comes into focus. Esca is a constant, loyal presence, but I never got a sense of his personality, of what he wanted from life, or why he didn’t want to go back to his home after he was freed. Likewise the friendship between Esca and Marcus was never really earned or tested, it’s just a shinning ideal of absolute trust and loyalty that springs into existence full formed, like Athena from Zeus’ head (and yes, I did just make a Greek reference in relation to a Roman story). I was hoping Esca might get more to do once they started wandering across northern Britain, Esca’s native land, but he was never more than a solid bulwark trailing in Marcus’ wake. Overall there was nothing wrong with these characters, as they both ascribed to an old fashioned manly ethos of loyalty and honor, they just weren’t fully realized.
So while the story ends well enough, with a nice happy conclusion, I wish there had been some larger relevance to this story, that the Eagle quest had changed Marcus’ life or taught him something important about life, something to tie it all together. Without that, no matter how fantastic the historical detail, this just isn’t a particularly compelling story and I can understand why it has faded out of prominence over the years. Still, I’m actually far more likely to see the movie adaptation now that I’ve read the book, because as frustrated as I was with the execution of this story, I think there’s a great idea lurking within it that wasn’t fully realized, and I’m hopeful that the movie will do it justice – or at least try.
Still, if you’re a fan of Roman history, this book is a delightfully vivid realization of Roman times – just don’t expect more than that.
Byrt Grade: B
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
First published in 1954, The Eagle Of The Ninth was once to be found in every children’s library in the UK. For the last fifteen or twenty years, however, Rosemary Sutcliff has been somewhat forgotten as the solid, carefully written style of her books has given way to fiction that thrusts itself more brazenly upon its readers.
The Eagle of the Ninth has been hailed as one of the great classics by many people, and its meticulous historical accuracy, engrossing storyline and vivid, realistic characters set it apart from almost all other novels.
The main fault with the book is that as interesting as all these relationships and details are, they are secondary to the main plot of the story. And this does not properly start until page 122 when Marcus hears rumours that the Ninth Legion’s eagle is being worshipped by a tribe beyond Hadrian’s Wall. He and Esca go on a quest to recover the eagle and restore the honour of the Legion and Marcus’ father. It will be interesting to see to what extent the first part of the book is ignored or sidelined in the film version of the story.