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.
Rosemary Sutcliff, CBE (1920-1992) was a British novelist, best known as a writer of highly acclaimed historical fiction. Although primarily a children's author, the quality and depth of her writing also appeals to adults. She once commented that she wrote "for children of all ages, from nine to ninety."
Born in West Clandon, Surrey, Sutcliff spent her early youth in Malta and other naval bases where her father was stationed as a naval officer. She contracted Still's Disease when she was very young and was confined to a wheelchair for most of her life. Due to her chronic sickness, she spent the majority of her time with her mother, a tireless storyteller, from whom she learned many of the Celtic and Saxon legends that she would later expand into works of historical fiction. Her early schooling being continually interrupted by moving house and her disabling condition, Sutcliff didn't learn to read until she was nine, and left school at fourteen to enter the Bideford Art School, which she attended for three years, graduating from the General Art Course. She then worked as a painter of miniatures.
Rosemary Sutcliff began her career as a writer in 1950 with The Chronicles of Robin Hood. She found her voice when she wrote The Eagle of the Ninth in 1954. In 1959, she won the Carnegie Medal for The Lantern Bearers and was runner-up in 1972 with Tristan and Iseult. In 1974 she was highly commended for the Hans Christian Andersen Award. Her The Mark of the Horse Lord won the first Phoenix Award in 1985.
Sutcliff lived for many years in Walberton near Arundel, Sussex. In 1975 she was appointed OBE for services to Children's Literature and promoted to CBE in 1992. She wrote incessantly throughout her life, and was still writing on the morning of her death. She never married.
As a lifetime Aspie, being allocated to the A-Stream academic program after grade school was nothing short of a highly-unheard-of miracle!
So, my freshman year of high school - Grade 9 in Canuck lingo - was an Utter Drudge for me (my review of that YA Sleeper, Truly Madly Awkward, will tell you more details about that)! Why? First of all, it was tough...
I'll get to more of that in a few minutes...
But for now, I'll tell you Mr. Bonspiel's Junior Band practice sucked BIG TIME. That's because Bonny (aka Hank to us little nerds) told me - poor spoiled Me - that I couldn't play trumpet like our in-crowd ringleaders!
"Your lips are too FET!" he barked at me with his Teutonic accent. Whata Storm Trooper, I confided to myself. "You now play TUBA!" he yelled, as I seeped into the very Floor before the giggles of the cute teen coeds.
How would you have felt?
That night I told Mom. "Well, I FORBID you to play Tuba. Tell your Mr. 'Bonspiel' THAT!" AH, the happy whiz of machine-gun crossfire.
So the next day I proudly told Mr. Bonspiel what my Mom had said...
"VUT?" Bonspiel fairly shouted at me ( I was by now reduced to a Mere Fet Blob of a kid). "Your MOTHER says THAT???" This time the Whole Class exploded hysterically.
So now, it wasn't just Machine Guns. It was Artillery Shrapnel too.
My new friend David consoled me at lunch hour - he bought an Ice Cream Drumstick, and I an Ice Cream Sandwich (really piliing on the Blubber now, I thought, and turned red).
I blushed easy in Grade Nine. I told you I am an Aspie.
This time it was because David's father, DOCTOR David, was the most prestigious scientist at my Dad's Research Institute. And David Jr. was FRIENDING big fet me! I blushed again...
And my Dad? Where was HE now?
Far, far away.
That was the Root Cause of my Blue Drudge.
And now, it was only me (and a rapidly capitulating Mom) against Herr Bonspiel. So I GLADLY accepted David's friendship.
And so my first home room clique was formed. Me on piano, David, Bill the Trombone Player, little short-sighted Ron the clarinetist, and Bill the TRUMPET Player.
Facing Off versus the gigglers, but backed up all together in a cozy corner of the lunch room!
And the Eagle of the Ninth?
Well, to understand where I'm coming from, you've gotta know that a Big Blue Adolescent Drudge can just about WRECK all your high school years. Remember J. Alfred Prufrock?
That was ME.
And my Sleepy Yellow Fog of a Drudge tailed me right thru into senior year.
THEN my Dad (now long returned from sabbatical) wrote up an account of an Act of Creation in Vitro for me to use in an essay.
When the teacher expressed her admiration, I was suddenly an Untouchable Rock Star in senior biology class (thanks, Dad)! My 'own' essay, Biogenesis, gave me a modicum of respect among even my well-heeled peers.
AND that scam was the first flimsy Domino that caused the Whole Pack of my Mental Dominoes to collapse, Three Years Later.
But that's another story...
And what about The Eagle of the Ninth? That's what all this is supposed to be all about!!!
Well, the Eagle was the first symptom of my lifetime sporadically desultory reading habits. A first victim of the High School Drudge, bereft of my Dad...
THAT was the Trauma that charted the course of my long, crazy life. The Beginning of the End for big fet me!
Cause I never even finished this book.
But NOW, having read my Old friend Dan Lutt's SUPERB summary in his review on this page, I know he can tell you more than I now know.
I say NOW - because I'm about to start it again.
His review is THAT tantalizing! So read it...
And when I do, I PROMISE you there Won't be another review from big fet me.
At the age of eight, I read Eagle of the Ninth, my first encounter with historical fiction. I became hooked. Since then, I have been read Nigel Tranter, John Prebble, Conn Igguden, Simon Scarrow, Ruth Downie, and many others.
Forty-four years later, re-reading this classic is no less exciting for me. My view is that it should be compulsory reading in primary school as it really does bring Roman Britain to life. It is an exciting adventure that could possibly have been reality. It is certainly tinged with historic fact.
This book had an amazing positive effect on my life in that it gave me an enormous appetite for books, not just historical fiction. However, it did have a slightly negative effect on my life. I was always in trouble with my history teachers for doubting what they told me. After all, when they were teaching me current affairs, I was guided not to believe everything that the papers say. My challenge was always that the contemporary commentators, or historians, that they expected me to believe were no less than the journalists of their time. Why couldn't the historical fiction of which I was so fond be nearer to the truth than their history text books?
Eagle of the Ninth is a fantastic read. Whatever your age, if you haven't read this book already, read it now!
I read The Eagle of the Ninth in high school but intend to revisit it fairly soon. It helped cement my fondness for well researched, well written historical fiction. This novel set many people on that path, including some who became authors themselves. This is just one of Rosemary Sutcliff's great novels. She wrote this particular novel as juvenile fiction but it is such a masterful work that it appeals across age lines.
Just finished rereading The Eagle of the Ninth for the first time since high school. The book is even better than I remembered it. I shouldn't have waited so long for a second reading.
It's so weird. When I read The Shield Ring, my first Sutcliff book, a few weeks ago, I had the exact same experience. I was reading along merrily, enjoying myself greatly, thinking "wow this is a really solid, fun story," until just about the next-to-last chapter . . . and then, out of the blue, stuff happened. And I was crying. Like, a lot.
Dang it, woman. What are these emotions you're trying to give me??? I am the Girl Who Does Not Cry Over Books; you're ruining my reputation. :-P
Things I loved:
- All the characters, really. Specifically: - Marcus. Dear, proud, outwardly stiff, inwardly soft-as-custard Marcus. He was a wonderful hero, and I loved following his quest to restore his father's lost Eagle. And to do ALL THAT on a lame leg?? #respect #let'shearitfortheboy - Esca. HE LIKES PUPPIES. 'Nuff said. - Esca and Marcus, turning ever-so-slowly from master and slave to best friends. It was done realistically, I thought; and I liked how even afterwards, little sparks of distrust would flare up from time to time. Neither man would be human, if that were not so. But I loved even more how Marcus would summarily snuff out those sparks by getting in Esca's face and yelling something along the lines of "You're important to me and I care about your welfare, you numbskull!" and then they'd be OK again. Ah, men . . . :-P - Cottia. My sweet little spitfire with the candle-flame of red hair. I missed her on every page she didn't appear. That's how vibrant a character she was. - Marcus and Cottia (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) - Uncle Aquila. He was rather a dear, although crusty--and it's not hard to see where Marcus comes by his Stiff Cold Mask ;-) - Guern the Hunter . . . *tears falling*
- The plot. Quest stories are always fun; and this one was infused with so much nostalgia, so much wistfulness, so much dreaminess, really, that it captivated me utterly. Marcus is a dreamer, first and foremost. Much as he would hate to hear me say this--he's a hopeless romantic. He believes so strongly in the power of a SYMBOL, the lost Eagle of his father's dead Legion, that he's willing to risk his life about nine hundred (9-0-0) times in quick succession in order to get it back. It's incredible. It's insane. And I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
- The descriptions. Now, I'm gonna be honest here, I didn't love them quite as much as Sutcliff's descriptions in The Shield Ring, but they were still excellent quality. I'm basically writing down my slightly-lessened enjoyment to the fact that Sutcliff is working to create a different visual ATMOSPHERE in this story than in the other book--a Roman atmosphere, rather than a Viking one--and I simply like the Viking aesthetic a bit better. ;-) The imagery in TSR has this very delicate, very ethereal quality, at the same time as it's all harsh and steely gray and iron-bound. That's my jam. Whereas here, in EOTN, it's all about clarity; the contrasts between light and darkness, and the blood-red of sunsets and roses and wine and military cloaks. 'Tis beautiful; but it doesn't 100% suit me. (I have no Roman blood, in case you were wondering. :-P)
- The themes. - Oh dear. There were SO MANY OF THEM, PEOPLE. So many good ones. Symbols matter. Ideas matter. The past is a weight we always carry with us--and yet, by the same token, it's not something we can conjure up at a simple command, to recreate exactly as we'd wish it to be. The past does not exist to serve us. But, neither should we allow it to own us. - And, perhaps most poignant: No one, whatever they've done, or whatever they've suffered, can ever be written off as a "failure." Ever.
WHICH IS WHY I CRIED SO HARD AT THE END. CURSE YOU, EVIL AUTHOR.
"It was my Eagle once."
- Finally, can I just say I adore the whole Dolphin Ring subplot???? I can't wait to see where it shows up in the next book. I can't wait to see what Marcus builds with his new future, and where it leads, for the generations to come. <3
Content: Battles happen, and bloody wounds happen, and primitive operations; but none of these are terribly graphic. (This is old-fashioned kids' fiction, after all.) There is a veryyyyyyyyyyyyyy light romance. No language, unless you count Marcus saying stuff about his gods whenever he's Put Out. :-P
Conclusion: Where is the next book, that I may read it?!?
For many years, Rosemary Sutcliff has been one of my favorite authors . . . and she always will be. It had been a long time since I had read this book, and I decided it was high time to rediscover it. It was even better than I had remembered. Meet Marcus, a young soldier who’s career and future seem dashed after a courageous defense cripples him for life. But Marcus is one of a rare breed, he possess a raw, white courage, a grim determination, that forces him to press on. Despite all odds, and take up a new dream: venture into the wild north to find a lost standard and clear his father’s name. With him comes his best friend, and former slave, Esca.
Marcus and Esca’s relationship is, in my mind, one of the definitive buddy stories and one I will never tire of reading. On top of that, we have Cottia and Marcus, a relationship that moves beautifully from a sibling-like comradeship to something quite romantic. Then we have Uncle Aquila, the proverbial writer and a gruff old bachelor who has more charm than he’d like to admit. There are other side characters, all of them colorful and unforgettable—and they are merely the finely painted details of a magnificent and epic adventure supported by the roots of Sutcliff’s superb writing. Sutcliff is a storyteller without parallel, and The Eagle of the Ninth is one of her greatest works.
The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff is so much more than the usual riveting adventure story - though it is most definitely that. It's deep in thought and emotion, vibrantly vivid in character and setting, and rich with living history and with truths about life and people. This story of the journey and quest of two young men holds much meaning for me, even more now than it did when I first read and loved it as a young teenager. I couldn't have known then that my future life experience would be, in some ways, oddly similar to that of the main character. Rather than being an overview of the book itself, my review is a chronicle of my ever deeper connection with this story and its characters. __________
I first came across The Eagle of the Ninth by chance the spring I was 15 years old, and once I picked it up, I couldn't stop reading. I fell immediately and irrevocably in love with the book, its characters, its sequels, and the setting of Roman Britain. It was my first experience with the author, and it was one of the most memorable reading experiences I've ever had. I vividly recall sitting on the floor glued to the book, heedless of the homework I was supposed to be doing and only half aware of the fresh breeze blowing through my window. I was drawn in by both the opening battle scenes and the bright, peaceful magic of the friendship scenes in the garden. The characters were more vivid and alive than almost any book I'd read, and I've been endeared to them ever since then. The book was incredibly deep, and it made me think and feel so much even then. I was riveted through the heightened danger of the climax, desperate to find out what happened next. My heart was in my throat, and I genuinely couldn't see how the two main characters would ever survive the showdown - I had to keep reading. Except for one other book, I think it was the most intense novel I'd read at the time. I loved it. I couldn't read the sequel soon enough, and I immediately became a devoted fan of the author and her works. __________
I read The Eagle of the Ninth for the second time less than two years after the first. As much as I loved the book the first time, I experienced a far deeper connection with it during my re-read, and I deeply identified with the main character in an unexpected way I couldn't have anticipated or shared in before.
That second read came at age 17, just after the onset of a life-altering chronic illness that shattered my big dreams, destroyed my hopes of the future, and left me fighting my way through each day.
To my surprise, since I hadn't thought of the book in that way before, I found in the pages of The Eagle of the Ninth that the young protagonist, Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, shared my experience. Marcus's life-altering illness was a severe career-ending wound sustained in battle, not the type of illness I had, but it was comparable and had a strangely similar effect on him as my condition did for me, despite obvious differences. His glowing hopes and dreams for the future, like mine, were dashed to bits. He was bedridden, and, like me, he spent hours forced to lie in bed watching the block of sunlight drift across the walls and listening to the sounds of household life go on beyond them. I had felt and still felt the inner ache Marcus felt lying in that bed, and I recognized it as I read. I felt it again while reading, both for myself and for Marcus, whose plight I keenly felt and empathized with - not just as a reader but as someone who had been through it too, and at very nearly the same age.
Like me, Marcus spent much of his time lying there cut off from the world, isolated, and alone. Like me, he faced the inner battle that accompanied the long days in bed and long nights of lost sleep. Like me, he was deeply, achingly lonely. Like me, he was deeply afraid - afraid for his health and afraid for his future, though he did a good job of hiding it from others. Like me, he held on to his hopes for the future even though they were impossible . . . until the news and reality hit that those hopes could never be restored . . . and, along with that realization, despair as he let his hopes go. Like me, Marcus felt as if his life was effectively over before it had hardly begun - because how could life keep going after what happened? He had been young and strong and had a full, bright, and meaningful life ahead of him - until he wasn't and didn't. Though he survived, he was left bedridden and crippled, seemingly doomed to live out his days that way.
As I watched Marcus lying there in bed, his story seemed strangely parallel in some ways, though of course not all, to my own life as I lay in bed reading this book, and I'm pretty sure I remember that it made me cry to realize it. I had never before read a book about any character, much less a young hero, who spent more time flat on his back in bed than I did!
In addition - though I can't recall whether I knew or remembered it at the time - the author, Rosemary Sutcliff, was an invalid as well, to a vastly greater extent than either me or Marcus, who were only partial and temporary invalids. Sutcliff battled juvenile rheumatoid arthritis from childhood, spent her formative years bed-bound at home or in the hospital, and was wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. I can't help but imagine that Marcus's experience was born from her own, and it was written as only someone who has lived it can. Reading that part of Marcus's story was comforting for me as well as sad and painful, and I felt a kinship with Marcus and other young people in the real world who have had that experience, including so many who have had it far, far worse than me. I've read very few novels since then about young people who were ill for long periods, and none prior to it, and I'm grateful that Sutcliff wrote this book for other young individuals like me and herself.
This newfound, meaningful connection gave me an extra fondness for the book and its author and main character. I didn't realize then how meaningful it truly was or realize the rest of the similarities between me and Marcus - but I would later on as my future unfolded. __________
I began reading this beloved book again this month, for the first time in a few years, and as I reconnected with the story and its beloved protagonist once again, I recalled again that special parallel between me and Marcus, even more keenly than I periodically had through the years between now and the last time I read it. And as I did so, I was suddenly hit with the realization that the connection, parallels, and similarities between Marcus, me, and our journeys were far greater than I had previously supposed. And it made me cry to contemplate it. Because his story didn't end with him lying in bed wounded. That was only the beginning, even if it seemed to him like the end of his story and the effective end of his life.
Like me, Marcus lay in bed unable to get up and struggled to find the strength to keep fighting and going on. But like me, he did keep fighting and did go on. His dreams and goals seemed impossible and hopeless, but instead of resigning himself never to pursue them, he kept striving toward them. He could never be a soldier again, but he found other, more important dreams to pursue. Even those dreams seemed impossible - and would've been for a less determined man. But though so many people scorned his goal as unattainable and impossible, he pursued it anyway against all odds.
That's what I'm doing. Life does go on even when it seems too difficult. It gets easier. Like Marcus, I'm healing from that illness. But like his, it hasn't gone away, even though it's greatly improved, and sometimes it gets worse again, as his did. However, both of us have gone on anyway and refused to let it stop us. Marcus was left as a lame man, doomed to walk with a limp and feel pain for the rest of his life. But he walked again and lived a meaningful life despite injury and hardship. And he pursued his "impossible" dreams - which remained despite their revision. The young man who at first couldn't walk and could later walk only with difficulty went on his noble and perilous quest anyway, tramping through the wilderness, lame leg and all, in search of the dream he carried from the start.
And I'm doing the same. I'm crippled in a way, but I haven't halted even though going on is still difficult. Like Marcus, I'm healing in spirit and heart as well as in body. Like him, I'm walking ahead on a long, hard road with many obstacles in the way of my journey. But like Marcus, I'm forging ahead toward my revised dreams anyway, against all odds. And like him, I believe I'll reach my goal, even if it still looks impossible - and should still be. Marcus pursued his dream relentlessly, and it paid off as a direct result of that determined pursuit. He refused to settle for a mediocre life. And although it looked different than he expected in the end, his dream was restored when it should have remained dead. He reached his goal against all odds, when he should logically have failed. And as I follow in his footsteps, figurative limp and all, so will I.
Until I read this book again just now, I had forgotten the unexpected words Marcus says to Esca near the end, if I ever noticed them. They didn't mean to me before what they mean now, and they struck me like they hadn't before, piercing straight to my heart. Just after the two characters return from their journey, Marcus has finally found inner freedom from the inner and outer scars of his crippling wound, even though those scars still remain. Esca is still inwardly living in the shadow of past slavery, and Marcus hurts to see it and urges him to let it go. Marcus tells Esca that neither of them can let their scars define them. They can't live their lives under the shadow of the deep wounds of the past. They must forge on as free men, not living as slaves to the hurts they went through. Those words of truth are for me as much as for Marcus and Esca, and they help me and mean the world to me, as I'm sure they have for many others. Hearing that message from a character I look up to - and through Marcus, his author - helps me as I strive to do just that. Like Marcus, I refuse to let those things define me. Like him, I'm pressing on in freedom and overcoming my own obstacles, striving toward my dreams. Right now, I'm at the place Marcus was in at the beginning of the final chapter of The Eagle of the Ninth. I've gone on to finish with difficulty the next goal ahead of me. And now that I have, I'm once again face to face with the unknown future that's been in the background this whole time. I'm still striving toward my lofty goal, and I believe I'll reach it one day, but as of now, it's still impossible. I'm waiting indefinitely for a breakthrough to make those things possible. And I believe that my breakthrough will come just as Marcus's did.
Someday several years from now, when I reach the goals that are so close to my heart, I will re-read The Eagle of the Ninth again, and identify with Marcus yet more, because I'll be in the place he was in at the very end of the book, when all his most precious dreams come to fruition. I know I'll get there just as he did. And as it was for him, it will be a sweet and joyful day. __________
The above narrative captures just a small part of why I love The Eagle of the Ninth and what it means to me. It is a phenomenal book in every way, and there are so many reasons why. Here are just a few of many other things I appreciate about this book:
-As with every Sutcliff book, the settings and characters of The Eagle of the Ninth pulse with life and color. Each character is described in just enough detail to bring him or her vividly to life, and each one feels like a real person the reader is acquainted with. The settings are achingly gorgeous - the high, mist-crowned mountain crags, the rushing breeze and golden sunshine on the green of the garden, the shimmering ripples of the highland lochs, the foam-white sprays of blossoms on branches, the deep gold of the lamplight on the walls, and the scarlet and purple sunset shining on the hills. Each place is so immediate and real that I feel as if I can smell, feel, see, and taste each living detail, and the beauty fills my heart to the point of bursting. -Marcus. He's such a wonderful character, and though I love so many of the others in this book, he's my favorite. Marcus kind, compassionate, caring, sympathetic, and understanding. He is full of character, wisdom, maturity, skill, valiance, and keen instinct, yet he's young and doubts his own abilities – and he's not perfect by any means. He has such strength of character and leadership that his soldiers and his friends would follow him anywhere - and they prove it by doing so. I find it endearing that he becomes stiffly proud and arrogant when he feels vulnerable and uncomfortable - yet is truly humble underneath and in reality. He's a stickler for honor, but he cares far more about the honor of his empire and especially his father than about his own honor. He's not aware of his own humility, and the story is from his perspective, so it's never stated in the narrative; rather, his deep, unassuming humility shows in his words and actions. He is stubborn, determined, and immovable, pursuing his cause and what's right no matter what, refusing to give up no matter the odds. And it pays off when he overcomes the worst odds, going to great lengths for the eagle and refusing to settle for life as an invalid. He is unflinchingly, selflessly, coolly, recklessly, purposefully, and sacrificially brave. Even and especially when he's terrified, he is still strong and courageous, even when it means facing down and enduring death or excruciating pain. -As for the other characters, I could go on and on about them too, especially Cottia and Esca. But I shall be brief. I love Cottia's queenlike poise and grace and the fierce and fiery spirit that matches her flaming hair and causes Marcus to call her, "You little vixen!" more than once. I love Esca's loyalty to Marcus, his courage that is every bit as great as Marcus's own, his slow, grave smile, his fighting spirit, and the wildness about him that can never be fully tamed. I love Uncle Aquila and the way he cares about and advocates for Marcus and the others while pretending to be grumpy - while all the while his big heart shines through from beneath. I love Cub's refusal to be parted from Marcus, his wild, exuberant joy each time he is reunited with his young master, and the way he comforts and stands by Marcus when he needs it most. And I love how even the minor characters are interesting, complex, and often endearing. I appreciate Centurion Drusillus, Guern the Hunter, and Marcus's father, who are wonderful even though they have less time on the page. Even Marcus's enemies are almost likeable, and even Aunt Valeria is bursting with personality. -One of my favorite things about this book is the portrayal of friendships. Marcus is lonely, desolate, and friendless for part of the book, but in a sequence of providential events, he gains three close and loyal friends who are each totally devoted to him in their own way. With Esca, Marcus shares a deep and brotherly bond that motivates Esca to let down his guard, care for Marcus, and walk into unimaginable danger and threat of death alongside his friend. Instead of the bondage of a slave following his master, Esca follows Marcus as a devoted friend, even when he's free to do otherwise. As for Cottia, I love her friendship with Marcus as well, more than I can put into words. I love how Marcus understands her, fights for her, laughs with her, and takes care of her - and how Cottia supports him, brightens his dim world, and waits many months for his return, among so much else. Then, there's Cub - as faithful a canine friend as any man could wish for, with devotion and loyalty equal to Esca's. The four of them bring light and laughter to each other's worlds. Marcus reaches out to each of them in turn and earns each of their loyalty. He helps them when they need it most, and in return, they help him when he himself is most in need. What I love most about each friendship is how each of the three chooses Marcus when they could leave and be parted from him – and none of the three can imagine or bear the thought of parting. They each separately choose to follow him, be united with him, and remain devoted to him when they have a choice between that and the alternative, and that's beautiful to me. -The story has a surprisingly large amount of wit and humor, and it made me laugh out loud often. Marcus's narration is often sarcastic, ironic, or hilariously biting, especially his mental commentary on other people - and he laughs at himself as well. The banter and clever dialogue the characters exchange is humorous and delightful, and even in the midst of danger, the characters exchange light or grim jokes. And the comical portrayal of Marcus's alias, Demetrius of Alexandria, had me laughing throughout one funny scene. -The themes are beautiful and profound, worked subtly, naturally, and meaningfully throughout with the skilled hand of a true master - as is the case with everything about Sutcliff's works. Among the deep themes are sacrifice, loyalty, leadership, hope, healing; honor and shame; courage and fear; freedom and bondage; and life and death. -I'm amazed at how Sutcliff portrays each character sympathetically and with complexity – human and not either black or white, as real people are. Even each Marcus's enemies were also friends first. And a few of the good characters aren't totally good. But as each of us must in the real world, the main characters still pursue what they believe is right, and I love that. Sutcliff also truthfully portrays warring cultures as neither good nor evil – even though they may technically be enemies, there are friendships across the barriers of culture. I love that Marcus learns to see other characters as people, not on the basis of nationality or other difference between them – and that he's willing to learn it. Even though his allegiance is to Rome, he grows to understand the British culture – and he eventually transfers his home and allegiance to Roman Britain. -And of course I could go on and on. __________
The Eagle of the Ninth is an amazing book, and it's a lasting favorite of mine for good reason. It will always remain one of the best books I've ever read, and it only grows more wonderful to me as time goes on. It's also stood the test of time through many decades with readers who have gone before me, and I know it will always remain a classic by way of its great quality. You're missing out if you haven't read it, so go read it if you haven't! It's a wonderful read for anyone who loves young adult adventure or historical fiction – and is just as good if you don't. And if you have read it before or are a fan, I hope you'll appreciate it more or be motivated to read it again.
As for me, I look forward to re-reading The Eagle of the Ninth again and again and seeing it even more deeply each time – along with my own life and self as a result. As I've dug deeper into the book this time, I know I've by no means exhausted the truth, heart, and meaning it contains for me personally and in general, and I look forward to discovering yet more when I read it yet again someday.
In 117 AD/CE, the Ninth Legion of the Roman Army marched into the mists of Caledonia (the land known today as Scotland). They were never seen again.
The standard-bearer of the Legio IX Hispana, who held aloft the golden eagle as they marched, was the father of our hero, Marcus Flavius Aquila. Marcus was a lad of twelve years when his father vanished. Now a young adult eager to prove his mettle, Marcus himself serves as a Roman officer in Britain.
He is discharged after a grievous battle wound that gives him a slight limp. While recuperating in the house of his uncle, Marcus has nothing but downtime in which to ponder the fate of his father and the standard he carried into the Caledonian mists.
He also forms three fast friendships. The first is with Esca, a young Briton whom Marcus purchased as a manservant-slave to save him from the gladiator fights. The second is with an orphaned wolf cub, named simply Cub, whom Esca adopted when on a hunting excursion that killed Cub’s mother. The third is with Cottia, a British girl being (unwillingly) raised as a Roman by the family next door.
When he has sufficiently recovered, Marcus, accompanied only by Esca, decides to go north, beyond the wall of Britannia, and follow the trail of the Ninth Legion into Celtic lands unknown. His intent: to bring back the Eagle, and restore the honor of his father’s Legion.
Content Advisory Violence: There’s a gladiator combat where men and beasts are slain, although Sutcliff spares us the worst of the gore. There’s also a battle sequence that focuses more on Marcus’ state of mind than the carnage around him. Another battle towards the end of the book has minimal bloodshed.
Sex: Marcus nicknames Cottia a "little vixen." This is a reference to her red hair and ferocity, but he probably also calls her that because he finds her rather, well...
Substance Abuse: Everybody drinks wine and beer because the water back then was a sanitation hazard.
Nightmare Fuel: The Celtic Feast of New Spears features some rituals that could be rather frightening to younger kids, including men prancing about wearing dead animals (the emblems of their clans) on their heads. The being here called the Horned Hunter (also known as Cernunnos or Herne) has a strange presence in the book—the main characters don’t believe in him per se, but almost fear that he might spring on them as they go about their task—and he’s kind of spooky even though he never materializes.
Conclusions This is my first Sutcliff book, and my only complaint is that somehow I did not find out about this book’s existence until recently. Ah well. Better late than never.
What an outstanding novel. Nearly every aspect of it is perfect. The characters have such vibrancy and depth, especially Marcus and Esca.
Marcus, unlike most young Roman men in fiction, is a gracious and humble fellow who cares so deeply for the honor of his father and people, but thinks nothing of his own pride and even life.
Esca is quiet, observant, loyal, and deep. The way the lads develop over their journey is amazing, from master and servant to brothers in arms. They were able to transcend the prejudices of their respective cultures and have one of the strongest literary friendships I’ve ever seen.
These two are the main focus, but the supporting cast is wonderful too. Guern is particularly lovable, Tradui is intriguing, and Tribune Placidus is just one of those smarmy little pseudo-villains that one loves to hate.
Cottia reminds me a bit of Éowyn with her desperate desire for freedom, not to mention her penchant for standing in the wind with her bright hair billowing out from under her cloak. My only complaint with her is that she should have been in more of the story.
But Roman society in those days kept men and women apart most of the time. The only way, unfortunately, that Cottia or any other girl could have participated in an adventure like this one, is by disguising herself as a boy, which wouldn’t have worked in this case anyway because Marcus and Esca would have recognized her instantly.
Cub is a delight, the fiercest of all hunters yet the doggiest of dogs, who nearly starved himself to death when his master had to leave him behind, and greeted him with a flurry of tail-wagging and slobbery kisses when he finally came home.
The desolation and ferocity of Roman Britannia is the baseline of the story, and Sutcliff paints the environs richly with her well-chosen words. The only way to make the moors, the old forests, and the Lowlands even more forlorn than usual is to step back to this ancient era—before Heathcliff and Catherine, before Macbeth and the three witches, before even King Arthur rose from the ashes of Rome and Druidism. The few settlements are lonely little lights in the mist.
And as you can imagine, the people living in those settlements are rather nervous. Rome is far away, and reinforcements take a while to reach the lime-cliff shores of Britain. A fell sweep of northern Celtic tribes could push the Romans back into the sea. Even the gladiator fights, which were aggressively festive events in Rome itself, are portrayed here as being nearly as nerve-wracking for the viewers as for the combatants. Sutcliff masterfully evokes the tension and dread that the Roman colonists must have lived with on a daily basis. With all the Biblical fiction I’ve been reading lately, it’s interesting to see how the Western and Eastern frontiers of the Empire paralleled each other. The Celts and the Judeans had nothing culturally in common beyond their fierce independence, and both lands seethed against their overlords.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable book. I’m hugely impressed with Sutcliff’s storytelling ability, and I can’t wait to read the adventures of Marcus and Cottia’s descendents.
P.S. A movie based on this book came out a few years ago, starring Channing Tatum as Marcus and Jamie Bell as Esca. It looks like a highly enjoyable film in its own right, and I could easily picture those two actors as the heroes of the story. However, I’m annoyed that the movie appears to have written Cottia and Cub out of the story entirely, and the subplot about Esca is even worse. That’s like Frodo turning on Sam in the Return of the King movie, only here it was deemed important enough to be shown in the trailer. I’m still curious to see it, but those elements worry me.
P.P.S. Apparently modern scholars are pretty divided about what became of the Ninth Legion. Some say that they never vanished at all, others that they went missing in Parthia during the bar Kokba revolt, at the opposite end of the Empire from Britain. Isn’t this the same legion that wound up in China in the Rick Riordan timeline? ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>
I loved this book dearly as a child, and it has lost none of its magic now. Beautifully-written, discreetly poetic without a single word out of place, it's a thrilling adventure, an excellently-researched piece of historical fiction and a fabulous depiction of friendship all in one. Read it at any age, and marvel at the pacing; the gradual build-up, the terrific characterization, the breathless race to the final climax. Sutcliff brings Roman Britain to life as no-one else has ever done; and her novel is touching, absorbing and quietly haunting until long after the final page has been turned.
My first Rosemary Sutcliff book, but it will not be my last. This tale of Roman Britain and the lost Ninth Legion brings the reader into a fully imagined yet realistic world in which honor and duty are sacrosanct and the meeting of two cultures can be either a time of mutual respect or bloody conflict and distrust. Sutcliff is one darn brilliant writer of characters and settings. I could fully picture the time period, the people and the atmosphere. It rang true, and nothing seemed out of sync or out of period.
Overall, it did surprise me how good this book was. I mean exceptionally good. I don't think I've enjoyed a YA novel more since Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games (there are no similarities between the two books except that both are well written and hard to put down).
Although written primarily for a YA audience back in the mid-1950's, Sutcliff doesn't hesitate to challenge her readers with terms and phrases they might not understand (heck, who am I kidding, it was a challenge for me at times. Very probably young readers of the 50's were more well read and more grounded in history then I was).
This is a story I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to young and old alike. Although boys might find a greater appreciation for the story, I feel it crosses age and gender lines as well.
And imagine my surprise (and delight) to find that the 2011 movie, "The Eagle" is based on this novel! Now I've got to go put this on my Netflix queue to see if the film makers did the book justice. Probably not, but hey! Jamie Bell is in it :)
This book is fully as good as I remember. That's a lot to say for a book that I adored from the age of eight until about fourteen, reread at seventeen-ish, and then haven't read for a few years... In my head, it was always one of the most amazing books of my childhood, and my memory didn't overstate it. It is written for children, so it's very easy to read and perhaps a little less than subtle, in places -- particularly with foreshadowing. "Little did he know how important this piece of information was going to become" sort of thing.
But Marcus and Esca are still the bright, real characters I remember. I always loved the parts that show the bond between them, the friendship, that transcends the initial fact of Esca's slavery. In fact, reading it again, it kind of amazed me how strong their friendship was -- realistic, yes, and with boundaries, but strong. I can picture both of them as characters, down to the way they move, can almost hear their voices. Part of that is years of imagination as a child, but I wouldn't have bothered if I didn't have good material to work on.
It's been a while since I did Classics, and longer since I learnt anything about the Roman occupation of Britain, but I think the historical details are reasonably accurate, too. I like the development of the two mysteries -- the entombed Roman Eagle, and the disappearance of the Hispana.
One thing I did notice was similarities in description and ideas to The Capricorn Bracelet, which I read for the first time last week. That was a little disappointing.
Edit: Reread again because I'll be getting the rest of this series for Christmas. Each book stands alone, I gather -- certainly The Eagle of the Ninth does, in any case, with no trailing plotlines left behind -- but I wanted to revisit a childhood favourite, and this made an excellent excuse.
For some reason, the moment that sticks in my mind right now is when Esca tells Marcus he saw the march of the ill-fated Hispana to where they fell, and Marcus replies that his father's crest was the scarlet hackle next after the eagle...
I love it when authors take a real life mystery or two and try to provide a plausible explanation. This one is about the unknown fate of Rome's Ninth Legion that marched to Britain and was never heard of again.
So having my curiosity piqued with this mystery and adding to that Sutcliff's easy narrative and absorbing story-line, it's no wonder I was quickly pulled into the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and was deeply satisfied with the characters and the adventure! If you're looking for a book to offer your boys or a great family read-aloud, here you go!
And as a side note, I don't remember having ever so seamlessly gone from the first book in a series to the second with so little time in between. It was mere seconds - I just couldn't wait!
Cleanliness: contains some fight and battle sequences but they are not described very graphically. Some native men are described as not fully clothed. Mentions the Druids in passing. The Roman gods are referenced and prayed to a few times. Mentions a woman that committed suicide.
*Note: I listened to the audio version of this book so this Cleanliness Report may not be as thoroughly detailed as other reports are. Also, some inappropriate content may have been forgotten/missed and not included in the report.
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Before I picked this book up, I had gathered two points from, respectively, the title and the edges of assorted flailings by my friends: (1) that it was about baseball or something, and (2) that it was about a couple of boys who love each other very, very, very much and who have talks about their innermost feelings and so on.
Turns out, not about baseball! Actually about Romans, which makes a certain amount of sense, since a book about Romans is one of the few things with a decent chance of being more homoerotic than a book about baseball.
Anyway. A lovely, deliberately young sort of adventure about Marcus the newly disabled former centurion and Esca his British tribesman slave and a quest for the lost standard of a lost legion. The whole thing feels like – well, here, have a sentence. “He had seen these rolling woods in their winter bareness dapple like a partridge’s breast, he had seen the first outbreaking of the blackthorn foam, and now the full green flame of spring was running through the forest and the wild cherry trees stood like lit candles along the woodland ways.” The whole thing feels like that: brightly colored, bold strokes, lovely from the right distance. Oh, and the phrase “innermost feelings” actually gets used, not even kidding.
But what I actually liked best about this book was how it played its cards like a straight-talking story of nationalism and loyalty. But how actually all the gears underneath were working for something else. About being who you are wherever the world washes you up, whether that be a Roman deprived of his military life by injury, or tribesman stolen away to slavery and despair and then to something better, or roman soldier left alone in the wilds of tribal Alba with no way home. About choosing your place by the people around you, and living in it. It won't hold up to too close a scrutiny, but I think it wasn't meant to.
Sutcliff sure knew how to give me all of the questy stirrings of an epic tale. A story steeped in heroic characters, a powerfully vivid, yet delicately drawn backdrop, and all of the mysterious drawing of its reader through myth and lore. It’s content was a satisfying draught that I savored for as long as I could possibly draw it out, although it’s scenes of suspense left me no choice but to race through to the very end. I can’t wait to share this story with my boy once he is old enough.
In 120 AD, the 9th Legion – Spanish marched out of its fortress in Eboracum (York) in Britain, passed through Hadrian's Wall, disappeared into the wilds of Caledonia (Scotland), and was never heard of again. Up to this day, no one knows what happened to the 4,000-man legion.
Mary Sutcliff provides her theory in The Eagle of the Ninth when Marcus Flavius Aquila, whose father was the senior centurion of the first cohort of the 9th, takes command of a military fort on Britain's frontier. His time there is brief because he is wounded so badly in an uprising that he's discharged and goes to live with his uncle elsewhere in Britain. Later Flavius learns that a tribe beyond Hadrian's wall in Caledonia might have the 9th Legion's eagle standard. Flavius resolves to travel there and find out what happened to his father. He has another reason, too, for going. He wants to find the 9th Legion's eagle because the 9th can't be reformed without it. Disguised as a travelling eye doctor, Flavius crossed into Caledonia with his friend and former slave, Esca, to find the eagle. The rest of the novel describes their adventures.
I loved this novel and it's the first one I've read by Sutcliff. Although it starts out slowly, the book picks up speed and keeps on going. Sutcliff develops her characters so fully you think they are real people. She describes the settings and tribal customs vividly. And she knows her history. The novel isn't just an adventure story but focuses on character, love, friendship, and loyalty. Sutcliff's novels are classified as YA, but are Adult as well.
Sutcliff was an incredible woman. She came down with juvenile arthritis when she was 2 years old and spend her early years in bed lying on her back. During that time, her mother read stories to her, including ones about Greece and Rome. Sutcliff didn't learn to read until she was 9 and dropped out school at 14 to go to art school. Her father, who was in the Royal Navy, moved from one place to another, so Sutcliff never had a permanent home. Sutcliff became an artist but later turned to writing novels whose themes were inspired by the stories and myths her mother read to her as a child. Sutcliff also spent most of her life in a wheelchair.
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.
Around 117 AD, the Roman Ninth Legion marched north to deal with an uprising among the Caledonian tribes (in present day Scotland). The Ninth Legion disappeared without a trace. Eighteen hundred years later, a wingless Roman Eagle was dug up at Silchester. The Romans carried their eagle standard into battle, and no one knows how it came to be buried at Silchester.
Rosemary Sutcliff wrote a fictional story about Marcus Aquila, a young Centurion recovering from battle injuries. He wants to investigate what happened to the Ninth Legion led by his father. Marcus and his friend Esca travel into the dangerous wilds of Britain, north of Hadrian's and the Northern Walls, hoping to locate the Eagle and bring it back to the Roman Legions.
"The Eagle of the Ninth" is a riveting adventure story that can be enjoyed by both YA and adult readers. It's a story about loyalty, friendship, and courage. A wolf cub, a beautiful vixen, and a caring uncle round out the main characters. The author, who is also an artist, wrote beautifully so the readers can easily picture the scenes in their minds.
4.5 stars, rounded up for the wonderful friendship between Marcus and Esca. Hallie has been bugging me encouraging me to read this for a while, and I put it on the list for the 31-day reading challenge. When I finished reading The Bone Clocks, I needed something lighter, and as it happens, in the last section of The Bone Clocks the kids are reading The Eagle of the Ninth. I took it as a sign.
Marcus, a centurion posted to Britain, is severely injured in a battle that ends his longed-for career in the military, following in his father's footsteps. His father achieved a sort of immortality as the leader of the Ninth Hispana, a Roman legion that marched north into the wilds of Britain and never returned. When Marcus gets the chance to go north in pursuit of what is believed to be the lost legion's Imperial Eagle, he jumps at it.
It really is that simple a story. What makes it outstanding, aside from Sutcliff's remarkable ability to make you feel like you're there with Marcus and his friend Esca, a British slave (again, as with everything in this book, so much more than that), is how wonderful it is to see the friendship that builds between Marcus and Esca, two young men who ought to be enemies. Contrast this with Marcus's brief acquaintance with the British charioteer Cradoc; Marcus believed they had the potential to be friends, and yet Based on this, Marcus and Esca ought never to have become friends, since Esca has even more reason to hate Romans. And yet...
I see now how this book might have influenced Megan Whalen Turner's Thick as Thieves, which also features a strong friendship between two men who ought not to be friends, one of whom is a slave, and a long journey. There's no resemblance otherwise, but I'll probably mentally shelve both as books about friendship. The Eagle of the Ninth falters only in depicting the romantic relationship between Marcus and his neighbor Cottia, which requires a bit of filling in the blanks. But the ending is deeply satisfying, with , and I'm certain I will read this book again.
Amazing book! I loved Esca best but Marcus was amazing and realistic, also. Their relationship is definitely a fictional favorite for me. Also: CUB. What a great addition! I did see coming and while it felt a smidge rushed to the end, it was nice.
re-read 2018 This book is definitely a gem in the Roman historical genre, which doesn't really exist all that much. That being said, I enjoyed this greatly the first 5 times I read it. This time through felt a bit slow as I wanted to hit the highlights going through, so it did feel like it lagged a bit at times. This was only because I've read it so many times! :D If you haven't read this yet, I definitely recommend it!
EDITED BECAUSE MARY JUST POINTED OUT THE AUDIO IS ABRIDGED. I am extremely disappointed rn, and need to get my hands on a hard copy ASAP.
I read this on a bit of a whim, after being inspired by some excerpts from a different Sutcliff novel that Aerelin posted in her insta stories. She recommended I start with this one. (AND YES, I know Aerelin's name is actually Mary when I stop for two seconds and think about it, but Instagram is apparently taking over my brain. Sorry.)
I was a little hesitant going in, because what if I didn't like it? There are some series (*cough* A Series of Unfortunate Events *cough*) that friends (*cough* Molly *cough*) have recommended and, to all appearances, I should like, but that I haven't really enjoyed as expected (so far, anyway. I haven't completely given up hope). When that happens, I feel guilty, because OBVIOUSLY the problem is with me, not with my friends or the books. So, I almost left this one to languish a little longer on my ever-growing to-read list. But then I thought, "Nope. I'm going to try this one now." I added "Read a book by Rosemary Sutcliff" to my current book bingo board, checked out the audiobook, and dug in.
Y'all. I finished this jewel in ONE. DAY. Do you know how long it's been since I finished a book in a day? Well, that's okay because I don't, either.
It's beautifully written, and I sort of wish I'd known about it when I was the target reading age- I would have LOVED losing myself in Britain during the time of the Roman occupation. Even now, I get little shivers of delight as I think about it.
But it's not just a great setting- it's quality material. The characters are enjoyable people who are actually interested in making smart decisions. (All too rare in middle-grade fiction, tbh). And the themes! In this book is adventure and responsibility, bravery and true friendship. It's the type of book we would have been able to read at our lovely literature -based homeschool co-op, because the boys would have enjoyed it too. That was always the concern that was uppermost in our mothers' minds, since we girls would literally read anything and the boys were not nearly as enthusiastic. 😂 (Molly, let's make a note of this book for when we revive that co-op with our own kids, K? K.)
I'm trying to think of one word to describe this novel, and I am failing. The word that comes to mind is "sweet." It's the wrong word, to be sure. There is nothing sweet about war and danger and strongly opinionated women who carry themselves like queens (which is how I shall refer to people with good posture henceforth fyi) and characters who greet each other saying "Well met!" Okay, well, maybe that last one is sweet, but the rest of them are not. They are sad and terrifying and fierce. But nevertheless, sweet is the best adjective I have at this point. I will let you know if I think of another.
Thanks Aerelin-Mary! 😜 I really enjoyed this one! Looking forward to reading the rest.
Around AD 120, the Legio IX Hispana (or Hispania) “disappeared.” Its last known posting was on Hadrian’s Wall in northern Britain, and a legend has grown up that it was ordered on a punitive expedition against the Picti beyond the Wall and was lost campaigning against them. Numerous authors have exploited our lack of certain knowledge to speculate about what might have happened – from getting transported to alternate worlds (Codex Alera series) to less fantastical versions (The Last Legion), including this novel. Alas, historians are notoriously unromantic (at least modern ones) and demand annoying things like evidence, and the latest evidence would seem to indicate that the Ninth was destroyed in either Judaea or Parthia in the 130s and not reconstituted.
If I had read The Eagle of the Ninth when I was 13 years old and still blinded by romantic depictions of the Roman Empire (fostered by films watched in history class and TV movies like Masada), I would have really liked this book and given it four stars. But I’m 43 years old and I know too much about Roman history to be able to completely surrender to Sutcliff’s story so it only merits three stars. And only a moderately enthusiastic three. The first part of the story is “clunky,” for want of a better word. Sutcliff recreates 2nd century Roman Britain quite well but her prose style left me cold and uninvolved. It improved a bit in the latter half of the story when she recounts Marcus and Esca’s escape from the Epidaii with the Ninth’s Eagle; there were moments when I felt like I was there with them as they crossed the Scottish highlands.
And realizing that this novel is geared toward the “young adult” crowd, I still could wish that Sutcliff had explored the problematic nature of the relationship between Marcus and Esca in greater depth. Marcus is the son of the man who commanded the First Cohort of the IX Hispana; Esca is the son of a Brigantian chieftain who fought that legion. The recent film adaptation, The Eagle, takes a more realistic perspective on their friendship (though not all that much better, but it is – I think – truer), especially in a scene where Marcus berates Esca for withholding information from him.
There are also too many fortuitous coincidences to make me entirely happy with the story. ()
I can still recommend it, however, if not strongly, to readers who enjoy this genre.
PS - Lord, I feel so cynical rereading this before I posted. I want to stress that this is a good story taken just by itself. Don't be put off by my own difficulties with the text - I read too much :-)
In Rosemary Sutcliff's books the history of Britain comes alive through sensuous descriptions of luscious forests and ragged mountains, and characters so deeply imagined that linger in your mind after the book has ended, like childhood friends untouched by time and the drudgery of life.
Her books are not popcorn historical fiction novels with anachronistic characters dressed in the costumes of the time but keeping the ideas and sensibilities of their XX/XXI century authors. The people Rosemary Sutcliff's creates are imbued with the beliefs of their own time. And so it is that Marcus, the young centurion protagonist of The Eagle of the Ninth, pay tribute to Luth, the sun god, while the pagan tribes of Northern Britain worship gods that take animal shape in the night of the horn moon and believe the golden eagle the Roman legions carry in their standard is the Roman god.
At the beginning of The Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus, following in the steps of his father (supposed dead when his legion disappeared ten years past in northern Britain) has given his oath to Mithras and taken command of his first cohort in the southern part of the island.
Marcus dreams of a legion of his own and of an early retirement to a farm in the Etruscan hills that once belonged to his family. But fate has it that, in his first battle, he’s seriously injured and forced to leave the army.
During his long and painful recovery, Marcus hears rumors that the Roman eagle from his father lost legion is being worshipped by one of the pagan tribes up in the north.
Eager to restore his father’s honor and steal the eagle that could be used as a rally symbol against the hated Roman invaders should a revolt ever break anew among the dark barbarians, Marcus and his British freed slave, Ecca, travel north. All through the summer, they crisscross the wild regions beyond the wall that keeps the untamed tribes from the Roman world in search of the eagle.
Rosemary Sutcliff's takes her time in creating her characters and their world. As a result The Eagle of the Ninth is not the fast paced adventure you find in an action movie, but a well crafted and realistic tale that is, at the end, much more satisfying.
In my mind, a masterpiece.
Quotes from The Eagle of the Ninth
He stood for a while in the bothy doorway, ears stretched for any sound to break the silence of the mountains, but heard only the wet whisper of falling water where the swift stream came tumbling into the loch and a long while later, the belling of a stag.
Autumn had come to the mountains almost overnight, he thought. A few days ago, summer had still lingered, though the heather was past its flowering and flaming rowan berries long since gone. But now it was the Fall of the Leaf; one could smell the wind, and the trees of the glen grew bare and the brawling stream run gold with yellow birch branches.
Ten years or so ago I was sitting in the waiting area for the Indiana branch of Immigration and Citizenship. The room is always a fertile ground for imagining people's stories and I found my attentions drifting between my book and the cast of characters surrounding me. A man walked in the room, looked puzzled and walked to the reception desk, only a few feet away from my distracted digressions. He introduced himself in our local way and began to tell the story of his son, one Private Jones who was stationed in Baghdad and one who had fallen in love with a local and was soon to be married. Because of the precarious security situation, this was 2004, just before the Civil War, he thought it prudent to have his soon to be daughter--in-law stateside immediately. The receptionist explained that the immigration process would have to begin there. "But, its Iraq," the man stated, loud enough for everyone in the waiting area to hear. The manager was summoned and the same process was explained again. The man thanked them and left. I have often wondered about Private Jones and his family.
Such thoughts lingered as I struggled through The Eagle of the Ninth. I first became aware of the author and work years ago when Will Self stated that he was reading her trilogy to his children. The standard oppositions of slave/master, colonial/native, and hero/coward are all explored -- though through a YA lens, to be honest. The thrust of the plot was reminiscent of Stevenson's ,Kidnapped so much historical fiction is, as we know. It was refreshing that the native Britains are not represented as barbarians and the Romans aren't effete bureaucrats abhoring the locals.
This may have been the best written two star book I've read. My response may be the result of fatigue and nagging sinuses, though I won't challenge that assertion with a further reading of Sutcliff any time soon.
An immensely engaging work of historical fiction, Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth, first published in 1954, sets out to answer two unresolved questions from history: what happened to the lost Ninth Legion, stationed at Eburacum (modern-day York) in the early second century, a legion which disappeared without a trace after it marched north into Caledonia?; and how did a wingless Roman Eagle, the standard of a legion, come to be buried in a field outside of Silchester?
The story of Marcus Flavius Aquila - significantly named, as "aquila" means eagle in Latin, and was the word for the eagle standard itself - a young centurion wounded in the course of his first British command, who goes to stay with his Uncle Aquila in Calleva (Silchester), acquires a slave, and then a friend, in the form of the Brigante tribesman and hunter Esca Mac Cunoval, and embarks on a seemingly impossible quest to retrieve the eagle standard of the Hispana - his father's lost legion - this book is immediately involving, and consistently engrossing. The characters truly come alive, fascinatingly complex and completely believable, and the story seems - as much as I am able to judge - historically accurate.
I found Sutcliff's narrative as moving as it was entertaining, and appreciated the way in which she depicted the complex issues of identity and loyalty in the multicultural world of the Roman Empire. Etrurians, Egyptians and native Britons all interact in this story, which never vilifies any side, but makes the reader understand each perspective. I was most in sympathy with the Caledonians, of course, but I liked all the characters, and was content with the conclusion. My first work of historical fiction from Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth will most assuredly not be my last!
OKAY I'M WRITING IN CAPS. DOES THAT MAKE ME A FAN??
Goodness, I loved it. Beautifully written, vivid descriptions, poignant characters. The ending was just perfect! Now I want to cry.
I love Marcus. And Esca. Their friendship was the best.
Unfortunately, there was just ONE thing about this book that I had a problem with. I was properly warned (by four different people on separate occasions) of the pagan elements before ever picking the book up, so it hardly seems fair to knock a star on that account. And I REALLY want to give it all five stars. BUT. It was more prominent than I would have liked. So.
(I did skim over the pagan festival scene, so I missed most of that.)
I think what bothered me even more than the northern tribes' religion and gods was Marcus's own religion. Because while the other religions were presented as dark and evil, it was contrasted with Marcus's god and the "Light of Mithras." When in reality there is only one true light. And that is Jesus.
I know--Marcus was Roman and it's perfectly in line and historically accurate for him to have his Roman gods. I guess I just would have preferred seeing less of Mithras.
(May I please imagine that Marcus finds Jesus later on? That would make me so happy.)
But I did really and truly love this book. It just feels CLASSIC. Real. Meaty and substantial, with layers to peel back and discover. Beautiful themes and deep characters.
I'm so glad I finally got the chance to read it. Finally. After wanting to for only about seven years.
If you're looking for a good novel to get a young person hooked on historical fiction, look no further. This is the first of an 8-book series, each of which can be read as a stand-alone novel. This first one is about a young Roman legionnaire named Marcus Flavius Aquila who leads a unit to Britain, gets injured to the point where he can no longer participate and thus must find his own way forward...without the Roman army that has been his home for so long. He embarks on a quest to recover the lost eagle standard of the Ninth Roman Legion who, fifteen years before, had marched into northern Britain and disappeared forever. Not coincidentally, that Legion had been commanded by Marcus' own father.
The story is not the typical Roman legion war fighting kind of novel but rather a story about a young man who must find a new place in the world for himself. He must discover who he is outside of the Roman army, where his destiny lies, and how to find his way. It's sort of a coming-of-age novel, even though Marcus is already a grown man, albeit still young for a commander. It's a fully engaging story with nicely rounded characters and a plot that remains interesting throughout. While young readers will likely enjoy it, I believe adults will like it equally. And if so, there are seven more novels that feature Marcus' descendants in Roman Britain and beyond.
A classic (1950s) historical novel about a young Roman man who, with a slave who becomes his friend, travels beyond Hadrian's Wall into the wilds of Britain, searching for the emblem (and the fate) of his father's lost legion. The book definitely minimizes/romanticizes the realities of slavery, and it also portrays several misconceptions about ancient Rome that have been clarified by research since the book was written - However, in reading the book, these things don't really matter, as it's an engaging, entertaining story."