by Rosemary Sutcliff
240 pages, Square Fish
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
It has been a while since I read an historical novel in which I could totally lose myself. Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 young adult novel of Roman-occupied Britain is a masterful tale of adventure, honour and friendship. Her evocation of pre-Christian Britain is artfully done and she creates a mist-shrouded, almost magical landscape in which her characters can exist. This is no fantasy kingdom but a rigorously researched place teeming with historically accurate details. Though some modern readers might initially struggle with Sutcliff's dense and descriptive prose, those who stick with it will be rewarded with a thoroughly absorbing tale which will remain with the reader long after the final page.
The story focuses on Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young centurion who receives a debilitating injury whilst serving in Britain. Whilst recovering at his uncle's house, Marcus learns of a possible sighting of the eagle of the lost ninth legion in the wild lands north of Hadrian's Wall. Marcus' own father vanished with the ninth legion and he believes that by locating the treasured eagle standard he will be able to learn more about his father's fate as well as recover the honour of the fallen legion.
Marcus heads north accompanied by Esca, an ex-gladiator who he freed and subsequently developed a strong friendship with. Indeed, the relationship between the two young men – one a tattooed British tribesman, the other a “civilised” Roman and part of the occupying forces – is perhaps the most interesting part of the novel. However unlikely their relationship might seem, Sutcliff depicts a plausible and very touching friendship between the two men. This strong friendship is challenged during the course of the novel by the obligations of blood and race but ultimately, it is the unspoken love between the two men that wins out. Academics would label this a fine example of a homosocial relationship, better known in the modern parlance as a “bromance”.
Sutcliff's novel of occupied Britain seems especially prescient when one looks at the difficulties the Western powers have encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, this comparison has not been lost on the film-makers of the recent cinematic adaptation (retitled “The Eagle”) which casts American actors as the Romans.
One thing that struck me about the book was the lack of violence. Modern young adult fiction does not shy away from violence but Sutcliff's narrative avoids violent encounters on the whole. Aside from a brief violent uprising at the start of the novel and a spot of fisticuffs here and there, the book is a peculiarly bloodless affair. However, the threat of violence is always there. The risk of discovery as Marcus and Esca travel incognito through Caledonia, the daring plan to recover the eagle from the barbaric tribe who hold it and the subsequent pursuit as the heroes flee for the safety of Hadrian's wall – Sutcliff creates and maintains a claustrophobic, oppressive atmosphere which keeps the reader on edge throughout.
“The Eagle of the Ninth” is a wonderful story with a cast of likeable, believable characters and a rich, historical setting. I was expecting a “Gladiator”-style hack-and-slash adventure but was treated to something far better. This story espouses the virtues of friendship and honour above bloodshed and violence without patronising the readers or ramming the message down their throats. Sutcliff's book has been widely praised since its initial publication over 50 years ago and rightly so. Such a thoughtful and well-researched book is a rare treat.
Hereward L.M. Proops