The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

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Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors when I was a child and I particularly loved Brother Dusty Feet, about a boy who joined a group of strolling players set in Elizabethan England. I bought The Eagle of the Ninth in a library book sale several years ago because I remembered my love of Brother Dusty Feet and had meant to read it well before now. I got round to it this month and thoroughly enjoyed it, so it’s one of my TBRs for Bev’s Mount TBR Reading challenge.

The first half of the book tells of how Marcus Flavius Aquila, a young Roman officer arrived in Britain as a centurion and was injured in a battle and then, unfit for duty, was discharged. Some years earlier, sometime in 117 AD, the Ninth Hispana Legion, led by his father had marched north from its base at Eburacum (York) into the mists of Northern Britain to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes and was never heard of again – their Eagle Standard was also lost.

Marcus then sets out to discover the truth about his father’s disappearance, what had happened to the Legion and if possible, to recover the Eagle, and thus to redeem his father’s honour. For an Eagle standard taken in war meant so much:

To the Outland tribes it must seem that they have captured the god of the Legion: and so they carry it home in triumph, with many torches and perhaps the sacrifice of a black ram, and house it in the temple of their own god to make the young men strong in war and help the grain to ripen.

If trouble were to break out again in the north, a Roman Eagle in the hands of the Painted People might well become a weapon against us, owing to the power it would undoubtedly have to fire the minds and hearts of the Tribes. (pages 121 – 122)

He disguises himself as a Greek occulist, and with his freed ex-slave, Esca, travels beyond Hadrian’s Wall. The rest of the book is about their search through the wild borderlands north of the Wall in what was then the province of Valentia and over the Northern Wall (the Antonine Wall), into Caledonia, along the shores of Loch Lomond to the base of Ben Cruachan overlooking Loch Awe.

Rosemary Sutcliff was a wonderful storyteller, bringing Roman Britain to life  in beautifully descriptive prose, so vivid that it’s easy to picture the scenery and the characters. It’s a powerful adventure story, full of detail particularly about Marcus and Esca – their friendship and courage in the face of danger and hardship. There is plenty of suspense as they fight their way through mountains and bogs, pursued by the hostile tribes. It’s also a novel about honour, duty and love.

She based The Eagle of the Ninth on two facts. First, the disappearance of the Ninth Legion. And second, the discovery of a cast bronze figure of an eagle found in the Basilica of the Roman town of Calleva, near Silchester. The eagle’s original wings are missing and its origin is unknown. Although it was not a legionary eagle, it inspired Rosemary Sutcliff to write her book.

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Silchester Eagle Cast in Reading Museum

There is a map at the front of the book showing the route Marcus and Esca took and some of the places described, including Trinomontium (Melrose), Luguvalium (Carlisle), Segedunum (Wallsend) and Borcovicus on Hadrian’s  Wall (Housesteads Roman Fort) and the Northern Wall.

I loved all the detail of the mix of peoples living in Britain, their religious beliefs and ceremonies and their social and cultural background. It’s described as a children’s/YA book but I think it’s suitable for adults too – the writing style is certainly not simplistic and the vocabulary is extensive.

It is quite simply a gem of a book.

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford; Revised edition edition (7 Oct. 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0192753924
  • ISBN-13: 978-0192753922
  • Source: my own copy

About Rosemary Sutcliff (1920 – 1975), born in Surrey

At the age of two she contracted Still’s disease and spent most of her life in a wheelchair. At 14 she left school having made little progress in anything except reading and went to an art school, specialising in miniature painting, becoming a member of the Royal Society of Miniature Painters just after the Second World War. She wrote very many books, both fiction and non-fiction, and won several awards.

My Week in Books: 18 January

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now – I’m reading two books, one I’ve nearly finished, The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

Blurb: We begin with a body. Andrew Crowther, a wealthy retired manufacturer, is found dead in his seat on the 12.30 flight from Croydon to Paris. Rather less orthodox is the ensuing flashback in which we live with the killer at every stage, from the first thoughts of murder to the strains and stresses of living with its execution. Seen from the criminal’s perspective, a mild-mannered Inspector by the name of French is simply another character who needs to be dealt with. This is an unconventional yet gripping story of intrigue, betrayal, obsession, justification and self-delusion. And will the killer get away with it?

and The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Eagle of the NinthBlurb: The Ninth Legion marched into the mists of northern Britain – and they were never seen again. Four thousand men disappeared and their eagle standard was lost. Marcus has to find out what happened to his father, who led the Ninth Legion. So he sets out into the unknown, on a quest so hazardous that no one expects him to return …

Then – the last book I finished was The Quarry by Iain Banks, which I enjoyed reading – it’s funny in parts, angry, sad and miserable in others and about relationships and secrets.

The QuarryI wrote more about it in this post.

NextThe Elephant Keeper’s Children by Peter Hoeg, Sarah Moss wrote in the Guardian that the hilarity of Peter Finø’s narrative makes this a delightful novel even for readers who have limited tolerance of surrealism. I’m one of those readers so I hope I have enough tolerance for this book.

The Elephant Keepers' ChildrenBlurb: Peter and Tilte are trying to track down two notorious criminals: their parents. They are the pastor and the organist, respectively, of the only church on the tiny island of Finø. Known for fabricating cheap miracles to strengthen their congregation’s faith, they have been in trouble before. But this time their children suspect they are up to mischief on a far greater scale.

When Peter and Tilte learn that scientific and religious leaders from around the world are assembling in Copenhagen for a conference, they know their parents are up to something. Peter and Tilte’s quest to find them exposes conspiracies, terrorist plots, an angry bishop, a deranged headmaster, two love-struck police officers, a deluded aristocrat and much more along the way.

If you’ve read any of these books, especially The Elephant Keeper’s Children, I’d love to know what you think. And do let me know what you are reading this week.

My Friday Post: The Eagle of the Ninth

Book Beginnings Button

Every Friday Book Beginnings on Friday is hosted by Gillion at Rose City Reader where you can share the first sentence (or so) of the book you are reading, along with your initial thoughts about the sentence, impressions of the book, or anything else the opener inspires.

The Eagle of the Ninth

This year I’m hoping to read more from my own shelves than last year so I’ve been looking at some of the books that I’ve had for years. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff is one of my TBRs – I bought it in a library book sale, not sure when that was, over 10 years ago, I should think. Today I got it down off the shelf and began reading:

From the Fosseway westward to Isca Dumnoniorum the road was simply a British trackway, broadened and roughly metalled, strengthened by corduroys of logs in the softest places, but otherwise unchanged from its old estate, as it wound among the hills, thrusting further and further into the wilderness.

Also every Friday there is The Friday 56, hosted by Freda at Freda’s Voice.

Friday 56

These are the rules:

  1. Grab a book, any book.
  2. Turn to page 56, or 56% on your eReader.
  3. Find any sentence (or a few, just don’t spoil it) that grabs you.
  4. Post it.
  5. Add the URL to your post in the link on Freda’s most recent Friday 56 post.

Page 56:

A great gust of wind swooped against the house like a wild thing striving to batter its way in; the lamplight jumped and fluttered, sending shadows racing across the chequered board – and the ghost of last year were once more a year away. Marcus looked up, and said, as much for the sake of shutting out his own thoughts as for anything else, ‘I wonder what possessed you to settle here in Britain, Uncle Acquila, when you could have gone home?’

Blurb from the back cover:

The Ninth Legion marched into the mists of northern Britain. And they were never seen again. Four thousand men disappeared and the eagle standard was lost.

Marcus has to find out what happened to his father, who led the Ninth Legion. So he sets out into the unknown, on a quest so hazardous that no one expects him to return …

This is the first of Sutcliff’s series of novels about Roman Britain. The film, The Eagle (2011) is adapted from her book. I read some of her books when I was a child and loved them. I’m hoping this one will be as good.

The Witch's Brat by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was one of my favourite authors when I was a child, but it’s been years since I read any of her books. I came across her children’s book, The Witch’s Brat after reading Mary Delorme’s novel, St Bartholomew’s Man about Rahere, the founder of St Bartholomew’s Hospital. I wanted to know more about Rahere and discovered that he featured in Rosemary Sutcliff’s book set in 12th century England.

The Witch’s Brat, first published in 1971, tells the tale of Lovel, a boy born crippled with a twisted leg and crooked shoulder, but also with a gift for healing. His grandmother was the local Wise Woman whom people feared thinking she was a witch, and after she died he was driven from his village in a shower of stones, both because he was her grandson and because he was a cripple. He is taken in by the monks at a priory and it is here that he meets Rahere, who encourages him to be a healer. This is how Rahere looked when Lovel first met him:

Lovel gazed with his mouth open in awed delight at this mad and magnificent man with the monk’s face and the cool mocking voice and long fantastic legs like a crane fly, who spoke English, but in such splendid and far-off words that much of it was as far beyond his reach as the Norman French spoken by most of the knights and wealthy travellers who passed that way, and by some of the brethren among themselves. (page 29)

It’s a beautifully written little book (112 pages), full of period detail, including herbal lore and vivid imagery. Like St Bartholomew’s Man it’s about the building of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, but seen through Lovel’s eyes instead of through Rahere’s. As well as being historical fiction, this book is about overcoming prejudice and and disability. Rahere is seen as a charismatic character, an inspiration to Lovel, a man who thought there must be more to life than entertaining a king and who vowed to raise an infirmary, a hospital for the poor sick.

This a ‘feel good’ book that is a delight to read.