Few books are immune to the unforgiving test of time, or the passing of the generations. Most fall by the wayside within a few years, to be forgotten by all but a small number of dedicated readers. The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff is without doubt, one of the handful of books to retain its appeal long term.
It has sold more than a million copies worldwide, and is still in print more than five decades after its first publication. While the book was written for children, it appeals to all readers: as Sutcliff herself said, ‘from eight to eighty-eight’. In February and March 2011, The Eagle of the Ninth opens in cinemas all over the world as The Eagle, guaranteeing countless thousands the chance to fall in love with one of the most magical historical tales of all time.
The book’s central character is a young Roman centurion by the name of Marcus Flavius Aquila. Sent to serve in a fort in south-western England in the first third of the 2nd century AD, he is grievously wounded in his first battle and discharged from the legions. During his recovery at his uncle Aquila’s house, the lonely and embittered Marcus buys Esca, a British slave he sees fighting as a gladiator in the local arena. Gradually, the two become friends, and their comradeship is deepened by Esca’s gift to Marcus of a wolf cub he finds during a hunt. The two main characters are warmly drawn and lifelike. Importantly, they are also likeable.
Not long after, Marcus hears a rumour from the far north, beyond Hadrian’s Wall, of a legion standard held by one of the tribes hostile to Rome. Tortured by the knowledge that many years before his father marched north into Scotland with the Ninth Hispana legion, which never returned, Marcus determines to try and find the eagle. He is driven by his desire to retrieve the legion’s honour as well as his own, to lay to rest his last memories of his father, and to remove a banner that might one day unite the tribes against Rome. The only person to accompany him on his perilous quest northwards is Esca, who has become his closest friend. No one expects the pair to succeed, or even to return, and thereby hangs the rest of the tale.
The Eagle of the Ninth is essentially a tale of the pursuit of honour and redemption in the face of great danger. The story moves along at compelling pace throughout, but it reaches breakneck pace after Marcus and Esca steal the eagle from the tribe which seized it from the Ninth Legion. Strong themes of duty, loyalty to others and courage are woven seamlessly into the rich prose, which conjures a magical picture of 2nd century Roman Britain in general, and of the highlands and people of ancient Scotland in particular. Sutcliff possessed the all too rare skill of being able to impart subtly large amounts of historical information while writing a fantastic story. Even when she had to invent material (such as the scenes with the tribes people in Scotland), it was done with a real sense of authenticity.
In short, The Eagle of the Ninth is a wonderfully crafted novel that will appeal not just to lovers of history, but those who consider comradeship, honour and loyalty to be important qualities. Pick it up and be converted!