Sunday, November 21, 2021

Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff

Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila is stationed at Isca Dumnoniorum (modern-day Exeter) but longs to get back to his home - and the good weather - in Clusium (in modern-day Tuscany). Then his garrison are attacked by Britons, including those Marcus considered as friends. Wounded, Marcus cannot continue as a soldier, which means he can't make enough money to return home. In considerable pain, mental and physical, he is well supported by an uncle and some new friends, and in time develops a plan. He will undertake a dangerous quest to discover what happened to the Ninth Legion, who - with Marcus's father among them - went missing somewhere north of York...

I'm not sure what I expected from this children's classic, my copy a 50th anniversary edition embossed in gold, but assumed it would be a stirring tale of heroism in the Roman army. Instead, its hero is quickly hobbled and forced out of his job, and spends the rest of the book as a misfit. The consequence is a far more interesting book: Marcus can guide us through 2nd-century Britain from two perspectives, having known the privilege of a position in the army and now as an underdog. We get a rich, layered portrait of the Roman province and the land beyond Hadrian's wall, with Rome itself a distant yet powerful influence. 

It means Sutcliff can have it both ways, sympathising with Roman characters and with the subdued, resentful Brits. There's no particular sense that the Romans are right or wrong to occupy Britain, no great feeling from the author that Britons ought to rule themselves. Colonisation is simply the way of things, which seems striking and odd now. I wonder how odd it felt when the book was first published in 1954 when Britain still had colonies - they were increasingly in the news - and also where Sutcliff stood on things. Is it a twist to show Britons being colonised, or suggesting that colonisation has always been (and always will be) with us?

Perhaps the most telling moment is when Marcus adopts a wolf puppy and then, once its old enough to fend for itself, takes it out of the city and sets it free. His hope is that the wolf will remember his kindness and return "home" of its own volition. A comparison is made to Esca, a former slave granted his freedom who remains on good terms with his former master. Sutcliff is shrewd enough to show the awkwardness and resentment that linger long after this, yet it's solved by a few words from the former master, telling Esca not to be so insufferably proud. 

At stake throughout is honour: for Marcus, no longer able to support himself financially; for his father and the lost Ninth Legion; for Esca. We understand these stakes for all they're an alien system of values - and I think that's what makes The Eagle of the Ninth so effective. The plot is fairly slight and straight-forward, a trek north and back again to fetch a particular object. And yet it's a journey through an ancient, foreign land that feels credible, comprehensible, tangible - since we can flip to the glossary at the back and map the Roman names onto modern British cities and towns.

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