RogerBW's Blog

The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff 07 March 2023

1954 historical fiction for young people. Marcus Flavius Aquila, centurion of auxiliaries, is crippled in his first battle; that ends up freeing him for an even more perilous mission, to find out what happened when the Ninth Legion, with its First Cohort under the command of his father, marched north and never came back.

About which there's some disagreement, with some evidence pointing to its later existence in Belgium – but at the time this was probably the majority view, and I was taught about the Ninth's disappearance in the 1970s as a matter of historical fact. More to the point, the fate of the Legion as presented here is consistent with the information available to Sutcliff.

But that's not where the story starts; first we get what with a lesser writer would be infodumping, about the centurion's life and the uneasy relationship between the garrison troops and the "pacified" natives. And it's a testament to the effectiveness of Sutcliff's writing that I also want to read the other story, the one in which Marcus is able to remain a soldier and have his intended career with the Legions.

But that's not what happens. His leg improves, eventually, but he'll never be able to keep up the standard marching pace. He goes to stay with his uncle (who retired to Britain himself after his soldiering days), since he has nowhere else to go, and looks around for some activity that can make him useful. And it's only then that the consideration of the lost Eagle comes into play, more than a third of the way through the book, as rumours reach south that one of the tribes beyond the Wall has captured the god of the Legion, and will use it to fuel rebellion unless it can be retrieved.

That could be too much setup; but we're also getting the late Romano-British life, and Marcus, and his uncle Aquila, and others; not everyone has the full complexity of a foreground character, and Marcus is consistently the viewpoint so we don't get anyone else's thoughts, but everyone feels as though they might be a person elsewhere even if they have just a simple part to play in this drama. This is certainly the great adventure of Marcus's life; but it's not only that great adventure, it's also why he's the person who takes on the task, and the person who he'll be afterwards.

With all that I've barely talked about the task itself, travelling north following rumours and hints, and the further north Marcus goes the more dreamlike things become. And then the trip south again, and I strongly suspect Sutcliff had read at least a little Buchan; she read everything she could get, after all, and that kind of pursuit across rough country is something he did superbly well, and so does Sutcliff.

It's lacking in women, with one significant female character and her off-stage most of the time. But it's a magnificent story of a thing that could – almost – have happened.

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