No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

#38: The Eagle of the Ninth -- Rosemary Sutcliff

Behind them, in the bare swaying branches of the wild pear-tree, a blackbird with a crocus-coloured bill burst into song, and the wind caught and tossed the shining notes down to them in a shower. They turned together to look up at the singer, swaying against the cold blown blue of the sky. Marcus narrowed his eyes into the thin dazzle of sunlight and whistled back, and the blackbird, bowing and swaying on the wind-blown branch, seemed to be answering him. Then a cloud came sailing across the sun, and the bright world was quenched in shadow. (p.283)

A favourite since childhood, reread because I found a second copy (my first is in storage and falling apart) browsing a charity shop in Haltwhistle, just south of Hadrian's Wall, whilst on a tour of Roman sites in the area. Reading Sutcliff's evocation of the wild Northumbrian landscape, I realised why the long hills and wide skies had seemed familiar: my mental picture of the area was founded on sentences and images in the novel.

From Luguvallium in the west to Segedunum in the east the Wall ran, leaping along with the jagged contours of the land; a great gash of stonework, still raw with newness. (p. 134)
Also marvellously evocative of Roman Britain (even if, as I am assured by Experts, some of the details are wrong and were wrong when the novel was published in 1954). I spent some time trying to work out if there really was a fort between Housesteads and Chesters: if so it'd be the setting for Marcus and Esca's return from the north and I could stand there and look out down to the burn, see the landscape (rather barer) that the sentry saw, and people it from my imagination.

When I first read The Eagle of the Ninth, in primary school, there was a lot I didn't notice and a lot I took for granted. It took me years to recognise the thematic links between this and later novels. This was my first encounter with fictionalised Romans, and it's a remarkably sympathetic one: Marcus Flavius Aquila is a soldier through and through, but mature and humane enough to begin to understand what the Empire has done to the tribes it conquers, and to the peoples it civilises.

The adventure of the Eagle doesn't grip me as it did when I was ten. I'm more fascinated now by the shifting relationship between Marcus and Esca -- former centurion, former slave -- and by how much they learn from one another, not only about their respective cultures but about themselves as individuals, comrades, friends. (I wish Sutcliff had written a sequel from Esca's point of view.)

There was a BBC adaptation in 1977 -- I remember being excited every Sunday afternoon for half a term, waiting for it to be time. (Why, yes, once upon a time one could not watch TV on demand. I wish the BBC would release this on DVD, though apparently there's a film due next year. And there's a tiny snippet on YouTube.)

Oh, and the emerald ring that Marcus inherits and passes to his descendents? In the gift shop at Chesters I bought, for about £2, a child's 'Roman Ring'. It has dolphins, and a green stone: not intaglio, not emerald, but ... I'm wearing it now.

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