On Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’

Amongst the lesser pleasures of parenthood should be numbered the opportunity, not only to re-visit the favourite books of one’s own early childhood — those fictive universes invariably now out-of-scale and slightly unconvincing, like some once-familiar infant school encountered in later life, the ceilings far too low, the chairs too small, the prospect out the window disenchanted, no water-dish put out for the headmaster’s gentle ambling dog, presumably now dead these thirty-something years or more — but also — perhaps even more so, because less obviously blurred with the stuff of memory and mortality — the opportunity to encounter as an adult the children’s books one missed in childhood. Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth is very much a case in point.

Some children’s books are, admittedly, too much like hard work for the old. I spent most of 2006-07, for instance, reading Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea. The experience was, looking back on it dispassionately, akin to that of some seventh-century anchorite walled up in his desert fastness, having bid farewell to the world outside forever, resigned to mouthing that hieratic, unearthly liturgy through dry lips — reading while the light held, reciting when it failed — in those early months perhaps seeking to understand the words he enunciates, later meekly accepting them, finally seeking only to appease his sometimes angry, often capricious but eternally untiring Listener.

Yet although I expended more time, effort and persistence on my examinations of this slim volume than I had, for instance, on any text related to my own doctoral dissertation, the Tiger‘s essential mysteries did not, in the end, reveal themselves to me. Almost certainly, I was not worthy of them.Some of the Tiger‘s import, admittedly, was obvious enough. Clearly, here was some sort of parable of domestic order overturned, a knock at the door occasioning a crisis — the deconstruction of all that precious provisioning, the cessation of conventional hygeine and decorum, the end of all the maternal, hard-won, homely competence.

Fair enough. Most children’s books are, for obvious reasons, about the disruption of order. Who, though, I wondered, was that ‘Father’, whose return at once domesticated the crisis — the Tiger becomes a cat, the disaster becomes manageable through the putting-on of all-covering outerwear, the expenditure of capital and male-type objective rationality — yet at the same time publicises it, exposing that inner confusion to the public realm of the streetlamps, the cafe, a world of coats and conventionalised critical scrutiny? And who, more to the point, was that ‘Tiger’? What, precisely, was the nature of this calamity, which saw that poor anxious mother reduced, in the illustrations, from the size of an adult to that of a mere cowering child, no bigger than Sophie herself?

What was the problem here — mental illness, totalitarianism, the societally-reinforced myopia of full-time motherhood itself? In short, what danger should I have anticipated, perhaps even guarded against, as I sat there on the sofa, reading Kerr’s fable once again to a toddler who almost certainly worried about none of this, probably quite liked the pictures, and certainly warmed to the repetition? Oh, this was darker stuff even than the Erlkönig, because while the gravity of the threat posed by Kerr’s Tiger was clear enough, its nature was not. So I was, truth be told, pleased when my son outgrew that baffling, compulsively persuasive book. I could never work out whether the Tiger or the Father worried me more but, gosh, what an enormous relief it was to be free of that strange, hypnotic yet unescapably sinister little fable!

Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth, in contrast, throws up no such soul-scouring challenges. Its ambiguities are, if more mundane, at least more congenial ones.

The Eagle of the Ninth is a book I first encountered only a month or two ago. Our copy, I think, came from Heywood Hill. My husband vaguely recalled enjoying Sutcliff’s work in his own childhood. My son, a typical five-year old boy, likes the idea of ancient Rome. Perusing a list of Sutcliff’s other books — and she was nothing if not astonishingly prolific, not least when one considers how much research most of her historical novels must have involved — I remembered my own early enthusiasm for Knight’s Fee, one of her medieval books. And as it turned out, we all ended up very much liking, in our various ways, The Eagle of the Ninth. It’s the story of a war-scarred Roman officer named Marcus who goes on a quest through second-century Britain in order to discover what happened to the Ninth Legion, which disappeared into the mists many years before under the leadership of his own father, and — if possible — to bring back with him the lost legion’s eagle-crowned standard. His companion in this enterprise is a freed slave, a native Briton, named Esca. Other characters include his wry yet wise Uncle Aquila, a flame-haired girl named Cottia and a tame wolf-cub called, err, Cub.

So far, so conventional. Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with being conventional, especially when it comes to children’s books. Part of their function as a genre is, surely, to act as learner slopes, preparing their youthful audience for tricker navigation down the slopes of better, or at least more difficult future fictions. At this level, Treasure Island is as much ‘about’ the limits of honest first-person narration, Peter Pan as much ‘about’ self-conscious authorial shiftiness, as either is about pirates and their ways, whatever even the most alert of five-year old boys may suspect to the contrary — and if both tend to raise the standards of vocabulary, idiom, emotional complexity and nuanced moral judgement infinitely beyond the levels of most of what is written even for adults these days, well, that’s hardly a complaint.

Sutcliff’s own prose and plot development, admittedly, rarely reach these dizzying heights — or even those of Kipling’s writing, no doubt a major influence on her work. But it’s still a good, solid book. The execution of the basic ‘redemptive quest’ type plot is nothing if not competent. And while ‘competent’, for reasons we might pause to lament if we had more time to do so, always comes across as a damning critical term, much of what’s best here is the quiet professional competence with which Sutcliff works. There’s an easy skill in the way she introduces her gallery of characters, presents Marcus with the early disaster which sends his life into crisis, gets him out on the road in search of that eponymous legionary Eagle, and maintains a degree of genuine suspense before bringing the story back briskly to its satisfying, if slightly predictable conclusion. All this may sound like simple stuff. In a sense, of course, it is simple — but then how did we all internalise the logic of the quest narrative, its shapes and rhythms, its conventions, if not with the help of books like this one?

And then there’s the writing. By the standards of contemporary children’s literature, an enormous amount of the book is taken up with descriptive passages. Sutcliff was evidently a keen observer of light, weather and atmospheric effects, for climate is given as much scope for expressive behaviour here as any of the actual characters. Nor, once embarked on one of her reveries of cloud-watching or exercises in fuliginous mist-tasting, is Sutcliff ever anything less than generous with the writerly effects. It’s all there — alliteration, consonance and assonance, similes, soar-away symbolism of every possible stripe. Rarely is any rock or loch or look allowed to venture forth without its accompanying adjective, or three or four. ‘Ever noticed how changeful British skies are?’ someone asks Marcus at one point. Sutcliff’s readers, in contrast, aren’t given much choice.

All of which sounds ghastly — over-written, fussy, unreadable. Miraculously, however, the result is none of these things. At first, reading the book aloud, I wondered whether the long descriptive passages would bore my little boy. He invariably listened to these, though, with the same grave consideration he accords everything else relating to The Eagle of the Ninth — and remembered them afterwards, too.

And that, in turn, reminded me of several things I’d forgotten about my own childhood reading — what it was like not to be in a hurry, not skipping ahead with bad-tempered ‘can’t you just get to the point?’ rigour, but, instead, simply taking in the words, contemplating the pictures they conjured up and questioning things that didn’t seem to make sense — treasuring long descriptions, even, not just because the language hadn’t yet grown stale, but because what was being described was also, in itself, so often something new and worth knowing — the patient installation, in other words, of all that mental furniture which might later come to feel like clutter, but which, when new, sparkled like revelation.

The other thing, of course, that redeems Sutcliff’s prose is that, for all her professionalism, there’s nothing remotely cynical about her writing. It’s hard to come away from reading The Eagle of the Ninth without the conviction that all those mists, storms and so forth were not so much imagined by Sutcliff as lived, at least imaginatively, in the course of writing the book. It really does feel as if the world in which she set her characters was, in some sense, as real to her as the characters themselves, hence as worthy of rich description and serious regard.

While there are, apparently, moments where she gets her history wrong — the Legio IX Hispana, for instance, probably met its end in Palestine or Parthia, rather than in Scotland — at least by the ever-shifting metric of present-day standards, Sutcliff’s evocation of Roman Britain is rich, complex and persuasive. At the same time, her background research doesn’t elbow its way to the foreground. Or to put it another way, one never actually hears Sutcliff thinking ‘wow, here’s a great fact about second century British cooking techniques, how am I going to fit that in?’ Given this latter habit is, all too often, the deforming and self-destructive vice of historical fiction, it’s no mean thing to pronounce Sutcliff free from its most obvious symptoms.

There’s more than one sense, however, in which The Eagle of the Ninth succeeds as an historical novel. Published in 1954 — which is to say, 55 years ago — it’s now very clearly as much about Sutcliff’s own time, place and sensibilities as it is about second century Britain. And in this, at least to an adult reader, is located much of its considerable interest.

This is true at all sorts of levels. Of course, as with pretty much all worthwhile discursive writing, The Eagle of the Ninth is freighted to the gunwales with the bulky and intractable stuff of half-disguised autobiography. It wasn’t until I’d finished reading the book, admittedly, that I bothered to read anything about Sutcliff’s life, but once I did, here, quite a lot fell into place.

The chief quality, for instance, of Cottia, the token female character, reposes less in her personal qualities — endlessly labelled a ‘vixen’, she’s simply a trope for wildness, marginally less developed in terms of personality than Marcus’s tame wolf cub — than in her ability to wait, more or less without question or complaint, as Marcus pursues his great, prolonged, men-only adventure. All of which makes sense, however, with the realisation that Sutcliff’s father was a naval officer. Infantry drill is consistently dismissed as ridiculous — again, a classic Senior Service prejudice, this, amusingly if insistently expressed.

Rather more seriously, the physical disability under which Marcus labours for much of the book — a war-wound that won’t heal properly, leaving him repeatedly shifting position, stretching to evade the ever-present pain — becomes less an easy plot device, infinitely more moving when one discovers that Sutcliff herself suffered from Still’s Disease, an incapacitating and excruciating form of childhood-onset arthritis, confining her to a wheelchair or bed for much of her 72 years. Seen in this light, Marcus’ lack of self-pity seems less like a conventional tic of the times, more like a private credo. The imaginative sojourning through time and place, once suspect as mere narrative obligation, starts to read as the sanity-saving strategy of an intelligent, creative yet in many ways personally thwarted invalid. The bravery shown here is, in other words, no longer merely theoretical.

And so on, and so forth. Sutcliff’s autobiography, Blue Remembered Hills (1983) — tiresomely, Dennis Potter seems to have used the same Housman line for a play — apparently sheds light on much else, including her war years and a significant love affair. I’ve not yet read it. Once I do, however, it will doubtless end up providing yet more commentary on the inner workings of The Eagle of the Ninth. And for what it’s worth, I’m particularly anxious to learn more about Sutcliff’s religion and her politics.

Yet for all that, the stronger resonances of The Eagle of the Ninth are by no means all strictly personal ones. And this, I suppose, was where I started to enjoy the book most profoundly. Sutcliff is, after all, describing life in a far-flung province occupied by a sophisticated, highly successful imperial power — but one where, for all the outward evidence of prosperity and stability, the borders have long since started to contract, the old certainties of loyalty and hierarchy are starting to fray at the edges, thoughts are turning to exit-strategies and excuses. And here, one is forced, like it or not, to remember that The Eagle of the Ninth was published in 1954, written by a British woman born in 1920, much of whose early life was intertwined, necessarily, with the residual stuff of British foreign and colonial policy. Behind the well-researched detail about Roman and barbarian interactions in second century Britain, there’s a lot here that might as well be about Malaya, the Mau-Mau rebellion or any of a number of post-war, post-imperial conflicts.

The Eagle of the Ninth is, then, as obviously a post-colonial novel as it is an historical one. The central concerns of post-colonial literature are everywhere in its texture — issues of race, servitude, hyphenated identities, the growing doubts of a progressive and liberal-mind elite when faced with the starker facts of occupation. For Marcus, though ‘Roman to his arrogant finger-tips’, spends much of the novel effectively rejecting aspects of his inherited Roman-ness — the imperial civil service, the gladiatorial games, the social-climbing ways of Cottia’s not-quite-as-Roman-as-she’d-like-to-be aunt, the companionship of Roman citizens (some of his best friends are Britons), Roman modes of dress and riding and fighting, slavery, faith in Roman justice, even a return to Rome itself when he finally decides to settle near Silchester, amongst the Hampshire downs — while at the same time, lacking any ready-made alternative to his identity as an ex-centurion, proud of his father’s discredited legion, bound by ties of love and loyalty to an Iceni girl and a Brigantine man, neither one thing nor the other, living in a country where officers’ new houses are built complete with hiding-places under the floors, army mutinies are consigned to the waters of Lethe and the lines between ‘Roman’ and ‘Briton’ grow blurrier with each passing day.

Sutcliff could take it for granted, as she imagined and wrote The Eagle of the Ninth, that we all know how the story will end. (There are, apparently, further novels in this sequence, presumably carrying the narrative on until the end of Roman rule in Britain.) So the uncertainties, the unravelling and the ambiguity are no temporary inconvenience, no minor technical setback awaiting retrenchment. Marcus’s quest to find that lost Eagle is an attempt at redeeming family and personal honour — just about possible, as it turns out, although we learn that leadership on the frontier was bad, morale was low, the project broadly hopeless — not an attempt to reclaim that lost territory north of the Wall, which only twelve years on has plainly been written off as completely ungovernable.

Romans, it turns out — think of Guern the Hunter, or even Marcus at the end of the tale — can only partially go native — while natives, even the best of them, never fully go Roman, or if they try to do so, alter Roman-ness beyond recognition. The centre, all too evidently, cannot hold. This, really, is the central dilemma of The Eagle of the Ninth, which in a sense might as well be A Passage to India or even Heart of Darkness made child-safe — at least relatively speaking.

All of which brings us to ‘the best of them’ — the most interesting and complex, if necessarily ambiguous character in the novel, which is to say, Esca himself. The moment where Marcus, invalided out of the Legion, first encounters his soon-to-be body-slave, batman, critic, friend and saviour, can hardly be characterised as anything other than love at first sight. Esca, son of a chieftain of the Brigantes, has been taken prisoner in battle, made first a slave and then a gladiator, and so features in the local gladiatorial games, where he ends up thrown back upon the mercy of the crowd. Marcus, struck by him from the moment their eyes meet, first saves his life, then purchases him. From here on out, their relationship is one of epic, more than slightly erotic oddity.

For while the last thing I’d want to do is to cheapen Sutcliff’s account by reducing the Marcus-Esca pairing to some sort of only-slightly-sublimated, experimentally sado-masochistic sexual relationship — Sutcliff is surely right in her willingness to accept that even very passionate friendships indeed can exist as more than a weak form of something else altogether — I do, for what it’s worth, think that the Marcus-Esca pairing is intended to enact more general truths regarding the relationship between an occupying force and its subject populations. And that, surely, is an ‘adult’ subject par excellence.

A common warrior ethos, admittedly, is offered up as both bond and explanation. It is clear, for instance, from the start, that the only reason why Esca doesn’t kill Marcus is because Marcus saved his life — and equally clear that the only reason why Marcus saved Esca’s life is that Esca, despite his evident terror of death in the arena, didn’t ask for his life to be saved. So there’s not only a discernable memory of  Gunga Din bound into Marcus’s complex relations with Esca, but also of Kipling’s too-often-misunderstood Ballad of East is East — presumably, just waiting to be washed down with bracing chasers of V. S. Naipaul, Edward Said and heaven knows what else.

All of this, in turn, poses yet more problems. Marcus desperately wants to behave decently by Esca — but Esca’s code of honour insists that Esca will go on to perform ever more astonishing feats in order to rescue from the people who are his own tribe’s traditional allies a symbol of the regime which reduced him to servitude. Having completed his task, by the end of the book, Esca is not only manumitted but in fact made a Roman citizen — yet it is taken for granted, simultaneously, that he has no higher ambition beyond employment on Marcus’s admirably progressive yet possibly uneconomic, free-labour-only farm.

Unsurprisingly, given this background, it’s Marcus and Esca to whom Sutcliff gives the key set-piece dialogues on colonial relations. Here is a portion of one of them.

‘Esca, why do all the Frontier tribes resent our coming so bitterly?’ [Marcus] asked on a sudden impulse. ‘The tribes of the south have taken to your ways easily enough.’

‘We have ways of our own,’ said Esca. He squatted on one heel beside the bench. ‘The tribes of the south had lost their birthright before ever the Eagles came in war. They sold it for the things that Rome could give. They were fat with Roman merchandise and their souls had grown lazy within them.’

‘But these things that Rome had to give, are they not good things?’ Marcus demanded. ‘Justice and order, and good roads; worth having, surely?’

‘These be all good things,’ Esca agreed. ‘But the price is too high.’

‘The price? Freedom?’

‘Yes — and other things than freedom.’

‘What other things? Tell me, Esca; I want to know. I want to understand.’

Marcus does want to understand — and Esca wants to explain. He does so, comparing the highly formalised design on a Roman dagger with the flowing, organic curves on a Brigantine shield-boss.

[Esca] laid the shield down again. ‘You are the bulders of coursed stone walls, the makers of straight roads and ordered justice and disciplined troops. We know that, we know it all too well. We know that your justice is more sure than ours, and when we rise against you, we see our hosts break against a rock. And we do not understand, because all these things are of the ordered pattern, and only the free curves of the shield-boss are real to us. We do not understand. And when the time comes that we begin to understand your world, too often we lose understanding of our own.’

Read casually, this is, of course, wholly conventional stuff, if unfashionably stubborn in its insistence on basic, ineradicable cultural difference. But then we return to the point about conventions, and where they come from. My young son, who insists on complete moral clarity in his literature, is also, for reasons I’ve never entirely understood, congenitally pro-Roman, to a degree that would perhaps have frightened even Virgil. Dividing, as my son invariably does, the characters of the book into ‘goodies’ and ‘badies’, it was clear that Marcus, Aquila and Claudius Hieronimianus, Aquila’s Egyptian legate friend, were the ‘goodies’, while the Britons, tout court, were the ‘baddies’. What of Esca, you ask? Well, I did ask — at which point it was explained to me that Esca was ‘sort of good’ because he ended up helping Marcus.

Yet if this perspective strikes us as mildly hilarious in its wrong-headed fundamentalism — and it was, I should probably hasten to add before someone rings Social Services, the occasion for a quick remedial lecture on indigenous peoples, their various troubles and the validity of their claims to at least some degree of self-determination and cultural expression — then it’s perhaps a historically prevalent, indeed ‘natural’ point of view than we tend to acknowledge. Second century Britain is, admittedly, a peculiar test-case for this, at least for those of us who, like Sutcliff, claim a broadly British heritage, rendering Romans and Britons alike, at least to some extent, more ‘us’ than ‘other’, owing as we do so much culturally to the former, if genetically to the latter. Our loyalties are, thus, easy enough to split. But course, at the same time, it’s hardly inevitable that all observers, even adult ones, should see conquest and occupation not in black and white, as my son does, but rather in the shades of grey which Sutcliff, in the main, mandates.

‘In the main’ — I add the cautionary phrase, because perhaps the greatest glory of The Eagle of the Ninth is the way in which Sutcliff seems to be feeling her own way through these ambiguities. Take, for example, the attempt to reclaim the Ninth Legion’s eagle standard, the central feature of the book’s plot.

Of course we hope that Marcus will find his eagle. We understand his personal, familial and political motivations — the latter, incidentally, principally that the eagle should not, in the future, be used as propaganda against the Romans. Marcus, we have seen, is a decent person. It’s in the nature of the redemptive quest narrative that one wishes the quest to succeed. And yet, there’s a lot that’s rather morally slippery here. Although Marcus’s mission has received tacit sanction from a Roman legate, it is, at the same time, very clearly, sub-rosa, unofficial, plausibly deniable.

Nor, as far as that goes — Marcus’s remarkably progressive inclinations notwithstanding — is his behaviour unproblematically honorable. Marcus, after all, repays the traditional hospitality of his British hosts, including their willingness to allow him to observe an important religious rite, by trespassing in sacred spaces and stealing a religious relic of some importance, which the British themselves had gained in wholly legitimate combat. Marcus goes about disguised, lying about his own name and — worse still — his citizenship. And once he succeeds in his mission, the Roman Senate, though clearly gratified, will only recognise his achievement in a covert fashion.

Hence, although the fate of the Ninth Legion is now known — and is marginally less reprehensible than had generally been accepted — Marcus’s account never reaches ‘proper’ history. In short, Marcus ends doing some questionable things, in large part for personal reasons, as a deniable operative of an apparently amoral, semi-detached and only sporadically interested imperial power. If this is heroism, then, it is heroism of a very specialised, complicated, culturally specific sort. One can only imagine what a second century Craig Murray would have had to say about Marcus.

What’s being internalised in the course of the narrative is, in other words, for all its superficially conventional nature, by no means uncontroversial. Perhaps for that reason, despite the ‘happy’ ending, there’s something quite melancholy about the book’s final pages. The successful completion of the quest achieves something in terms of personal honour, perhaps, but it’s a modest and partial victory. It won’t hold back the progress of the bigger story, which will see eventual retreat of the legions from Britain. It may be that modest, partial victories, achieved with a degree of honour, are the best for which we can hope.

All of which brings us to a final, obvious point about The Eagle of the Ninth. I’ve mentioned already Sutcliff’s evident debt to Kipling. When I read Kipling — or, to be more accurate, when Kipling was read aloud to me — in the suburban North Carolina of the early 1970s, the thrills to be had were as much antiquarian as they were literary. All those far-flung imperial outposts, garrisonned with under-appreciated tommies and seepoys of suspect allegiance, that high-wire tension between chauvinism and institutional self-doubt — ah, what a thing it must have been to have lived as a Victorian! Although the phrase ‘political correctness’ did not yet exist the Nixonian sphere of my early childhood, I can recall having it pointed out to me, by parents with admirable civil rights records, that Gunga Din, for all its rhetorical quality, no longer represented the most up-to-the-moment thinking on race relations.

Oddly, there were no such strictures attached to other books which, like Susan Cooper‘s admirable The Dark is Rising series, where a discernably Manichean take on Celtic mythology can’t quite disguise the preoccupation with the easier Cold War, good-versus-evil certitudes. How much a product of its time all that seems, now. And yet, reading The Eagle of the Ninth today, Sutcliff’s sometimes painful ambivalences sound rather less dated than one might, perhaps, expect. There are, in any event, worse places for my son to learn something of the world — its diversity, complexity and difficulty — about which he will, God willing, eventually have to make his own moral judgements. And if what, in the end, The Eagle of the Ninth mostly counsels has more to do with personal decency, honour and loyalty than anything more obviously grandiose or ambitious, well, that is, to my mind anyway, no bad thing.

Lastly, by way of a quick postscript — it appears that someone is, even now, making The Eagle of the Ninth into a film.

The discovery fills me with apprehension. The problem, put bluntly, isn’t so much the actors. Much of this novel could, I am sure, be portrayed effectively using male models of the more robust sort staring pointedly at each other, repeatedly and often, in a moody yet meaningful sort of way. Just as well, really.

Nor, as far as that goes, is the problem the tendency to project a sort of beefcake, homoerotic ambience across the surface of Sutcliff’s narrative — not entirely absent from some her book marketing, even now, and sure to be exploited in the film. This can be excused, surely, on the basis that the basic grimness of most pre-modernity is more than capable of absorbing all the anachronistic cheering-up the post-modern world can throw at it. The reality of unwashed men riding around murdering each other isn’t, one hazards to assert, actually all that pretty. But this is entertainment, not real life. Why not improve on reality when we can?

Nor, finally, is the problem the setting or the production. The film is apparently being filmed on location in Hungary and a village in Scotland which rejoices in the name Achiltibuie — the latter of which looks, incidentally, as far as one can tell these things, well worth a virtual visit, with or without the addition of a story-line and actors. Post Rome, the going standard of grungy, sexy, would-be-edgy quasi-versimilitude in the depiction of our classical heritage is relatively high. Presumably, somewhere in the world, a small clutch of anxious academic advisors has been worrying over the details of Marcus’s body-hair, Cottia’s undergarments and the practicalities of sourcing Cub for months if not years now. Rightly so. One of the good things about the past is the fact that we can hand-mould it to fit our own preoccupations, no matter how trivial these may be.

No, what will be lost, I strongly suspect, is less the stuff of Marcus’s late second century world, than the stuff of the Sutcliff’s mid-twentieth century one — the lack of sentimentality, the nuances regarding race and class and patriotism, the ethos of service, self-sacrifice and personal loyalty.

Of course this is, self-evidently, an objection of eye-watering irrationality. Works of art are, as we have seen, inescapably artefacts of their own times. There’s no more reason to insist that a good film should replicate accurately the book on which it is notionally based, than there is to insist that an historical novel should replicate with any accuracy ‘real’ history. The genuine brilliance of films like Lawrence of Arabia or Zulu or A Bridge Too Far has, for all their fleeting topicality, something self-contained about it. We watch before our eyes the process of specific, contingent history metastasizing into general, universalised myth. This is, for all the bloodshed and cruelty in those stories, ultimately a pleasing sort of experience. The desire to impose a pleasing order onto the inchoate mess of experience is, after all, amongst the most basic of human impulses. We all like to see it done well. Only sometimes — as when it makes the world seem more manageable than is, in fact, the case — does it do real harm.

So in fact, what I am probably saying is something slightly different. Perhaps what really worries me is that the order our own age will seek to impose upon the story of Marcus, Esca and the not-yet-failed state in which they live, will turn out to be markedly less adequate than the order imposed on them by Sutcliff — that our account will be less anxiously nuanced and considerably more stupid, that our answers will be at once more simple and less satisfactory. Of course, in doing so the film will speak eloquently of our own times and troubles. And for that reason, at least, it won’t be entirely without interest.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “On Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’

  1. Gaw

    Sounds fascinating. I remember enjoying ‘Eagle of the Ninth’ as a child and my strongest memory is the bleakness of its location: the cold and damp was very well evoked, I think (am I right or have I got it confused with something else?)

    The Kipling parallel is interesting and I wondered whether Sutcliff was in part motivated to write the book because of Kipling’s poem, ‘The Roman Centurion’s Song’?

    http://www.kipling.org.uk/poems_romancenturion.htm

    An excerpt:

    ‘Let me work here for Britain’s sake – at any task you will –
    A marsh to drain, a road to make or native troops to drill.
    Some Western camp (I know the Pict) or granite Border keep,
    Mid seas of heather derelict, where our old messmates sleep.’

    A previous line ‘The scent of hawthorn in the sun, or bracken in the wet’ is certainly redolent of the setting, if my memory related above is correct.

    By the way, that Tiger is disturbing. When he drinks all the water out of the tap, particularly so.

  2. How on earth could I have missed that Kipling poem? Of course you’re absolutely right, Gareth — the sentiment expressed there matches The Eagle of the Ninth perfectly. It’s just as well that someone around here knows something about English literature … !

    You’re right, too, about the pervasive cold and rain afflicting Sutcliff’s narrative. On the other hand, in my limited experience of such things, the west of Scotland is, indeed, cold and wet. So perhaps we should not hold this against Sutcliff unduly.

    And finally, we return to that Tiger. It is good to know that I am not alone in finding his activities disturbing. I’m sure we’re right to feel the way we do, though.

    Indeed, a correspondent who, although one of my very best critics, refuses to leave actual comments on this site, reminds me of this 2007 interview with Judith Kerr — a perfectly delightful woman, from the sound of it — in which she describes, amongst other things, her neighbour Peter Snow’s admirable kindness to her following the death of her husband, Nigel Kneale of Quatermass fame.

    Anyone who remembers The Tiger Who Came To Tea clearly — in particular, the illustrations of the scenes in which the family go out to dinner in the cafe — may well shudder slightly over the following:

    ‘Three days after the funeral [Peter Snow and his family] invited me for supper and I was dazed. Not knowing when to leave. They’d said ‘7.30’, but it was just up the road. So at 7.30 I was ready but thinking I’d just give it a few more minutes and the doorbell rang and it was Peter come to pick me up.

    I was just staring at the coats in the hall and he said: ‘I think that little red one would be just right.’

    So, in the end, the tall man did indeed put the small woman into a red coat, before taking her out for a consoling meal outside her own domestic space. Which means, of course, that the Tiger turned out to be Death itself.

    Weird stuff, children’s fiction. Sometimes, just a little too weird.

  3. I never read the Eagle of the Ninth, but I recall a television adaptation of it.

    Details here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0397778/

  4. Liberanos

    If I might add a weird drop or two to the Fugitive inkwell on this subject.

    My mother considered it quite appropriate to include among the books she considered essential for my ten-year old soul, Ruskin’s “Seven Lamps of Architecture.”

    Though that ‘golden stain of Time’ has had opportunity to spread a hell of a long way since then, I still remember the rather unfocused expression of a teacher when I had to list my holiday reading.

    “Scarlet and Black” followed soon after. Then “Germinal” and “Old Goriot.” And, naturally, close questioning to ascertain compliance. Austen and Dickens were soon in there, too.

    For relaxation she tried to teach me the odd Schubert ‘lied’. But I simply couldn’t hack it.

    She seemed totally unwilling to accept that youth was any kind of barrier to understanding.

    What a woman!

  5. David Lucas

    I have pondered the subtle negativity of competence oddly because our inherited kitchen features a – presumably German – oven the only branding of which is “Competence”.

    We have fantasized the full product range, the bottom end of which features the “Adequacy” model, while those superior to our oven are the premium “Functionality” and “Effectiveness” models.

    I don’t know Tiger so well, but have read it a few times – I must give it another look.

  6. Liberanos, your reminiscences have encouraged me to reconsider my own childhood reading habits. Is it strange to read Ruskin, aged ten? I don’t think I did read him — just as well, given how quicky my prose has always been to absorb and internalise other people’s bad habits — but I well remember reading all sorts of books, both officially and semi-secretly, that would probably be regarded as rather odd for a child. But then it was simply that sort of household — there were books everywhere, people read books and talked about books — and children do, for good or ill, imitate what they see around them.

    Also, my mother soon learned that an efficient solution to my continual childish enquiries along the lines of ‘so, what caused the First World War?’ or ‘why is the USSR communist?’ — presumably always when she was in the midst of trying to do something important, because children do have an instinct for those moments — was to direct me towards a few books and let me figure it out for myself. Fortunately, however, none of us could sing, so while I had to listen to quite a lot of Russian opera along the way, no one ever encouraged me to sing Schubert’s songs. There’s always someone worse off somewhere, eh?

    All of which is a long way of saying that I think your mother does indeed sound rather marvellous, or, well, at least marginally familiar.

    As for you, David — assuming you are ‘the’ David Lucas, what a treat to hear from you! I hope all is well — although from the sound of it, at least your kitchen furnishings are full of a subtle sort of entertainment value, which is, I suppose, more than one might conventionally expect of them.

  7. David Lucas

    I am he.

    I was delighted to find a post that inspired me to reply, however irrelevant it was. I read most of what you write – which is always a pleasure – but am always so much in awe of your fluency and erudition on topics of which I am vastly ignorant that I never find any appropriate reply.

  8. You are he? Well, I am glad.

    You will, then, David, doubtless remember not only that my ‘erudition’ is remarkably patchy — as improbable, in its own way, as your alleged ‘ignorance’ — but also that I am very bad at taking compliments!

    All the same, though, warmest thanks for your kind comments about Fugitive Ink, which mean a lot. And please do comment whenever the spirit moves you — perhaps we can all agree that ‘relevance’ is often overrated?

  9. Liberanos

    I share Fugitive Ink’s interest in your appearance here, David Lucas.

    Since cast iron is not that far from marble in anthropomorphic terms, might we expect a little something from your stove at some time in the future?

  10. Otto

    Well, what a great piece – I have to say I have always liked it since I was a child, and my 10-year old has read it recently too. You’ll have to ask him what he thought of it. It’s such a lovely surprise to see two such old friends discuss it too! I am also amazed, as David, to read such lucid meanderings; I almost considered doing a blog, but now am quite put off….
    o.

  11. Otto!

    What a very happy surprise to find you here — thanks so much for the kind comments. This post is clearly a magnet for old friends, whom I’m delighted to rediscover — one more reason to bother with a blog, since you, and indeed David too, clearly need a bit of persuasion on that score!

  12. David Lucas

    This seems to be turning into a veritable valpolicella-fest. Otto – that reminds me I think I have a new facebook request to reply to – thank you for that. Happy Yuletide to y’all.

    Liberanos – I have to assume I have fed you at some point in the past though I cannot work out from a few fugitive postings who you are. Do I get any clues…

  13. Indeed, David — surely we’re only a few candidates short of a full slate now?

    In any event, a very happy Christmas to you and yours — and the engimatic Liberanos, too.