The Eagle of the Ninth
“Eagle lost—honour lost; honour lost—all lost . . .”
It’s hard to believe this book is over 50 years old (now closer to 60). It doesn’t feel especially old-fashioned in language or theme, even if its attempts at presenting archaic language in Latin and Gaelic (Pictish?) have more in common with Tolkien than the film The Eagle. Certainly the story at the heart feels in no way diminished by time, and that is the real draw of this book. Although I had been somewhat curious about what had drawn Rosemary Sutcliff to write so many young adult novels, I was surprised to read that she was wheelchair-bound most of her life and, like Robert Louis Stevenson, spent many painful childhood hours lying in bed due to illness. Her imagination, therefore, nurtured by her mother’s mythological stories, was boundless, and I have even more respect for her.
I was surprised, nevertheless, to find this book in the children’s section of the library. Although its adventuresome content shares much with, for example, Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, or Rafael Sabatini’s novels, set at a much later historical date, in tone and sophistication it hardly belongs next to most of what accompanied it on the children’s shelves. Nevertheless, the main thing was that it was actually there on the shelf; a bestseller since 1954! Although Sutcliff has chosen to write, for the most part, about male heroes in her title roles, like J.K. Rowling’s books, they don’t ever feel sexist or that a girl reader could not inhabit, at least vicariously, Marcus’ role, for example. Many of the details feel authentic, even if it has been disproved that the Eagle discovered in Silchester had anything to do with Roman Legions. To me, there is something incredibly profound about the Roman period in Britain—I think it has to do, for me, with the meeting of two worlds, of living on a frontier or a borderland between cultures. It’s a rich seam for historical fact and fiction, and reading The Eagle of the Ninth has certainly made me want to visit the Roman London exhibition at the Museum of London again (even if I’ve been there four or five times before). Although archaeology changes what we think we know all the time, still the Dark Ages are relatively dark, leaving us with fewer solid clues than other periods in history, and so at least there are still traces of Roman Britain . . . practically everywhere! Every time the Swansea à London coach drives past Caerleon, I want to go see it (that’s Isca Silurium, an important location for this particular book).
I can’t help comparing this book to the film The Eagle, its filmic counterpart, which I saw a few weeks ago. I was really impressed by the film, and though I knew they would probably be quite different, I knew I would still also love the book. At first glance, the film is not much different at all from the book, particularly in the first few chapters. Marcus Flavius Aquila is taking up his first command in Britain; an Etruscan orphan, he seeks to gain military glory, perhaps even command an Egyptian Legion, and then retire to his own farm. He is also curious as to the disappearance of his father, commander of the Hispana (Ninth Legion) which disappeared north of the Wall.
Perhaps the most salient difference, and the one that really drives all the other minor changes, is that in The Eagle of the Ninth, the story is mostly Marcus’. There are moments when Esca’s quiet loyalty draw back to reveal his sense of being wronged, and he throws the equivalent of a few temper tantrums, but for the most part, he seems to accept his fate once Marcus has bought him from the gladiatorial games. In The Eagle, the balance has shifted, to where it is nearly 60% Marcus’ story and 40% Esca’s. I find the latter version ripe for conflict and endlessly interesting, but certainly the text IS the best way to tell Marcus’ story. So, in The Eagle of the Ninth where Marcus is more interested in personal glory, learning from his first command, and attaining his farm, in the film he is obsessed with regaining the Eagle and rescuing the reputation of his father’s Legion. To that end, the shame of his father’s cohorts is heightened.
To that end, what might seem an unforgivable omission—Cub, Marcus’ wolf-pup and Cottia, Marcus’ sort-of girlfriend—makes dramatic sense. I did feel the vacuum created by lack of strong female characters in The Eagle, but Cottia would have distracted from the main friendship between Marcus and Esca—knowing Hollywood, they probably would have made it into a love triangle, so it’s probably better they left her out entirely. In any case, Cottia is very young in The Eagle of the Ninth and, if I’m not mistaken, her grown-up character gets more of an outing anyway in the subsequent books. The filmmakers were eager, it seems, to keep Cradoc in the film somehow—the deleted scene at least gave a flavor of this character, whose charioteering skills young Marcus wishes to compete against. However, again, to have created this bond so early in the film would have made the friendship with Esca weaker by comparison. Marcus himself had to be much less “soft” than in the book for his eventual changes of character to have impact (for example, he is already uncomfortable with gladiatorial games before he sees Esca fight). I certainly believe Marcus in the book is more consistently a better person—in the sense of our modern values—than depicted in the movie. He doesn’t free Esca before leaving on the journey north, which makes him seem far less magnanimous—but drives the story into much darker corners than it went in the book. Esca has no knowledge of the Ninth to conceal from Marcus and they find Guern accidentally—and no such evil place of massacre/burial as in the film.
I have difficulty believing Sutcliff would have been happy with the ending of the film. It’s very heroic-tragic and differs a great deal from what she’s written. The Prince of the Seal People doesn’t kill his own son to demonstrate how traitors are dealt with; he’s much younger, and Marcus and Esca easily deal with him in a nonviolent way which the Doctor himself would use were he in that situation. Sutcliff is not glorifying violence, even if Marcus only knows a life that awards glory through military might. Tribune Placidus is as oily and effeminate in the book as in the film—if not worse—but the book does not feel it necessary to take Marcus and Esca all the way to Rome to make him look a fool in the most macho manner possible. Unlike the alternate ending, Marcus and Esca do manage to bring the Eagle back intact, but there can be no salvation for the dissolved Ninth, which—unlike in the film, where it is allowed to remain a thing of untarnished reputation—was rotten to the core. By this token, the film’s ending feels very much influenced by Lord of the Rings and its impossible demands on characters’ nobility.
Certainly at the point where Marcus and Esca cross the Wall, we also cross into the filmmakers’ imagined territory. Sutcliff gave Marcus the suitable cover of a wandering oculist, complete with disguise, so he did not have to play Esca’s slave, and therefore the Seal People are considerably less brutal and alien than they are the film. There is nothing in the text to suggest the rather fanciful visual representation of this tribe of Epidaii, but the phantasmagoric scene of the Feast of the New Spears gives some clues as to why the filmmakers chose such a direction. Delightfully, the text does give precedent for the way Marcus and Esca dress, with their very un-Roman but practical braccho (trousers). Also in the book, we see more of the hospitality and down-to-earthness of the Celts, rather than just their strangeness or outlandishness.
An inescapable fact is that the book is well-written. The sentences are beautifully constructed and present us with sometimes sharply beautiful images. There are some lovely black-and-white images to accompany this rich text (along with an indispensable map). The fort attack scene in the book is certainly as exciting on the page as it is on screen. Perhaps the only way in which this could be said to resemble a children’s book is the impossibly happy ending. Marcus gets his farm, wherever in the Empire he chooses to have it, and not only is Esca free, he’s granted citizenship, which no doubt will open many doors. Cottia is willing to follow Marcus anywhere, and Uncle Aquila is willing to arrange the wedding!
There are some sections of The Eagle of the Ninth that make me think one of the strongest themes is the question of tolerance between different value systems. Is it possible? One would like to think so. Esca tells Marcus, ‘You are builders 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 the discipline of your troops, as the sea breaks 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 the understanding of our own.’