In Reading Museum – among tantalising treasures including a silver spoon declaring itself to be the property of a long-lost girl called Primania, and a roof tile into whose not-yet-dry clay someone scratched half a line of Virgil's Aeneid – is a little eagle cast in bronze. His beak is cruelly curved, his feathers exquisitely described in the surface of the dully glowing metal. He is also about the size of a pigeon and lacking wings, such that his grandeur is a little undercut by melancholy, even bathos. In 1866, when the superbly named Revd James Joyce was excavating the Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum, near Silchester in Hampshire, he found the eagle buried beneath the town's basilica. A mystery: how had this creature, which Joyce thought must be an eagle from a Roman legionary standard, ended up here?
There are so many unanswered questions in ancient history, questions that the novelist, where the historian may tremble to advance a theory, may joyfully answer with invention. And it was this bronze eagle from which Rosemary Sutcliff made her children's story The Eagle of the Ninth. That and the mysterious fate of the Ninth Spanish Legion, which, having been quartered at York, apparently vanished from the historical record in the early years of the 2nd century.
The Eagle of the Ninth tells of the young Marcus Aquila, a centurion on his first command on the fringes of the Roman empire. Injured terribly during a skirmish with natives flamed to rebellion by a wandering druid, he must forfeit his military career. But then rumours begin to circulate of sightings of the eagle of the ninth – the standard of his father's lost legion – in the badlands north of Hadrian's wall. If he can find it, he will recover the honour of the disgraced legion – and of his father.
I call it a children's story; my copy, with its gorgeous line drawings by C Walter Hodges, bears my name on the title page in barely joined-up handwriting. But Sutcliff claimed her books readable by anyone from nine to 90, and she was right. In an interview in 1992, the year she died, she said: "I don't write for adults, I don't write for children. I don't write for the outside world at all. Basically, I write for some small, inquiring thing in myself." I have read The Eagle of the Ninth dozens of times; and as the reading self changes, so does the book. When I last read the story, it was the quality of the prose that delighted, the rightness with which Sutcliff gives life to physical sensation. A battle fought through the grey drizzle of a west country dawn is illuminated by "firebrands that gilded the falling mizzle and flashed on the blade of sword and heron-tufted war spear". Perfect, too, is a set-piece in which Marcus, on a stiflingly hot day, puts his British hunting companion's chariot-team through their paces. "The forest verge spun by, the fern streaked away between flying hooves and whirling wheels . . . Then, on a word from Cradoc, he was backed on the reins, harder, bringing the team to a rearing halt, drawn back in full gallop on to their haunches. The wind of his going died, and the heavy heat closed round him again. It was very still, and the shimmering, sunlit scene seemed to pulse on his sight." Sutcliff, tellingly, has those black chariot ponies – "these lovely, fiery little creatures" – descended from the royal stables of the Iceni, the tribe who had almost cast Rome out of Britain. It is a delicately inserted hint of danger to come.
She also conveys the heavy, gruelling thud of physical pain so well. I was struck afresh when last rereading The Eagle how – without the tension letting up for a second – she allows a good chunk of the centre of the book to be occupied by the sensations and consequences of Marcus's injury, before the true adventure, the quest to find the eagle, can begin. Physical pain and incapacity were trials with which Sutcliff herself was horribly familiar: aged two, she contracted Still's disease, a form of arthritis, and for most of her life she used a wheelchair. That and an itinerant childhood as the daughter of a naval officer, meant when young she was educated by her mother, and did not learn to read until she was nine. But the learning she got at her mother's knee was surely the perfect training for a storyteller: she was told stories from the Norse and Celtic legends, fairytales, Icelandic sagas. There was Malory, too, and the Mabinogion, "which has been part of my life for as long as I can remember", she told an interviewer in 1986. Her first attempts at writing were retellings of her mother's tales.
Marcus then, invalided out of the army, joins his uncle Aquila, a retired army officer, at his house at Calleva. Here he "comes face to face with the wreckage of everything he knew and cared about". He is lonely, in pain and homesick, enduring "the wind and rain and wet leaves of exile". Gradually, though, he forms the relationships – not with soldierly young Romans, but with a slave, a wolf cub and a young British girl – that will rescue him from his solipsism. All four are deracinated, solitary creatures. Esca, a Briton of the Brigantes tribe, has lost his family to Roman slaughter as well as his freedom. Cub has been plucked from the lair of his she-wolf mother, killed by hunters. The proudly British Cottia has been sent to live with her aunt and uncle, whose comically over-eager adoption of a Roman lifestyle she despises.
Sutcliff here, as in her later books on Roman Britain that spiral out of The Eagle (The Lantern Bearers and Sword at Sunset, both also wonderful stories) is greatly interested in questions of identity. What does it mean to be British? Where is home? Can a slave and a free man be friends? The Eagle of the Ninth was published in 1954 and speaks deeply of its time. The relationship Sutcliff sketches between Marcus and his slave Esca now seems troubling; and indeed has been treated rather differently by the director Kevin Macdonald and scriptwriter Jeremy Brock in their adaptation of the novel, Eagle. Sutcliff's Esca, for a man whose entire family has been wiped out by Marcus's fellow soldiers, seems more than a shade too unquestioning in his loyalty to Marcus, even given that Marcus all but saved him from death in the gladiatorial arena. A scene in which Cub is offered his freedom – but then comes trotting back home, humbly offering his muzzle to his master – is uncomfortably echoed by a parallel scene in which Marcus offers Esca his manumission papers, only for the Briton, just like the potentially savage wolf cub, to declare his continued devotion to the Roman. Sutcliff's implicit view – that friendship necessarily trumps tribal enmity – has been rather severely shaken by a half-century of post-colonial bloodshed.
For all that, The Eagle of the Ninth is not only a rollicking good adventure, but also a touching and true story about friendship, love and loyalty. Sutcliff could write a good battle, and her stories burst with soldiers and fighting men; but these are not brutal military automata. Marcus is the kind of man who notices a pot-bound rose bush growing out of an old wine jar outside his military quarters. Sutcliff attended art college from the age of 14, and specialised in miniature painting. "Fortunately, I have got a very good memory," she once explained. "And it's a visual memory: I was taught how to look at things. And I've found this really useful because I know just how things will look . . . how the colour of sunlight gleaming off a sword will change, depending on whether it's a warm sky or not." A miniaturist's visual skill, then, but deployed on a huge imaginative canvas: desperate moorland chases on horseback; a fort subject to a vicious attack; strange and wild native rituals practised by night.
Above all, Sutcliff creates a world that is entirely credible; a world that could trip you into believing in it as historical truth. "I think that I am happiest of all in Roman Britain," she said in that 1986 interview. "I feel very much at home there . . . If I could do a time flip and landed back in Roman Britain, I would take a deep breath, take perhaps a fortnight to get used to things, then be all right, for I would know what was making the people around me tick. But if I landed in 13th or 14th-century England, I'd be lost. I have a special 'Ah, here I am again, I know exactly what they are going to have for breakfast' feeling when I get back into Roman Britain, which is very nice."
I am writing a non-fiction book about Roman Britain, and at every turn I am confronted by the fact that by no means do we know what the inhabitants of Roman Britain ate for breakfast, even if we know that some people, at some point in the day and in some unknown combination, were eating celery and dill and coriander and mutton and goose and oysters (these are some of the food remains that have been found at Calleva). Roman Britain is – to me – an alien, strange and essentially irrecoverable place, and yet I love Sutcliff's confident imagining of it. I want very much to believe it, and in fact for as long as I am reading The Eagle of the Ninth, I always do: which is the storyteller's gift.
In fact the Ninth Legion, last recorded in York in AD108 and long assumed to have been wiped out in north Britain, is now thought simply to have been withdrawn from the province and posted overseas. It is more likely that they met their fate elsewhere, perhaps in the east of the empire. The eagle? It is now thought not to be a legionary standard, but part of a statue. How it ended up under the basilica is a matter of speculation: Professor Michael Fulford, who runs the excavations at Calleva, thinks it may have been part of the wreckage of a burned building subsequently built over; and perhaps, just perhaps, the fire may have been part of the devastation caused by the onslaught of Boudicca and her rebels against Rome in AD60. The eagle may be keeping other stories to itself, behind those beady brazen eyes.
The Eagle is on general release.
“And then suddenly the wolf was there. With a crashing of twigs and small branches it sprang into the open, then, seeing the hunters all about it, checked almost in mid spring, swinging its head from side to side, with laid-back ears and wrinkled muzzle: a great, brindled dog wolf, menace in every raised hackle.”
(From Warrior Scarlet)
Rosemary Sutcliff’s splendid stories take place in Britain’s distant past. Shining Roman spears. Cloth woven red for warrior valor. A broken bit of barley cake on a hearth whose ashes grow cold. The last signal fire against the darkness of a massing enemy.
This author makes her characters—-whether queens and kings, shepherds, or slaves—-as familiar to her readers as their own friends. To read one of her historical novels for young people is to enter another age, as gripping as the finest fantasy books. But unlike the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, these worlds truly existed. How did Rosemary Sutcliff learn to pattern her words and tell her stories in such a gripping way?
As with many successful children’s writers, her talent arose from a love of books. Born in England in 1920, she might have been raised by nannies and governesses and eventually sent off to school to follow a perfectly ordinary life.
But Rosemary suffered terribly from juvenile arthritis. Her mother decided to school her at home. Part of her mother’s devoted care included reading aloud. Rosemary was in hospital, as they say in Britain, very frequently, and her mother read to her hour after hour. These tremendous stories—-Rudyard Kipling, tales of King Arthur and Robin Hood and many more—-flowed into her mind day after day. In a hospital library she found a book that was to be her childhood treasure. Emily of New Moon, by L.M. Montgomery, told of a young Canadian girl who follows her dream of becoming a published writer. And so a seed was sown.
Yet her childhood was more than just sheltered. It was almost horrifically isolated. She was in frequent pain, with no friends her own age, and her father’s military job moved them around from town to town. Rosemary finished up her regular education, such as it was, by age 14. She promptly took an entrance exam for an art school and got in.
Her teachers told her she would be wonderful at painting miniatures, and she did do this for a while with some success. But at last the writing fever hit her in earnest. She wrote one story and had it rejected, but the publisher asked her to write another on a topic of their choosing. She much more enjoyed writing a biography of Queen Elizabeth I for children, her second assignment, but she realized even as she was writing them that these early books were a kind of apprenticeship.
In 1954, her first book of the Roman trilogy was published. Eagle of the Ninth and its sequels would have been notable if only because no writer for young people had ever evoked this dark period of Britain’s past with such reality. But the trilogy (Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch, and The Lantern Bearers) did much more that. Rosemary’s storytelling style was so strong that the clashes between the warriors and cultures resonated through the pages of the books, gripping the readers long after the last chapters were finished.
Rosemary Sutcliff went on to write more than 50 books before her death in 1992. She was most at home telling stories about Britain’s early periods—-when the Little Dark People of the Isle clashed with the invading Celts or the advent and departure of the Roman legions.
The Romans first came in 55 BC, and by 407 AD the last legion had been withdrawn. But the warriors left behind remembered the Roman ways and, as told by Rosemary, put them to good advantage in the wars against the invading Saxons. She looked carefully for the fire behind the smoke of legend and came up with a realistic British hero who just might have become the once and future king of legend--Arthur.
Readers who have not tried her books would be well to begin with either Eagle of the Ninth or Warrior Scarlet.
Eagle follows an embittered Roman soldier who travels to Britain’s hinterlands to seek out his father’s lost legion. In the latter book, a young Celtic boy with a maimed arm must either prove his ability to defend his tribe in single combat with a wolf or be abandoned by his people. Both stories continue in their ways from generation to generation through other books.
An excellent example of the meaning of honor and kingship in a tribal society can be found in The Horse Lord. Here a gladiator newly-freed from slavery drifts into the role of a lifetime when his resemblance to a missing heir puts him back in the action.
In a 1986 interview with Raymond H. Thompson, Rosemary Sutcliff described herself as a person who belonged to the minstrelsy, getting the history as right as she could but always putting the storytelling first. The old Anglo-Saxons had a peculiar expression: to unlock one’s word-hoard. Rosemary Sutcliff’s treasures of words are available for everyone, “from nine to ninety,” as she was fond saying, at the local library.
Sources for this article:
“Rosemary Sutcliff,” Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2007. Entry updated 09/05/2003
“Rosemary Sutcliff,” St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers, 2nd ed. St. James Press, 1999
(Both of the above come from the database, Biography Resource Center. They contain more complete biographical notes, including full lists of her publications and many awards.)
Rosemary Sutcliff: An Appreciation by Sandra Garside-Neville.
Interview with Rosemary Sutcliff by Raymond H. Thompson.
Note: Rosemary Sutcliff also wrote a poignant biography of her early years, The Blue Remembered Hills.
Photo Credit: RosemarySutcliff.com