The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff

February 12, 2012 at 21:25 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , , )

10/10

Rosemary Sutcliff’s most famous book ought to be looked at in two different ways, and judged on two levels. Firstly, any reader venturing into historical fiction will be instantly drawn to it as a deserving classic. Every word of praise afforded Eagle of the Ninth is surely deserved, and every criticism should be scrutinised heavily. This book is not only a simple story; it is a revelation. It is a sudden meeting between the children’s and young adults’ fiction of the ’80s and ’90s, when children’s literature began to be taken seriously; and literature from the early twentieth century and the nineteenth century, when writers felt able to wax philosophic and lyrical, and were not so concerned with spending a hundred pages on diligently establishing a scene and building meticulously to a grand climax or a cheap twist.

“…he had just started on the fourth and last, when it came to him that he could not see as clearly as he had done a few moments ago. He looked up, and saw Esca’s face shining with sweat in the upward light of the glim; but surely the glim was giving less light than it had done? Even as he looked, the tiny flame began to sink, and the dark came crowding on.”

-The Eagle of the Ninth

Seen in this way, it is easy to understand why first-time readers of Eagle of the Ninth will turn treasure hunter, digging out forgotten volumes from Sutcliff’s vast library, and reading and rereading this book until it falls apart. But beyond the emotional attachment all readers will surely develop for this book, a little must be said on some of its difficulties. In the second way of looking at things, all emotional affection and nostalgic fondness ought to be set aside, and the thing should be examined somewhat more critically. Not necessarily for shortcomings (for it is incredibly difficult to say whether these difficult patches should have or could have been altered), but some of the aspects of this book that make it a difficult match for a template of great children’s literature.

Esca, that magnificently sculpted incarnation of the Noble Savage, manages to hold many of the advantages and few of the drawbacks of that literary trope. It can be asked whether his apparently easy acceptance of Marcus is wishful thinking or clumsy writing. It can be noted how abruptly he enters the story as a latecomer, almost halfway through. It can seem like he becomes only an appendage of Marcus, the book’s real hero; a plot device to help him out, but playing a very distant role the whole time. It is easy to wonder if this aspect of Esca’s character prompted such sweeping changes to his personality in the screen adaptation.

Much the same can be said for Cottia’s character (more strenuously and in a louder voice), and it will come as no surprise to any reader to learn that Sutcliff disliked writing women. Additionally, it can be claimed that this book is really a character study of one man, with hints and fringes of adventure sewn to the edges. Even in the wilds of Valentia the plot follows his journey, his physical weakness and his drifting thoughts, his singularity of purpose and his doggedly light heart.

These are, as mentioned above, difficulties rather than weaknesses to this book; and as difficulties they can be overcome. They are slight enough to be missed on the first readings of this book; mild enough to be ignored by seasoned readers. But for lovers of Sutcliff and devotees to this particular story, they are like mathematical problems to a scientist: to be questioned and teased out, toyed with as curiosities, and then set aside as a part of a precious and much-loved story.

It is impossible not to recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction or adventure.

Advertisements

5 Comments

  1. David said,

    It’s fair to note how Esca and Cottia aren’t drawn quite as nuanced as Marcus, but they still have a flush of life to them that makes them feel real, and thus so endearing. But I do remember Sutcliff saying, somewhere, that she was far more comfortable writing male characters. It’s so curious to me that she should feel thus — after all, I take it for granted that I, as a man, find it harder to write women, but I would expect the reverse for a woman writer. But every human has a different way of thinking; after all, all but three of my closest friends are women, because more women seem to share my serious love of literature, history, and Story in general.

    But back to Sutcliff. This book’s weakest point, I think, is the sudden romance that pops up in the end between Marcus and Cottia — they had been friends before, but such a change in their relationship needed further development or nuance.

    Still, what an excellent novel. I’ve read it four times, and I shall read it many more in years to come. And when I see it on sale, I typically buy a copy so I have one to give away when the fancy strikes me. It is the kind of story that is deeply personal, and yet you want others to experience as well.

    • J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

      It seems to me that most of Sutcliff’s romances that I have read are very much like the romance of Marcus and Cottia. Her characters enter love in a cerebral sense, and only allow emotions in gradually, if at all. Marcus and Cottia end up together because it seems logical, not because they are mature and balanced adults who have grown to love each other.

      And I think that it is precisely because Esca and Cottia are not as well-nuanced as a literary character ought to be that they have that spark of life in them. Real, living, flesh-and-blood people aren’t as well-rounded as characters are. I mentioned that Esca (for instance) appears to harbour very little ill-will towards Marcus for his life of slavery, and that this might easily strike a reader as an unpleasant Uncle-Tom sort of attitude. Well, people are complicated. Who’s to say that Esca is going to process his slavery and manumission in a storybook fashion, by getting pouty and throwing everything into confusion? Perhaps his loyalty and friendship towards Marcus are as fitting and as noble as outrage might have been.

      Glad you’re a kindred fan of Miss Sutcliff and her wonderful books.

      • J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

        Incidentally, your comment is exactly what I mean about this story having difficulties, but not necessarily weaknesses. There are parts that cause committed fans of the book to scratch their heads and chew their lips, but whatever the sticking points, the story remains a firm favourite.

  2. The Eagle of the Ninth | Rosemary Sutcliff | Library of Libation review « ROSEMARY SUTCLIFF | the eagle of the ninth book | the eagle film | about books, reviews, film, tv, radio, quotes said,

    […] More of the review at the Eagle of the Ninth | Rosemary Sutcliff | Library of Libation […]

  3. Judging Rosemary Sutcliff’s classic of children’s literature and historical fiction The Eagle of the Ninth on two levels | 10/10 Review « ROSEMARY SUTCLIFF | the eagle of the ninth book | the eagle film | about writing, books, reviews, f said,

    […] David Urbach has pointed me to a blogger’s 10/10 review of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth. Rosemary Sutcliff’s most famous book ought to be looked at in two different ways, and judged on two levels. Firstly, any reader venturing into historical fiction will be instantly drawn to it as a deserving classic. Every word of praise afforded The Eagle of the Ninth is surely deserved, and every criticism should be scrutinised heavily. This book is not only a simple story; it is a revelation. It is a sudden meeting between the children’s and young adults’ fiction of the ’80s and ’90s, when children’s literature began to be taken seriously; and literature from the early twentieth century and the nineteenth century, when writers felt able to wax philosophic and lyrical, and were not so concerned with spending a hundred pages on diligently establishing a scene and building meticulously to a grand climax or a cheap twist. Source: The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff  | Library of Libation […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: