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The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
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The Eagle of the Ninth (original 1954; edition 2019)

by Rosemary Sutcliff (Author), C. Walter Hodges (Illustrator)

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2,378534,508 (4.03)176
A young centurion ventures among the hostile tribes beyond the Roman Wall to recover the eagle standard of the Ninth, a legion which mysteriously disappeared under his father's command.
Member:Willoyd
Title:The Eagle of the Ninth
Authors:Rosemary Sutcliff (Author)
Other authors:C. Walter Hodges (Illustrator)
Info:Slightly Foxed (2019), hardcover
Collections:Your library, To read
Rating:*****
Tags:Fiction children

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The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff (1954)

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The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff is so much more than the usual riveting adventure story - though it is most definitely that. It's deep in thought and emotion, vibrantly vivid in character and setting, and rich with living history and with truths about life and people. This story of the journey and quest of two young men holds much meaning for me, even more now than it did when I first read and loved it as a young teenager. I couldn't have known then that my future life experience would be, in some ways, oddly similar to that of the main character. Rather than being an overview of the book itself, my review is a chronicle of my ever deeper connection with this story and its characters.
__________

I first came across The Eagle of the Ninth by chance the spring I was 15 years old, and once I picked it up, I couldn't stop reading. I fell immediately and irrevocably in love with the book, its characters, its sequels, and the setting of Roman Britain. It was my first experience with the author, and it was one of the most memorable reading experiences I've ever had. I vividly recall sitting on the floor glued to the book, heedless of the homework I was supposed to be doing and only half aware of the fresh breeze blowing through my window. I was drawn in by both the opening battle scenes and the bright, peaceful magic of the friendship scenes in the garden. The characters were more vivid and alive than almost any book I'd read, and I've been endeared to them ever since then. The book was incredibly deep, and it made me think and feel so much even then. I was riveted through the heightened danger of the climax, desperate to find out what happened next. My heart was in my throat, and I genuinely couldn't see how the two main characters would ever survive the showdown - I had to keep reading. Except for one other book, I think it was the most intense novel I'd read at the time. I loved it. I couldn't read the sequel soon enough, and I immediately became a devoted fan of the author and her works.
__________

I read The Eagle of the Ninth for the second time less than two years after the first. As much as I loved the book the first time, I experienced a far deeper connection with it during my re-read, and I deeply identified with the main character in an unexpected way I couldn't have anticipated or shared in before.

That second read came at age 17, just after the onset of a life-altering chronic illness that shattered my big dreams, destroyed my hopes of the future, and left me fighting my way through each day.

To my surprise, since I hadn't thought of the book in that way before, I found in the pages of The Eagle of the Ninth that the young protagonist, Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, shared my experience. Marcus's life-altering illness was a severe career-ending wound sustained in battle, not the type of illness I had, but it was comparable and had a strangely similar effect on him as my condition did for me, despite obvious differences. His glowing hopes and dreams for the future, like mine, were dashed to bits. He was bedridden, and, like me, he spent hours forced to lie in bed watching the block of sunlight drift across the walls and listening to the sounds of household life go on beyond them. I had felt and still felt the inner ache Marcus felt lying in that bed, and I recognized it as I read. I felt it again while reading, both for myself and for Marcus, whose plight I keenly felt and empathized with - not just as a reader but as someone who had been through it too, and at very nearly the same age.

Like me, Marcus spent much of his time lying there cut off from the world, isolated, and alone. Like me, he faced the inner battle that accompanied the long days in bed and long nights of lost sleep. Like me, he was deeply, achingly lonely. Like me, he was deeply afraid - afraid for his health and afraid for his future, though he did a good job of hiding it from others. Like me, he held on to his hopes for the future even though they were impossible . . . until the news and reality hit that those hopes could never be restored . . . and, along with that realization, despair as he let his hopes go. Like me, Marcus felt as if his life was effectively over before it had hardly begun - because how could life keep going after what happened? He had been young and strong and had a full, bright, and meaningful life ahead of him - until he wasn't and didn't. Though he survived, he was left bedridden and crippled, seemingly doomed to live out his days that way.

As I watched Marcus lying there in bed, his story seemed strangely parallel in some ways, though of course not all, to my own life as I lay in bed reading this book, and I'm pretty sure I remember that it made me cry to realize it. I had never before read a book about any character, much less a young hero, who spent more time flat on his back in bed than I did!

In addition - though I can't recall whether I knew or remembered it at the time - the author, Rosemary Sutcliff, was an invalid as well, to a vastly greater extent than either me or Marcus, who were only partial and temporary invalids. Sutcliff battled juvenile rheumatoid arthritis from childhood, spent her formative years bed-bound at home or in the hospital, and was wheelchair-bound for the rest of her life. I can't help but imagine that Marcus's experience was born from her own, and it was written as only someone who has lived it can. Reading that part of Marcus's story was comforting for me as well as sad and painful, and I felt a kinship with Marcus and other young people in the real world who have had that experience, including so many who have had it far, far worse than me. I've read very few novels since then about young people who were ill for long periods, and none prior to it, and I'm grateful that Sutcliff wrote this book for other young individuals like me and herself.

This newfound, meaningful connection gave me an extra fondness for the book and its author and main character. I didn't realize then how meaningful it truly was or realize the rest of the similarities between me and Marcus - but I would later on as my future unfolded.
__________

I began reading this beloved book again this month, for the first time in a few years, and as I reconnected with the story and its beloved protagonist once again, I recalled again that special parallel between me and Marcus, even more keenly than I periodically had through the years between now and the last time I read it. And as I did so, I was suddenly hit with the realization that the connection, parallels, and similarities between Marcus, me, and our journeys were far greater than I had previously supposed. And it made me cry to contemplate it. Because his story didn't end with him lying in bed wounded. That was only the beginning, even if it seemed to him like the end of his story and the effective end of his life.

Like me, Marcus lay in bed unable to get up and struggled to find the strength to keep fighting and going on. But like me, he did keep fighting and did go on. His dreams and goals seemed impossible and hopeless, but instead of resigning himself never to pursue them, he kept striving toward them. He could never be a soldier again, but he found other, more important dreams to pursue. Even those dreams seemed impossible - and would've been for a less determined man. But though so many people scorned his goal as unattainable and impossible, he pursued it anyway against all odds.

That's what I'm doing. Life does go on even when it seems too difficult. It gets easier. Like Marcus, I'm healing from that illness. But like his, it hasn't gone away, even though it's greatly improved, and sometimes it gets worse again, as his did. However, both of us have gone on anyway and refused to let it stop us. Marcus was left as a lame man, doomed to walk with a limp and feel pain for the rest of his life. But he walked again and lived a meaningful life despite injury and hardship. And he pursued his "impossible" dreams - which remained despite their revision. The young man who at first couldn't walk and could later walk only with difficulty went on his noble and perilous quest anyway, tramping through the wilderness, lame leg and all, in search of the dream he carried from the start.

And I'm doing the same. I'm crippled in a way, but I haven't halted even though going on is still difficult. Like Marcus, I'm healing in spirit and heart as well as in body. Like him, I'm walking ahead on a long, hard road with many obstacles in the way of my journey. But like Marcus, I'm forging ahead toward my revised dreams anyway, against all odds. And like him, I believe I'll reach my goal, even if it still looks impossible - and should still be. Marcus pursued his dream relentlessly, and it paid off as a direct result of that determined pursuit. He refused to settle for a mediocre life. And although it looked different than he expected in the end, his dream was restored when it should have remained dead. He reached his goal against all odds, when he should logically have failed. And as I follow in his footsteps, figurative limp and all, so will I.

Until I read this book again just now, I had forgotten the unexpected words Marcus says to Esca near the end, if I ever noticed them. They didn't mean to me before what they mean now, and they struck me like they hadn't before, piercing straight to my heart. Just after the two characters return from their journey, Marcus has finally found inner freedom from the inner and outer scars of his crippling wound, even though those scars still remain. Esca is still inwardly living in the shadow of past slavery, and Marcus hurts to see it and urges him to let it go. Marcus tells Esca that neither of them can let their scars define them. They can't live their lives under the shadow of the deep wounds of the past. They must forge on as free men, not living as slaves to the hurts they went through. Those words of truth are for me as much as for Marcus and Esca, and they help me and mean the world to me, as I'm sure they have for many others. Hearing that message from a character I look up to - and through Marcus, his author - helps me as I strive to do just that. Like Marcus, I refuse to let those things define me. Like him, I'm pressing on in freedom and overcoming my own obstacles, striving toward my dreams. Right now, I'm at the place Marcus was in at the beginning of the final chapter of The Eagle of the Ninth. I've gone on to finish with difficulty the next goal ahead of me. And now that I have, I'm once again face to face with the unknown future that's been in the background this whole time. I'm still striving toward my lofty goal, and I believe I'll reach it one day, but as of now, it's still impossible. I'm waiting indefinitely for a breakthrough to make those things possible. And I believe that my breakthrough will come just as Marcus's did.

Someday several years from now, when I reach the goals that are so close to my heart, I will re-read The Eagle of the Ninth again, and identify with Marcus yet more, because I'll be in the place he was in at the very end of the book, when all his most precious dreams come to fruition. I know I'll get there just as he did. And as it was for him, it will be a sweet and joyful day.
__________

The above narrative captures just a small part of why I love The Eagle of the Ninth and what it means to me. It is a phenomenal book in every way, and there are so many reasons why. Here are just a few of many other things I appreciate about this book:

-As with every Sutcliff book, the settings and characters of The Eagle of the Ninth pulse with life and color. Each character is described in just enough detail to bring him or her vividly to life, and each one feels like a real person the reader is acquainted with. The settings are achingly gorgeous - the high, mist-crowned mountain crags, the rushing breeze and golden sunshine on the green of the garden, the shimmering ripples of the highland lochs, the foam-white sprays of blossoms on branches, the deep gold of the lamplight on the walls, and the scarlet and purple sunset shining on the hills. Each place is so immediate and real that I feel as if I can smell, feel, see, and taste each living detail, and the beauty fills my heart to the point of bursting.
-Marcus. He's such a wonderful character, and though I love so many of the others in this book, he's my favorite. Marcus kind, compassionate, caring, sympathetic, and understanding. He is full of character, wisdom, maturity, skill, valiance, and keen instinct, yet he's young and doubts his own abilities – and he's not perfect by any means. He has such strength of character and leadership that his soldiers and his friends would follow him anywhere - and they prove it by doing so. I find it endearing that he becomes stiffly proud and arrogant when he feels vulnerable and uncomfortable - yet is truly humble underneath and in reality. He's a stickler for honor, but he cares far more about the honor of his empire and especially his father than about his own honor. He's not aware of his own humility, and the story is from his perspective, so it's never stated in the narrative; rather, his deep, unassuming humility shows in his words and actions. He is stubborn, determined, and immovable, pursuing his cause and what's right no matter what, refusing to give up no matter the odds. And it pays off when he overcomes the worst odds, going to great lengths for the eagle and refusing to settle for life as an invalid. He is unflinchingly, selflessly, coolly, recklessly, purposefully, and sacrificially brave. Even and especially when he's terrified, he is still strong and courageous, even when it means facing down and enduring death or excruciating pain.
-As for the other characters, I could go on and on about them too, especially Cottia and Esca. But I shall be brief. I love Cottia's queenlike poise and grace and the fierce and fiery spirit that matches her flaming hair and causes Marcus to call her, "You little vixen!" more than once. I love Esca's loyalty to Marcus, his courage that is every bit as great as Marcus's own, his slow, grave smile, his fighting spirit, and the wildness about him that can never be fully tamed. I love Uncle Aquila and the way he cares about and advocates for Marcus and the others while pretending to be grumpy - while all the while his big heart shines through from beneath. I love Cub's refusal to be parted from Marcus, his wild, exuberant joy each time he is reunited with his young master, and the way he comforts and stands by Marcus when he needs it most. And I love how even the minor characters are interesting, complex, and often endearing. I appreciate Centurion Drusillus, Guern the Hunter, and Marcus's father, who are wonderful even though they have less time on the page. Even Marcus's enemies are almost likeable, and even Aunt Valeria is bursting with personality.
-One of my favorite things about this book is the portrayal of friendships. Marcus is lonely, desolate, and friendless for part of the book, but in a sequence of providential events, he gains three close and loyal friends who are each totally devoted to him in their own way. With Esca, Marcus shares a deep and brotherly bond that motivates Esca to let down his guard, care for Marcus, and walk into unimaginable danger and threat of death alongside his friend. Instead of the bondage of a slave following his master, Esca follows Marcus as a devoted friend, even when he's free to do otherwise. As for Cottia, I love her friendship with Marcus as well, more than I can put into words. I love how Marcus understands her, fights for her, laughs with her, and takes care of her - and how Cottia supports him, brightens his dim world, and waits many months for his return, among so much else. Then, there's Cub - as faithful a canine friend as any man could wish for, with devotion and loyalty equal to Esca's. The four of them bring light and laughter to each other's worlds. Marcus reaches out to each of them in turn and earns each of their loyalty. He helps them when they need it most, and in return, they help him when he himself is most in need. What I love most about each friendship is how each of the three chooses Marcus when they could leave and be parted from him – and none of the three can imagine or bear the thought of parting. They each separately choose to follow him, be united with him, and remain devoted to him when they have a choice between that and the alternative, and that's beautiful to me.
-The story has a surprisingly large amount of wit and humor, and it made me laugh out loud often. Marcus's narration is often sarcastic, ironic, or hilariously biting, especially his mental commentary on other people - and he laughs at himself as well. The banter and clever dialogue the characters exchange is humorous and delightful, and even in the midst of danger, the characters exchange light or grim jokes. And the comical portrayal of Marcus's alias, Demetrius of Alexandria, had me laughing throughout one funny scene.
-The themes are beautiful and profound, worked subtly, naturally, and meaningfully throughout with the skilled hand of a true master - as is the case with everything about Sutcliff's works. Among the deep themes are sacrifice, loyalty, leadership, hope, healing; honor and shame; courage and fear; freedom and bondage; and life and death.
-I'm amazed at how Sutcliff portrays each character sympathetically and with complexity – human and not either black or white, as real people are. Even each Marcus's enemies were also friends first. And a few of the good characters aren't totally good. But as each of us must in the real world, the main characters still pursue what they believe is right, and I love that. Sutcliff also truthfully portrays warring cultures as neither good nor evil – even though they may technically be enemies, there are friendships across the barriers of culture. I love that Marcus learns to see other characters as people, not on the basis of nationality or other difference between them – and that he's willing to learn it. Even though his allegiance is to Rome, he grows to understand the British culture – and he eventually transfers his home and allegiance to Roman Britain.
-And of course I could go on and on.
__________

The Eagle of the Ninth is an amazing book, and it's a lasting favorite of mine for good reason. It will always remain one of the best books I've ever read, and it only grows more wonderful to me as time goes on. It's also stood the test of time through many decades with readers who have gone before me, and I know it will always remain a classic by way of its great quality. You're missing out if you haven't read it, so go read it if you haven't! It's a wonderful read for anyone who loves young adult adventure or historical fiction – and is just as good if you don't. And if you have read it before or are a fan, I hope you'll appreciate it more or be motivated to read it again.

As for me, I look forward to re-reading The Eagle of the Ninth again and again and seeing it even more deeply each time – along with my own life and self as a result. As I've dug deeper into the book this time, I know I've by no means exhausted the truth, heart, and meaning it contains for me personally and in general, and I look forward to discovering yet more when I read it yet again someday. ( )
  Aerelien | Mar 23, 2020 |
Well enough for a mid-20th century book for boys and those interested in Roman Britain. A young man's quest north of Hadrian's wall with his slave turned companion. The close relationship between ex-centurion Marcus and the ex-captive/gladiator, slave then freed Esca, is a given with no examination beyond Marcus being an all around good guy, who also happens to enjoy the visits of the 13-15 year old girl Cottia. ( )
  quondame | Jul 17, 2019 |
Great to read this classic again after many years. The story of Marcus Aquila and his quest to resurrect the lost 9th Legion Hispana is beautifully written, thoughtful and sympathetic, with honest depictions of both Roman and Briton. As a classicist I might quibble with a few minor points of the author's depictions of the legions, but it doesn't in any way distract from what is a great escapist read. The scene where the recovered eagle is laid to rest is beautifully done and brings a tear to the eye. Simply a lovely book, I hope that modern generations can embrace it as much as I did. ( )
1 vote drmaf | May 22, 2019 |
Ten years or so ago I was sitting in the waiting area for the Indiana branch of Immigration and Citizenship. The room is always a fertile ground for imagining people's stories and I found my attentions drifting between my book and the cast of characters surrounding me. A man walked in the room, looked puzzled and walked to the reception desk, only a few feet away from my distracted digressions. He introduced himself in our local way and began to tell the story of his son, one Private Jones who was stationed in Baghdad and one who had fallen in love with a local and was soon to be married. Because of the precarious security situation, this was 2004, just before the Civil War, he thought it prudent to have his soon to be daughter--in-law stateside immediately. The receptionist explained that the immigration process would have to begin there. "But, its Iraq," the man stated, loud enough for everyone in the waiting area to hear. The manager was summoned and the same process was explained again. The man thanked them and left. I have often wondered about Private Jones and his family.

Such thoughts lingered as I struggled through The Eagle of the Ninth. I first became aware of the author and work years ago when Will Self stated that he was reading her trilogy to his children. The standard oppositions of slave/master, colonial/native, and hero/coward are all explored -- though through a YA lens, to be honest. The thrust of the plot was reminiscent of Stevenson's ,[b:Kidnapped|325128|Kidnapped (David Balfour, #1)|Robert Louis Stevenson|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328869457s/325128.jpg|963266] so much historical fiction is, as we know. It was refreshing that the native Britains are not represented as barbarians and the Romans aren't effete bureaucrats abhoring the locals.

This may have been the best written two star book I've read. My response may be the result of fatigue and nagging sinuses, though I won't challenge that assertion with a further reading of Sutcliff any time soon.
( )
  jonfaith | Feb 22, 2019 |

It's really a three point seven five, but who's counting?

The main characters and encountered characters are fun to meet and follow. ( )
  nkmunn | Nov 17, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (24 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rosemary Sutcliffprimary authorall editionscalculated
Crossley-Holland, KevinIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Diekmann, MiepTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
García Lorenzana, FranciscoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hodges, C.WalterIllustratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mikolaycak, CharlesCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Taylor, GeoffCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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From the Fosseway westward to Isca Dumnoniorum the road was simply a British trackway, broadened and roughly metalled, strengthened by corduroys of logs in the softest places, but otherwise unchanged from its old estate, as it wound among the hills, thrusting further and further into the wilderness.
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"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?" . . .
"And when the time comes that we begin to understand your world, too often we lose the understanding of our own."
A great and never-ceasing smother of noise: voices, marching feet, turning wheels, the ring of hammer on armourer's anvil, the clear calling of trumpets over all. This was the great Wall of Hadrian, shutting out the menace of the North.
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A young centurion ventures among the hostile tribes beyond the Roman Wall to recover the eagle standard of the Ninth, a legion which mysteriously disappeared under his father's command.

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