The Eagle of the Ninth, promoted as a children’s book, is also ‘magnificent’ adult fiction, an ‘outstanding’ historical novel, and better than Simon Scarrow books, said reviewer Bob Salter on Amazon in 2009. Like director of the film of The Eagle of the Ninth, Kevin Macdonald, he likened the story to a Western film; it made him think of 1966 film The Appaloosa with Marlon Brando.
For once the advertising hype is spot on. This book is indeed one of the outstanding children’s books of the last century. But that is to do it a great injustice for it is also a magnificent read for adults. (On its) 50th anniversary it remains as fresh as ever. Rosemary Sutcliff’s first editions are still sought by enthusiastic collectors for very good reason. Her books provide the bench mark for historical writing. The recent writings covering Roman Britain by Simon Scarrow are very enjoyable but pale in comparison to The Eagle of the Ninth.
The story concerns a young man who travels North beyond Hadrians wall deep into Caledonia as the Romans knew Scotland, to try and find out the fate of his Fathers lost legion and extinguish the dishonour to him, and more importantly his Father as a result of this event. This is based on a true event, when the Ninth Roman Hispanic Legion whose first commander was Julius Caesar himself, disappeared into the mists of Scotland never to be heard of again. With the aid of a native ally rescued from the gladiatorial arena, he disguises himself as a travelling occulist and ventures into the Pictish ‘Heart of Darkness’. The Picts were a terrifying enemy to take on in their own mountain fastness as the Hispanic found to their cost. To succeed he needs to bring home the Legions Eagle from its new nest of vipers. Will he succeed against incredible odds for the sake of his fathers honour.
The book is well written as it always is from Sutcliff. Her flowing prose and enthusiasm for her subject always full to brimming. The action never lets up. The book reads very much as a Western adventure and could easily be transferred to this genre. I think of Marlon Brando in ‘The Appaloosa‘ (1966) when he disguises himself as a Mexican to head off into enemy Country in the hope of reclaiming his stolen horse. The Picts substitute seamlessly for the Red Indians and the young Romans ally seems like a Tonto with his Lone Ranger. Perhaps I have watched too many Westerns! But whatever your age this is one of the great historical adventure stories. As fresh today as it was over fifty years ago when it was first published. If you have not read it, then it is certainly time you did.