Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth and Warrior Scarlet have been listed by writer Philip Reeve as two of his favourite books, defined as ‘the books which mattered most to me while I was growing up … (which are) well worth tracking down’!.
…or I could have chosen Knight’s Fee, or The Lantern Bearers, or Sun-horse, Moon-horse, or Frontier Wolf… Rosemary Sutcliff is one of my favourite children’s authors, and I doubt she ever wrote a bad book, but these were the two I liked best when I was growing up.
The Eagle of the Ninth is set at the height of Roman rule in Britain. Marcus, who arrives as a young centurion imagining a glorious army career ahead of him, is invalided out of the legions after his first skirmish. Barred from the life he had imagined for himself, he sets off on a quest into the untamed wilderness north of Hadrian’s Wall to try to retrieve the eagle standard of his father’s legion, the 9th Hispana, lost when the 9th was wiped out by hostile tribes some years before.
It’s a superb adventure story, and it has everything you need in a book about the Romans – battles, gladiators, the lot. There is a wonderful sense of the Scottish landscape, some nail-biting escapes and chases, and even a hint of romance (I was terribly in love with Cottia when I was nine.) I can’t imagine why it’s never been turned into a movie (Comment: it is now, see elsewhere on this site!), but perhaps no movie could compete with the one which unfolds inside the reader’s imagination, prompted by Rosemary Sutcliff’s vivid descriptions.
Warrior Scarlet is a quieter sort of book, and I seem to recall making several false starts before I finally got into it, but I suspect it may be even better than The Eagle…. It’s the story of Drem, a boy growing up in a bronze-age settlement on the South Downs. Born with a withered right arm, he imagines that he will never be able to become one of the hunters of the tribe and win the right to wear the scarlet cloak of a warrior. The book follows him as he grows to manhood, and learns to overcome his handicap.
Like Marcus’s crippled leg in The Eagle of the Ninth, it is easy to see Drem’s useless arm as a reflection of Rosemary Sutcliff’s own disability (she spent her childhood and much of her adult life in great pain with a form of rheumatism). It’s hard to imagine that she ever walked very far, and certainly not into the sorts of wild and remote landscapes which she writes about, yet she describes them as well as any writer I can think of. It’s a triumph of the imagination; the same imagination which she uses to think herself into the mind of a young Roman officer or a bronze-age shepherd boy. A few of the historical details in her books may have been cast into doubt by new evidence which has emerged since they were written (for instance, most historians now accept that the 9th Legion wasn’t wiped out in Scotland at all but simply transferred to a new posting elsewhere in the empire) but the emotions still ring true, and the stories are still gripping, and they still bring the past to life.he scarlet cloak of a warrior.