Rosemary Sutcliff children’s book classic The Eagle of the Ninth reviewed by Brian Alderson

Rosemary Sutcliff, was provided by the time when the Roman Empire was crumbling at the edges  with (says critic and children’s book expert Brian Alderson):

a complex of subjects of great dramatic potential: civilising discipline set against tribal barbarities, the servants of Empire with an allegiance also to a homeland within its borders, the selfless devotion, on either side of the equation, to causes and to overarching human relationships (and even those between man and beast) … 

Decline and fall was too resonant a subject to be encompassed by a single story and The Eagle of the Ninth was the begetter of a chronological sequence that would carry the reader through centuries of warfare in disintegrating Roman Britain towards a kind of resolution four books later in Dawn Wind. (One of those four is the substantial novel for adults that seeks to establish an historic Arthur: Sword at Sunset.) The sequence is given continuity through the presence throughout of descendants of the Eagle’s Marcus and the flawed emerald ring that he inherits from his father, and it confirms that Rosemary Sutcliff’s narrative technique deployed in the first book proved more than dependable in the making of its successors.

Dramatic construction, the significance of landscape, a workable solution to the patterning of ancient speech, and, above all, an unflinching recognition of the disasters of war sustain the credibility of the saga. (John Terraine, the eminent military historian, claimed that Sutcliff – crippled from childhood by Still’s Disease – had a more refined concept of what it was to be a fighting soldier than most of the specialists in the field.)

(Brian Alderson founded the Children’s Books History Society and is a former Children’s Books Editor for The Times. These excerpts are from a fuller article last year in the excellent journal-magazine Books for Keeps)

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