Around the time of the release of the film The Eagle, Charlotte Higgins wrote in the Guardian: “Not just a rollicking adventure, Rosemary Sutcliff‘s The Eagle of the Ninth … is a touching true story about love and loyalty”. She enjoyed looking back on a childhood favourite that she had reread many times.
I call it a children’s story; my copy, with its gorgeous line drawings by C Walter Hodges, bears my name on the title page in barely joined-up handwriting. But Sutcliff claimed her books readable by anyone from nine to ninety, and she was right. In an interview in 1992, the year she died, she said: “I don’t write for adults, I don’t write for children. I don’t write for the outside world at all. Basically, I write for some small, inquiring thing in myself.” I have read The Eagle of the Ninth dozens of times; and as the reading self changes, so does the book. When I last read the story, it was the quality of the prose that delighted, the rightness with which Sutcliff gives life to physical sensation. A battle fought through the grey drizzle of a west country dawn is illuminated by “firebrands that gilded the falling mizzle and flashed on the blade of sword and heron-tufted war spear”. Perfect, too, is a set-piece in which Marcus, on a stiflingly hot day, puts his British hunting companion’s chariot-team through their paces. “The forest verge spun by, the fern streaked away between flying hooves and whirling wheels . . . Then, on a word from Cradoc, he was backed on the reins, harder, bringing the team to a rearing halt, drawn back in full gallop on to their haunches. The wind of his going died, and the heavy heat closed round him again. It was very still, and the shimmering, sunlit scene seemed to pulse on his sight.” Sutcliff, tellingly, has those black chariot ponies – “these lovely, fiery little creatures” – descended from the royal stables of the Iceni, the tribe who had almost cast Rome out of Britain. It is a delicately inserted hint of danger to come.