Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth | A source of ‘enjoyment and provocation’

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I am not persuaded that this commentator correctly characterises Esca’s relationship with Marcus in Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Eagle of the Ninth. Rosemary’s view of the slave-master relationship is not a ‘romantic’ one. Nor did the film The Eagle ‘fail’, although it was not as successful in the eyes of all the critics and with audiences as was intended by the makers! But there is ‘a lot of … provocation’ to be gained from the comments as well as the book!

I love ancient Roman history but Sutcliff writes so clearly and articulately that I don’t think a young reader, without knowledge of this period, is at a real disadvantage, except maybe in terms of their interest. Americans are predominantly interested in American history, of course, and there is a long and very rich tradition of children’s American historical fiction. A lot of it focuses on the slave experience, but Eagle takes the opposite view. Here, perhaps, is where the book might run into trouble with a non-British readership: Esca, Marcus’ slave, is written quite romantically, as a devoted indentured servant who would follow his owner to the ends of the earth. This is very out of sync with most modern literature (for obvious reasons) and really dates the book. It is a unique challenge for young readers to imagine this story from Esca’s perspective, and I think a really valuable exercise. The somewhat-recent film version starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell is decidedly not child-friendly but at the same time works to rectify these elements.

I truly believe that this element of the book should not stop modern readers from enjoying this text. Maybe it’s a bit optimistic of me, but I really do think that there’s a lot of enjoyment and provocation to be gained from this book and I hope that the failure of the film (well… I liked it… no one else did) doesn’t dissuade you from enjoying it. ★ ★ ★ ★ /5

Source: presenting… books!

4 comments

  1. Anyone who’s read other of RS’ novels like Lantern Bearers or Outcast will understand that her view of slavery was not a romantic one and its depiction in EOTN much more subtle. It’s hard for us to understand the complex but commonplace nature of slavery in the ancient world, which I feel RS captures well. Anyone could potentially become a slave, vulnerable to the vagaries of fate and the nature of the person who now owned him or her. The British tribes themselves routinely enslaved defeated rival tribesmen – the loss of freedom might only ever lie one raid away.

    Even before he buys Esca, Marcus immediately recognizes him as a kindred spirit, irrespective of his status. They are of a similar age and Esca’s position as Marcus’ body-slave is necessarily a close one. A certain blind naivety prevents Marcus from understanding that their friendship is an ambivalent one, complicated by the inequality of the master-slave relationship and the barrier of cultural difference. Esca sees this far more clearly than Marcus, who initially can’t comprehend just how alien the Roman way of life might be for a Briton.

    Interaction with Esca and Cottia allows Marcus to see outside the rather narrow bounds of his own background and worldview. He perceives the immense distance that lies between the British and Roman worlds, but also sees that “between individual people, people like Esca and Marcus and Cottia, the distance narrowed so that you could reach across it, one to another, so that it ceased to matter.” It’s a sign of his growing maturity that when he finally sees the “rightness” of giving Esca his freedom and with it the choices of a free man, Marcus is astonished that the option had not occurred to him earlier.

    The unanswered question for me about EOTN is what happened to Esca? Did he become Marcus’ devoted retainer for life or did he strike out and make a life of his own?

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  2. I think one of the things we have to remember, however the slavery aspect strikes us, is that when it came to the crunch Marcus *saved Esca’s life*, which would be bound to give rise to a huge mix of feelings: although Marcus represents in general the conquerors, on a personal level he is on Esca’s side.

    I feel that Rosemary Sutcliff studied this tension between slavery and gratitude more closely in “Outcast”, especially in the tension between Beric and Justinius near the end of the book.

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  3. I think the reviewer is saying that Sutcliff’s portrayal of slavery is romantic–i.e., idealistic–not that the relationship between Marcus and Esca is romantic. (If that’s what you took it to mean, too, then disregard this comment :D).

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    1. No, I understood that is what the reviewer meant,but just do not write as well or as clearly as Rosemary Sutcliff! I will not however disregard your comment! Thanks for writing. I do not think her view of slavery was romantic at all.

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