“The Eagle of the Ninth” (1954) by Rosemary Sutcliffe is a book I first read a good 30 years ago. The current release of a film based on the story – The Eagle – prompted me to buy a copy of the book to refresh my memory. The story revolves around the hero Marcus, whose father was part of the Roman Ninth Legion, a legion which travelled north into the landscape that is now Scotland never to return. The eagle of the title is the standard the legion carried with them, lost along with the men of the Ninth. As I explored what I wanted to write about the book I realised I have always linked this story with Picnic at Hanging Rock – an Australian story of schoolgirls who go missing whilst on a picnic and whose true fate is never found.
The author talks in her Foreword of putting two historical events together – one the loss of the ninth legion, two the finding of a wingless Roman eagle in England. The combination sparked her imagination and created a story richly woven with historical insight/understanding.
I was surprised how long it took me to get in to the book. The writing felt quite dense for a children’s book – it may be that 30 years have changed what I consider easy reading, for I do not remember struggling with it decades ago... However, once I was engaged with the story I found that the book flowed, that I was wanting to find out what happened next. I was happy that I managed to read the book in a couple of days – had I taken longer I might have missed some of the echoes/references to previous parts of the story.
The Eagle of the Ninth was serialised on radio a couple of years after publication. There was also a television adaption made in 1977. The film “The Eagle” opened in the US in February 2011, with a UK release date of March 2011. My initial research on the film suggests that, as is so often the case, the film has taken liberties with the original text and in doing so tells a story that does not fully follow the novel’s plot.
If this story interests you I would urge you to explore more of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s work. There are several books associated with Roman Britain and a ring that travels through generations including “The Silver Branch”, “The Lantern Bearers” and “Sword at Sunset”.