Wednesday, 5 October 2011

October 2011: Rosemary Sutcliff's "The Eagle of the Ninth" and our next book

The group tackled Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth today: sadly Waitrose was right out of mulsum and dormice so we had to make do with coffee and mini Bakewells, but what an interesting discussion we had, with plenty of historical and social context.

In the book’s Foreword, Sutcliff wrote that she created the story from two elements: the disappearance of the Ninth Legion (Hispana) from the historical record following an expedition north to deal with Caledonian tribes in 117 AD; and the discovery on 9 October 1866 of a wingless Roman eagle in excavations at Silchester, near Basingstoke.   The lost legion is an enduring legend and exciting unsolved mystery - conjuring up an image of Roman soldiers tramping out from York, only to be swallowed forever by the swirling northern mists and rain. 
The first two chapters are challenging, introducing adult characters and using complex dialogue and descriptions - possibly a reason for the book being described by some as "difficult to get into".  Today's publishers would probably choose to edit out these chapters or move them down the order to become a reflective back story once some serious action has taken place.  But even for those who didn't enjoy them, the rest of the book was ample reward for persevering.

Sutcliff made no concessions to her readers: she expected there to be some familiarity with Latin names and places and with the history and geography of Roman Britain.  Is this evidence of the change in educational focus in the past sixty years - dumbing down, even - with the teaching of history no longer having a linear contextual approach, and most children having little Latin education?  

Although this is a story about two male characters, it was felt to be an enjoyable read for both girls and boys of around Year 8 and upwards - once the problem of getting them to take it down from the library shelves had been overcome.  It was noticeable that the key female character was written from a 1950s perspective: the subservient home-maker/girlfriend/wife, who had no adventures or strong views of her own - despite historical evidence to the contrary about early British women's role in society - and the issue of slavery is dealt with lightly: whilst entirely foreign to us, neither Marcus or Esca had any cause for comment.

Sutcliff was writing about a time of significant upheaval and unrest, when British tribes and the Roman occupiers were colliding and society was fragmenting, with some choosing to stay and build their lives here while others returned home.  According to one reviewer, Marcus is 'a typical Sutcliff hero: a dutiful Roman who is increasingly drawn to the British world of "other scents and sights and sounds; pale and changeful northern skies and the green plover calling'."  We liked him, but we liked Esca better.

In summary: we enjoyed Eagle of the Ninth very much and some of us would like to read more of Sutcliff's work - perhaps The Silver Branch which is the next in the series, or some of her Arthurian legends, or The Queen Elizabeth Story (1950), or Black Ships Before Troy (which was published posthumously in 1993).

Our book for 2 November is Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stephenson (1883): a pirate tale of buried gold, Pew and the black spot, Captain Flint, Ben Gunn and his requests for cheese, Long John Silver - that most enduring of pirates - and the boy Jim.  "Them that die'll be the lucky ones!"

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