Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Eagle Of The Ninth

by Rosemary Sutcliff, a book review.

I recently finished listening to an audio book by an English author Rosemary Sutcliff, called The Eagle Of The Ninth. It's actually a children's book, but I enjoyed listening to it while knitting a cardi. It's a story of a young Roman officer Marcus who was raised by his uncle and aunt after the death of his parents and got his first comission as a centurion in Britain. He sustains serious injuries during his very first battle against the British tribes and has to leave the army.

Marcus goes to stay with his another uncle who has spent his whole life in Britain working as a government official and is now retired. He is suffering from depression as he is basically unable to walk and has to be carried everywhere on a litter. Once he visits gladiatorial games and saves the life of a British slave Esca whom he later buys. The two gradually become friends and later Marcus frees Esca.

Thanks to one of his uncle's friends who is a skilled surgeon, Marcus finally becomes able to walk again though he stays lame. He is still uncertain about what to do with himself, when he hears a rumour which forever changes his life. It all started with Marcus's father who was the commander of the infamous Ninth Legion, which rebelled against the authorities and was later annihilated by the British tribes to the North of the Hadrian's Wall.

Marcus always wanted to restore his father's honour and so he is very thrilled to hear that there is a chance to recover the lost Eagle, the symbol of the Legion, which is presumably kept somewhere in the North by the tribe called Seals. With the permission and knowledge of the Roman authorities, he disguises himself as an eye specialist and sets up on a dangerous journey together with Esca, who chooses to accompany him out of his own free will, not as a slave any more, but as a free man...

There was a screen adaptation in 2011 produced by Hollywood which was remarkably decent by the modern standards. In fact, I first watched the film and then decided to read the book but had a difficulty finding it. Now that I'm acquainted with both, I can safely state that the book was better, imo, which is often the case with screen adaptations (though not always).

It's been three years since I watched the film so I could be mistaken about certain things, but there were some notable differences with the book. First, Marcus appears older in the movie, in the beginning of the book, he is just 18, but this, of course, is rather insignificant. The bigger change was the removal of the main character's romantic interest, a neighbour girl of the British descent who he falls in love with.

It's actually rather strange since Hollywood is known to introduce romantic plots in the stories were there were none originally, but here they totally edit out any females. She was rather young for our modern tastes (they meet each other when she is only 12 and get engaged when she is around 14), but we must not forget that 15-16 was a normal marriage age in Roman times, and anyway, they could have made her older just as they did with Marcus.

Further, as far as I can remember, in the film when the two start on their journey, Esca is still a slave and that creates the conflict between the two, while in the book Esca certainly resented his slavery (he became a slave after taking part in an unsuccesful revolt against the Romans), but Marcus always treated him more as a friend as anything else and in fact, released him before they started their quest.

The book actually portrayed British tribes with much sympathy and showed them as men capable of honourable deeds who certainly possessed a certain degree of civilisation. In the film, Seals are shown as savages and cannibals. I'm sorry, but Europeans never fell so low, no not even the barbarian tribes North to the Hadrian's Wall.

There are some other changes, the most significant of which is the end of the story which is very different in the book and in the movie. In general, I would recommend both versions as they promote the values of honour, loyalty, friendship and doing your duty. The film has its violent moments, so may be not suitable for young children.

By the way, did you know which was the most popular kitchen gadget in the 2nd century Britain? A bronze cooking pan made the woman the source of envy of all her neighbours:) 

Watch the trailer on YouTube:

The Eagle

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