Ever since 30 November 2003, when I read that Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth was finally to be filmed, I have been intending to re-read that childhood classic. As the title suggests, the Ninth Legion certainly lurks in the background, but if I were asked to sum up the central theme in one sentence, I would not have said: "the Picts slaughter most of the invaders, but a few survivors attempt to fight their way back"! But this seems to be the premise of the proposed movie.
The theme of the book that I recalled from childhood was quite different. And a re-reading confirmed my hazy memory.
Above all, I was struck by Miss Sutcliff's debt to Rudyard Kipling (which I had not noticed thirty years ago). Of course, in today's world of web and wiki, it is easy to discover that she had a life-long interest in Kipling, culminating in the writing of a biography (long out of print). The most striking parallel for me is the little turf altar that Marcus builds in Chapter 11, because it is surely an echo of a scene sketched by Kipling in Puck of Pook's Hill.
"Wait awhile,” said Pertinax, and he made a little altar of cut turf, and strewed heather-bloom atop, and laid upon it a letter from a girl in Gaul.
"What do you do, O my friend?” I said.
"I sacrifice to my dead youth,” he answered, and, when the flames had consumed the letter, he ground them out with his heel. Then we rode back to that Wall of which we were to be Captains.
Other readers will notice other echoes of Kipling in Miss Sutcliff's prose. But, unfortunately, she seems to have used him as a historical source, too. That is clearly where she gets the mistaken idea that the lands of the Selgovae and Votadini, in the hinterland of the Antonine Wall, were the province of Valentia. And that Agricola had built a northern wall. And other minor points, besides.
But it would be churlish to criticise a novel of 1954 for misrepresenting an archaeology that, fifty years on, is still in parts obscure. And not even a grumpy emperor can find fault with sublime prose like this (Marcus' farewell to the ex-centurion who has "gone native"):
They looked back when they had gone a few paces, and saw him standing as they had left him, already dimmed with mist, and outlined against the drifting mist beyond. A half-naked, wild-haired tribesman, with a savage dog against his knee; but the wide, well-drilled movement of his arm as he raised it in greeting and farewell was all Rome. It was the parade-ground and the clipped voice of trumpets, the iron discipline and the pride. In that instant Marcus seemed to see, not the barbarian hunter, but the young centurion, proud in his first command, before even the shadow of the doomed legion fell on him. It was to that centurion that he saluted in reply.
Then the drifting mist came between them.
I wonder if the film will manage to capture that pathos, and I worry ...