Saturday, June 27, 2020

Fingal's Quest by Madeleine A. Polland

Fingal's Quest, set in 6th century Ireland and France, tells the story of a poor boy's quest to follow a monk, Columban, whom he is inexplicably drawn to. When Columban leaves for Gaul, Fingal follows, embarking on a journey that leads him to self-discovery and the realization that unless we love God first we can be drawn way from doing God's will and ultimately away from God.

It is 575 A.D. and thirteen-year-old Fingal Domnall is on his way to Bangor, the greatest monastic school in Ireland. Tired from his journey on foot, Fingal watches as a wealthy man, a red-haired boy his age and servant pass him by without greeting or acknowledgement. Later another traveling party approach and this time Fingal doesn't bother to look. But the boy, Diarmid is friendly and greets Fingal, telling him they are headed for Bangor.  Dairmid's father, Finian Mor, King of the Tribe of Connor will be placing his son in the care of the Abbot Comgall who is considered a very holy man. They offer to take Fingal the rest of the way.

When they arrive at Bangor, Fingal, shy and uncertain and without a father to guide him, watches with envy as Diarmid confidently walks with his father. Fingal is helped to find the abbot by the gatekeeper but on his way encounters a man who will change his life forever.  That man is a tall, very handsome monk with fair hair, whose strength and gentleness immediately appeal to Fingal, whose father died when he was very young.  The tall monk is Brother Columban who helps Fingal find the abbot.

Because he is poor, Fingal will enter the monastery as a "poor scholar" which means he must work to pay his way through the school. Fingal is assigned to work on the farm and to share a hut with the other two new boys. His master in his studies with be Brother Columban which thrills Fingal.

In the large refectory, Fingal meets Diarmid and the red-haired boy who ignored him, Cahal MacNellan. Cahal, whose father is a chieftain. Despite Fingal's claim that his father was "tutor to the children of Connacht's king..." and was also "far cousin to my lord Abbot", Cahal is furious that he has to share his hut with a "common peasant".  His complaint to Brother Columban is promptly dismissed.

Cahal mocks Fingal as the three boys work to build their hut, when he learns that Fingal has no books from which to study and that he is working on the farm. However Diarmid is eager to help Fingal, willing to lend him his books. To help him learn the Greek alphabet, Brother Columban carves the alphabet into a heavy flat stone which Fingal takes back to his hut. It isn't long before Fingal begins making good progress in his studies.

Fingal witnesses the holiness of Columban who heals a dying horse. It is at this time that Columban first challenges Fingal as to his reasons for coming to Bangor. Shortly after this, a ship arrives bearing strangers, men and boys from Gaul, who beg to study at Bangor so they can return to their homeland to "teach in our land where men are lost to God, and His word is no longer known!"  They tell Comgall that the destruction of Gaul by the invasion of the Huns has resulted in religion having "died among the ruins of the churches!...And that seems true though it is more than a hundred years since Gaul was ravaged! The cities lie in fragments and wild beasts roam in ruins grown no different from the forests. The churches are abandoned. God is dead." They indicate that although the people are still Christian, "they do not know any longer what it means, and in some places they have gone back to the old pagan gods. There are no schools, no teaching: learning is withered, my lord Abbot, and religion lost." Other than Monte Cassino and the work of Benedict, Europe is dark.

This dire revelation that Gaul had "never recovered through the long years from the crushing feet of Attila's destroying armies which had devastated cities, razed churches, and quenched for generations the light of European learning" leads Columban once again to approach the abbot with the request to travel to Gaul. Once again the abbot refuses to allow him to leave, as he dearly loves Brother Columban.

In the autumn, the monk Colmcille sails into Bangor from Iona to reveal that the faith is now spreading through the pagan kingdoms of Scotia and Northumbria and even into Wales as a result of the missionaries. Fired by Colmcille's zeal, Columban again requests to follow what he believes to be God's will in going to Gaul and is again refused by the abbot Comgall. Columban asks Colmcille to pray for him and by morning, Comgall has relented and given his permission for Columban to leave.

As the monks build a ship for Columban to sail to Gaul, Fingal hatches a plan to stowaway on the ship to be with his beloved Columban. The thought of staying at Bangor to continue his studies without his beloved Brother Columban make Fingal desperate. Diarmid agrees to go with him only so that he can get to Gaul faster. However, Cahal who hates Fingal, overhears their plans and when the time comes in the spring for Columban to sail, he reveals their plan to the holy monk. Fingal and Diarmid are hauled off the boat and reprimanded. However when another group of Franks arrive some months later, Fingal is determined to try again. This time Diarmid refuses to go along with his plans. Fingal is successful in sailing to Gaul, and has many adventures as he journeys across the country to meet up with Columban. Ultimately Fingal must come to realize the importance of putting God first, even before his beloved Columban.

Discussion

In Fingal's Quest, Madeleine Polland has crafted an engaging and thoughtful historical novel set in 6th century Ireland and France that offers young readers a chance to learn about this  time period and to explore some unique themes. There are few novels set in this era, so Fingal's Quest makes for interesting reading.

Polland references many historical events in her novel which are centered around the life of a real saint, St. Columban. In the late 500's A.D. Ireland was a country richly steeped in the Catholic faith. Monasteries were the center of learning and deep faith. Young men like Columban were determined to live holy lives. Columban was a handsome young man who was determined to overcome great temptations against chastity. To overcome these temptations, Columban tavelled to Lough Erne where he studied under Sinell, the abbot of Clauinis. He then travelled to Bangor, County Down, in Northern Ireland, to  monasteray led by the abbot Comgall. Columban was filled with the desire to preach and travel to Europe but Comgall was unwilling to let him do so. Eventually Columban travelled along with twelve monks, through Great Britain to Gaul. His mission was to revive the Catholic faith and the culture, destroyed by the Huns.

While the Catholic faith still existed in Gaul, the culture had collapsed and people no longer led Christian lives. The church was also in disarray, with bishops and priests lax in their faith as well. This was mainly due to the ruinous invasions of Attila the Hun, known as Attila the Scourge of God. Attila had been at war with various parts of the Roman Empire for years. He was known for his cruelty and as a destroyer of cities. In 451 A.D. he invaded Gaul, destroying the country as he went, razing to the ground entire towns and cities. Eventually he was stopped at Orleans, in the battle of Chalons.

As in the novel, King Gontram, who was the grandson of Clovis, the first king of the Franks, supported Columban and his monks in their preaching and gave Columban the ancient Roman castle of Annegray. Columban established several monasteries in France and Italy which became centers of learning and culture.He also set about attempting to reform bishops and clergy who had grown lax and refused to follow the rules of the faith.

Fingal's Quest explores the theme of love and how this virtue can be misapplied to both things and people in our lives, preventing us from doing God's will.  Fingal meets Brother Columban at Bangor and like the Abbot Comgall forms a deep attachment to the holy monk. For Fingal, it is the absence of a father and the "...immediate impression of the strength and gentleness he had longed for in a father..." that draws him to Brother Columban. But Fingal soon learns that Abbot Comgall also has a similar attachment to the holy monk. He is told by one of the boys that Brother Columban " was among the first monks to join Comgall in Bangor" and that the abbot "dotes on him" and will not let him leave. It is Columban's "...heart's desire to go to Europe and preach the word of God in the land where it is lost. There have been Franks come from Gaul who tell how their land is abandoned, and Columban feels that God has called him as he called Abraham to go to a far land. But Comgall will not hear of it. He loves him far too much, and holds him close." Columban remains obedient to his superior.

Fingal fails to see his love of Brother Columban, mirrored in the abbot's same love, has overtaken his love of God. Columban first attempts to explain this to Fingal after the miraculous healing of the horse."I speak of the love of God which you must learn to put first before all other loves, if you would be professed and serve God well. If you love God truly, then He will help you to come close to those who are close to Him. And who are closer than the animals and the tings that grow?" Fingal believes he loves God because he has left his home and his mother to serve God but Columban challenges the young boy to examine his heart more closely.

When Fingal and Diarmid are discovered hiding in Columban's ship, Fingal argues that Columban's leaving means there is nothing for him at Bangor.  But Columban tells him, "There is everything for you here, Fingal, my son. Everything you need for the life in God which you tell me you want to follow. But you must follow it for the love of God and God alone No one else will do. Fingal!" He warns Fingal, "....how long have I been held captive here by the love which my lord Abbot bears me? Held even against what I knew to be the will of God. Take care, Fingal - take care- of the chains of human love!"

Sadly it takes Fingal several years to learn this lesson. In this regard, Fingal's Quest realistically demonstrates to young readers how spiritual growth can take years and often involves some painful experiences. Fingal does eventually travel to Gaul where he is enslaved and then freed to finally meet up with Brother Columban at the ruins of Annegray. Fingal is not allowed to enter the novitiate at Annegray. As the months pass, the people Fingal met on his travels through Gaul in search of Columban and whom he led to the the faith, enter the novitiate at Annegray. When Fingal bitterly confronts Abbot Columban, he finally admits that he came to Annegray not to seek God but to seek the monk who has been like the father he lost.

Fingal doesn't learn the lesson about human love until he is asked to journey to a town across the mountains for herbs for Brother Columban the Younger who is dying. However, when Fingal returns to Annegray, the sick monk has died. One of the lay brothers, Remi tells Fingal that Abbot Columban's tremendous love of Brother Columban the Younger led him to pray to God that the seriously ill monk would not die. The sick monk told his fellow religious that it was Abbot Columban's prayers which caused the him great suffering. "So the love of my lord Abbot chains me in agony, and he will not let me die and reach my rest in God."  When Abbot Columban was told this, he realized that he was guilty of the same sin as Fingal.  Fingal goes to see Abbot Columban and tells him that this had made him understand his own failing. "It has brought me to understanding. I think I knew from the first what ti was you warned me against, but my heart was willful and I would  not see. But I would serve God truly. And I know now the power of human love that could step between and even the throne of God. I will learn to love God first."  This is the ultimate lesson of Fingal's Quest.

Polland was an exceptional writer of Catholic historical fiction whose stories featured interesting characters set in eras that appealed to young readers. A mark of a good historical fiction writer is the ability to craft a setting that is realistic and true to the era of the story. Polland does this admirably, especially in her portrayal of the extent of decay and collapse in Gaul in the 6th century. For example, the character Julius, whose family is one of the few who have retained their culture, who befriends Fingal tells him what happened in Gaul. "When the barbarians came swarming in...the beautiful stone halls and houses and the state building of the Romans were torn down in panic to strengthen the walls of the towns. But they were not to be kept out, and afterwards the walls crumbled and no one cared to maintain them. So the poor people take the stone to this day for thei building of their homes. You will see mud huts held up with Doric columns; slabs of marble quarried and polished and chiselled with love in the finest quarries of Italy are used to support their filthy thatch. And they take no heed of it. Beauty is dead in Gaul, Fingal and the love of it. Not only is religion lost - oh, yes, they are Christians, but they have forgotten what it means - but except among a few, culture is lost. Art, literature, sculpture, music, the fine art of building - they all mean less than nothing to these children of Attila."
This passage conveys the profound destruction of an entire culture and the desperate state of life, in a country ruined by an invader whom history remembers for his cruelty and rapaciousness.
  
Fingal's Quest will definitely appeal to readers of all ages who enjoy historical fiction. A highly recommended read!

Book Details:

Fingal's Quest by Madeleine A. Polland
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company Inc.    1997
191 pp.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Transmission by Morgan Rice

Transmission is the first book in the Invasion Chronicles by well-known fantasy and sci fi author Morgan Rice. In this novel, a terminally ill boy believes he is receiving transmissions from aliens and travels to SETI to get help in decoding them. But the transmissions, meant to be a warning, come to late to prevent a world-wide catastrophe for Earth.

Thirteen-year-old Kevin McKenzie has been having "visions" for weeks. Kevin, who lives with his  mother, an advertising agency employee, in Walnut Creek, tries to convince her the visions are real. It wasn't until he fainted that his mother finally took him to the doctor. This eventually let to the hospital and then to see Dr. Markham who diagnosed Kevin with a form of leukodystrophy.  The rare illness which affects the myelin sheath of the brain will eventually kill him. In the hallucinations, Kevin sees a strange landscape, palm trees with twisted trunks and a purple sky. And always there are two sets of numbers: 23h 06m 29.283s and -05 02' 28.59

When Kevin has another fainting spell and vision at school and begins talking about planets, the principal suggests that Kevin should stay home. At this point Kevin decides to see Dr. Yalestrom, a psychologist.When Dr. Yalestrom asks Kevin to draw what he sees in his visions, he lets "the pencil flow over the paper automatically" and produces a detailed blueprint of a spaceship. Dr. Yalestrom believes that Kevin's visions are him trying to come to terms with his illness. The fire and destruction he sees reflect the sense of doom and the numbers counting down are part of that ending.

Kevin finally decides to tell his best friend Luna about his visions. To his surprise, Luna believes that his visions are really ones of an alien world and wonders if somehow his illness has given him the ability to connect to it. When Luna enters the first set of numbers into her phone, she tells Kevin they bring up the TRAPPIST-1e system which has planets believe to harbour life. Luna believes that Kevin should contact the scientists from SETI.

At first Kevin is dismissive of Luna's suggestion but then he decides to ask his mother to take him. His mother however, wants nothing to do with this and at first refuses to drive him to San Francisco to meet with the SETI scientists. She eventually relents and the two set out for the SETI Institute in Mountain View. At SETI, Kevin and his mother are initially turned down, but when the receptionist learns that Kevin is terminally ill, she arranges for Dr. Elise Levin, the director to see them. During his time in the lobby of the building, Kevin has a vision in which he sees a silvery object in space with the words Pioneer 11.

In talking to Dr. Levin and telling her about his hallucinations, the meaning of the numbers and that he believes someone is attempting to contact Earth. She is skeptical and tells Kevin she needs something new as proof his visions are authentic. Kevin then states that he believes they will receive a signal from Pioneer 11, a deep space probe NASA launched. Almost immediately Dr. Levin's phone rings and she is told that NASA is receiving telemetry from Pioneer 11.

Dr. Levin and Kevin race to NASA where Kevin meets Dr. Brewster and Phil a researcher who runs a number of tests on him. Eventually is allowed to listen to the Pioneer telemetry and he is able to decipher more messages, this one, "We are coming. Be prepared to accept us." However, Dr. Brewster remains skeptical. He is eventually able to translate a much longer message which has come from aliens almost forty years ago. It reveals that their world has been destroyed, three inhabited planets out of seven. Their home planet was destroyed by fires, after the collapse of their colonies.

Kevin rebels against Brewster's determination to keep the messages secret and tells the media what has been happening. He does this because he believes the messages are for all the people of Earth. More messages reveal that the aliens have sent capsules out to all the inhabited worlds, with a record of their history. It says that the capsules have a tight seal to preserve them and that they must find the capsule. Eventually the coordinates to the location of the capsule are sent. These coordinates are shared with the public and are eventually determined to be a location in the Colombian rainforest. Kevin along with his mom, Luna, Dr. Levin, Dr. Brewster and Ted, are determined to find the capsule before other teams of scientists. They have no idea that their discovery will unleash an overwhelming terror on Earth.

Discussion

Transmission is a fun, quick sci fi read that is best suited for ages nine to twelve. A young boy, suffering from a terminal illness discovers that he is able to receive and decode messages from an alien civilization. Unknown to Kevin and the NASA scientists there are two sets of messages, some are a warning that some of the messages are misleading and have been sent by aliens who will harm Earth. Eventually Kevin receives a message that is a warning to the people of Earth not to open a capsule that has landed on Earth, or they risk destruction. Unfortunately, this message is not decoded in time to prevent a world-wide catastrophe, which only Kevin and Luna do not succumb to. This sets the stage for the next book in the series.

There are plenty of holes in Rice's story line. For example when it is discovered the alien object has landed in the Colombian rain forest, the world's scientists race to Colombia hoping to locate it. It's unlikely a sovereign country would allow hordes of scientific teams to simply descend on the a delicate ecosystem so quickly. Scientists and upper level government officials would need to co-ordinate with Colombian officials to organize the search and to determine what will happen to the capsule.

As is typical in many juvenile and young adult novels, the adults in Transmission are generally portrayed as dumb, violent and unable to resolve issues or solve problems. Instead that seems to be the job of the thirteen-year-old protagonist who is remarkably good at getting the adults to do what he suggests.

Despite these flaws, Transmission is an exciting novel that reads quickly and will leave readers wanting more.

Book Details:

Transmission by Morgan Rice
Self published
169 pp.



Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

Centurion Marcus Flavius Aquila, the cohort commander leads his men, the Fourth Gaulish Auxiliaries of the Second Legion from Isca Silurium to Isca Dumnoniorum where they will relieve the current garrison. Marcus, who is the Pilus Prior Centurion, had lived his first ten years on the family farm near Clusium with his mother. His father, a soldier, had travelled to Judea, Egypt and Britain. Marcus and his mother were planning to join his father in Britain but a rebellion by the northern tribes forever changed that plan. His father, commander of the First Cohort of the Ninth Hispana, had marched north and was never heard from again.

With the death of his mother soon after the disappearance of his father's legion, Marcus was raised by his aunt in Rome. Eventually Marcus decided to be a soldier and requested to be sent to Britain. His ambition was to make a name for himself, to become Prefect of an Egyptian legion and return home to retire in the Etruscan hills.


When he arrives at the Roman fort, Centurion Marcus Aquila meets the current commander, Centurion Quintus Hilarion. Quintus warns Marcus to be wary of the wandering Druids whose appearance seems to foretell trouble as they tend to incite the tribes to attack, preaching a holy war.

Soon Marcus slips into frontier fort life, well suited for the hard work of a command. Marcus is also able to take time hunting with his guide, Cradoc, a Britain not much older than himself, who is considered an outstanding charioteer. There are rumours of a wandering Druid having been seen in the district. With a third poor harvest expected in the fall, Marcus worries that this might be a sign of an impending attack.

That attack comes two days after Marcus wins a wager for a spear with Cradoc for being able to drive hi chariot. After two vicious assaults on the Roman fort, Marcus leads a group of soldiers in testudo formation to rescue a scouting party. The third attack happens at this time, involving a charge by chariots that threatens to wipe out the Roman troops. Marcus, determined to break the charioteer charge, hurls himself at the lead chariot driven by Cradoc.The chariot crashes, flinging both Marcus and Cradoc underneath the horses.

Marcus awakens six days later to find himself severely injured and confined to bed. He learns from Centurion Drusillus that both the Druid leading the attack and Cradoc died in battle. Centurion Clodius Maximus, Commander of the relief force informs Marcus that he will leave two Centuries to bring the garrison up to strength and that Centurion Herpinius will be taking command of the fort until Marcus's relief will be sent from Isca. It makes sense to Marcus that a relief would be sent until he is recovered. He has a wound in his should and a badly injured right thigh. However soon Aulus indicates to Marcus that one day his wound will heal and he will be able to walk again, but his service with the Eagles was finished. The new commander, a young man named Cassius, who was the owner of the chariot team Marcus has driven in the Saturnalia Games soon arrives and Marcus leaves for his Uncle Aquila's home on the edge of Calleva.

Marcus's room is a small sleeping cell that opens onto the courtyard colonnade. Living with Marcus and his Uncle Aquila is Stephanos, his uncle's old Greek body-slave and Sassticca who is their cook. Marcus decides after two months at his uncle's home that he doesn't want to return to Italy to live with his uncle Tullus Lepidus and his aunt. This decision is met with approval by his uncle who enjoys living in Britain.

On December 25, Marcus along with his uncle attend the Saturnalia Games in Calleva. At the games, Marcus notices a young girl in attendance with Kaeso, a magistrate like his uncle Aquila and his wife Valaria. When the fighters are paraded out Marcus notices the fear in the eyes of a slave-gladiator, tattooed with blue warrior patterns. This fight turns out to be one to the death in which the blue tattooed warrior fights another called the Fisher who is armed with a net. The blue warrior loses the fight but has his life spared when Marcus convinces the crowd to do so.

Marcus decides to buy the slave as a body-slave and does so the next day. He learns, the man who has been a slave for two years is called Esca, son of Cunoval from "the tribe of Brigantes, bearers of the blue war-shield." During the winter, Esca rescues a wolf pup during a hunt by the town to rid the area of wolves. Marcus names the wolf pup Cub.

Eventually Marcus learns about Esca's past, that he was his father's armour-bearer. His father was a Clan Chieftain of the Brigantes. The Clan rose up again the Romans, but lost and Esca was taken and sold to a trader named Beppo in Calleva. As Esca tells Marcus about his life with his people, he remembers an event ten years earlier. Hidden behind a boulder, he watched a Legion marching north, carrying "a great golden Eagle with its wings arched back...", with men in scarlet cloaks and crests. "But the mist was creeping down from the high moors, and the Legion marched into it, straight into it, and it licked them up and flowed together behind them, and they were gone as though they had marched from one world into --another." Marcus tells Esca that his father was the scarlet hacklet next after the Eagle."

Shortly after this Marcus meets the young British girl, about thirteen, who had been with Kaeso and Valaria at the Saturnalia Games. She informs Marcus that although her aunt and uncle call her Camilla, her real name is Cottia and that she like her Aunt Valaria is of the Iceni. She doesn't like that they pretend to be Roman, forgetting that they are Iceni.

Marcus's old wound begins to trouble him again and his Uncle Aquila brings in one of his old field surgeons, Rufrius Galarius to examine his leg. Rufrius determines that his wound must be reopened and searched before it will mend fully. This is done the next day, with Rufrius finding splinters of wood in the old wound. Eventually Marcus's leg heals, somewhat twisted and with Esca's help he regains his strength.

Marcus must now determine what to do with the rest of his life. Just when he decides to approach his uncle about becoming a secretary, he learns that the Legate of the Sixth Legion, Claudius Hieronimianus and his staff, Tribune Servius Placidus are visiting. Claudius, an Egyptian, is a friendly man, but Placidus, an attractive Athenian, is a soft aristocrat not suited for soldiering.

During the course of their dinner, Claudius mentions that Eburacum seems "...more than a little ghost-ridden by the Ninth Legion." He states that the lost legion lingers in the memory of the people there. "...there have been times, when the mist comes down from the high moors, when I have more than half expected to see the lost Legion come marching home." Marcus questions Claudius as to whether he has any theory as to what happened to the Hispana. While Claudius believes they were likely ambushed and killed, Placidus believes that "..in a Province of Valentia, even in the whole of Caledonia, upward of four thousand men could not be destroyed without a trace?" It is Placidus's theory that they killed their officers and deserted to the Tribes.

However, Claudius tells Marcus and his uncle that there is a rumour that the Hispana did fight to the very end and that the Eagle now resides in a tribal temple where it is honoured.In Claudius's mind, if the Hispana went rogue they would have destroyed or hidden their Eagle. However, if it was taken in battle as a trophy it would be a very different situation. "To the Outland Tribes it must seem that they have captured the god of the Legion: and so they carry it home in triumph, with many torches and perhaps the sacrifice of a black ram, and house it in the temple of their own god to make the young men strong in war and help the grain to ripen." 

When Marcus questions him as to what he intends to do, Claudius tells him that there is really nothing he can do based on only a rumour. If the Eagle is still in existence, it is a powerful symbol to the Painted People as it would inspire them to fight against the Romans. Claudius cannot send a legion and so Marcus proposes that one might be able to find and recover the Eagle. Marcus proposes that he, along with Esca, and posing as a travelling oculist might be able to find out the truth at the very least. With the blessing and under the order of Claudius Hieronimianus, Marcus Aquila and Esca set out on a quest to learn the true fate of the Ninth Legion and possibly recover the lost Eagle. It will be a journey that will test both men to the limits of their courage and endurance.



Discussion

Rosemary Sutcliff's classic novel for young readers, Eagle of the Ninth is centered around the mysterious disappearance of the Ninth Legion of Hispana, Legio IX Hispana in the second century. The legion had fought in many battles in the Roman Empire and the Roman Republic and was sent to the Roman province of Britain in 43 A.D. The last known evidence for the existence of the Ninth Legion was its involvement in the rebuilding of the fort at Eboracum, known today as York, in 108 A.D. It is not known what happened to the legion after this when it seems to have disappeared from history.

In Sutcliff's novel, the Ninth Legion is identified as having marched into the mists of the northern frontier to put down a revolt by the tribes of Caledonia, now known as Scotland, and was never seen again. Her novel is somewhat based on the discovery of a bronze cast of an eagle, known as the Silchester eage dating from either the first or second century A.D. This cast was discovered in the ruins of  Calleva, which was a town in Roman Britain. Like the eagle retrieved by Marcus Aquila in the novel, it was missing its wings. Although it was initially considered potentially to be from a Roman legion, it's now believed to be scrap.

Nevertheless, Sutcliff has crafted an engaging story about a young Roman, Marcus Aquila whose father was the leader of the lost Ninth Legion. When a friend of his Uncle Aquila reveals that rumours indicate the Roman Eagle lies somewhere in a tribal temple in the northern part of Valentia province, Marcus sets out on an epic quest to find the Eagle and clear the name of the Ninth Legion.



Sutcliff foreshadows the coming change in Marcus's life through the imagery of the rose bush.When Marcus first arrives at the fort he notices the beautiful rose bush in the officers' courtyard. It is a reminder of life in Italy. "And in one corner of the officers' courtyard, some past commander, homesick for the warmth and colour of the south, had planted a rose-bush in a great stone wine jar, and already the buds were showing crimson among the dark leaves. The rose-bush gave Marcus a sense of continuance; it was a link between him and those who had been before him, her on the frontier, and the others who would come after..."

After the attacks, as Marcus begins to heal from his wounds he notices the rose bush outside and how it is coming to the end of its blooms. "Now that he could sit up, he could lok out into the courtyard, and see the rose-bush in its wine-jar, just outside his window. There was still one crimson rose among the dark leaves, but even as he watched, a petal fell from it like a great slow drop of blood. Soon the rest would follow. He had held his first and only command for just as long as the rose-bush had been in flower..."

And when his friend Cassius, the new fort commander, leaves for the bath house, Marcus witnesses the rose-bush shedding its final petals. "Outside in the courtyard, the last crimson petals fell in a little bright flurry from the rose-bush in the old wine-jar."  A new chapter in Marcus's life is about to begin.

That new life turns out to be his quest to find out what really happened to his father's Legion and to that end Marcus ends up succeeding. In Eagle of the Ninth, Marcus is a man of honour. He is courageous, just, and avoids killing whenever possible. Marcus tries to build a friendship with the local tribes while recognizing he is a stranger in their land. In saving Esca from death, treating him kindly as a body-slave and freeing him, Marcus shows himself to be a just and compassionate man. When Esca and Marcus find themselves trapped in an old Roman signal tower, Marcus does not kill the young warrior Liathan but spares him. He is a fitting hero with a noble quest.

Eagle of the Ninth is an exciting novel that will interest readers from ages nine to twelve, while giving them some perspective on what life was like in the Roman province of Britain. Life was not peaceful for the Romans who were seen as invaders by the people of Britain. They repeatedly rose up against them, only to be punished with destroyed villages and crops and salted fields. From Sutcliff's story, one gets the impression that the northern tribes found in Caledonia were too fierce for the Romans to conquer.

Sutcliff was a masterful storyteller who wrote many wonderful historical fiction novels for children and for adults too. Many are out of print now but can be ordered through Inter Library Loan from local public libraries and are well worth reading. Eagle of the Ninth is the first in a trilogy of novels about Roman Britain.  Included are a map of Roman Britain, illustrations by famed C. Walter Hodges and a List of Place Names.

Book Details:

Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
London: Oxford University Press    1967
255 pp.