8 June 2011

Great Archaeology Movies: The Eagle of the Ninth

British Archaeology magazine's July/August 2011 edition is just out. Of interest to Sutcliff fans is a commentary on Great Archaeology Movies. Lindsay Allason-Jones, one of the UK's foremost Roman Finds experts was the archaeology consultants to the movie of The Eagle of the Ninth. Here's a short quote from her:

"... I was first sent the draft script, which I blue pencilled savagely. Several incorrect details still got into the film (spot the fourth century brooch) but the final product was a great deal more accurate that it might have been ... Some things I could not change - neither of the [lead] actors were confident riders, so the insurance company insisted on them using stirrups, despite my comments that it was hard to fall out of a Roman saddle ..."

At least Sutcliff's name was spelled correctly, even if Lindsay Allason-Jones first name wasn't (Lyndsey?!). And yes, I did clock the forth century brooch - think it was in the scene in Uncle Aquila's villa, if memory serves ...

2 April 2011

In praise of… Rosemary Sutcliff

The Guardian is doing great stuff about The Eagle and Rosemary Sutcliff. The article here has a neat summary, as well as a lively set of reader comments:


Re-reading: The Eagle of the Ninth

Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian re-considers the lure of Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth:


1 April 2011

One Take on "The Eagle" Film


One tends to approach the film version of a favourite novel with some trepidation, especially if it’s a formative novel of one’s childhood, as greatly loved today as it was when first read. Have the film-makers changed it? Have they ruined it?

With The Eagle, the film based on Rosemary Sutcliff’s 1954 children’s novel The Eagle of the Ninth, the answer to the first question is ‘yes, and how!’

Whilst the main characters and the perilous quest for the lost Eagle standard of the Ninth Legion are still there, the film has no Cradoc, no Cottia, no Cub and the roles of Uncle Aquila and Guern the Hunter are cut short or changed. If you accept that cinema demands a different kind of storytelling from the novel and that it has time limitations, you’ll agree that it can’t embrace every nuance of character in a novel, or indeed every character; nor can it include every subplot, no matter how integral these are to the shaping of character and hence to the audience’s emotional investment in the story.

So have they ruined it?

I can’t help thinking that in The Eagle, the film-makers have slashed and burned with such abandon that the film bears only the most superficial resemblance to the novel. If I hadn’t read The Eagle of the Ninth I’d consider The Eagle a pretty good adventure film, more involving, more engaging than last year’s cartoonish Centurion, also based on the legend of the lost Ninth Legion. The film is well-paced, immediate and exciting in its chase and battle scenes (no freeze-frame or CGI silliness here); it has a strong sense of place and period – never mind the inaccuracies: most of the audience won’t care about those. And, no matter how little I like them, the changes in the story do have their own internal logic.

But I can’t un-read the novel. And without, I hope, my affection for it making me feel I own it (‘how dare they change what I love’), I think the film-makers have thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

The problem lies mainly with the central characters, Marcus and Esca. They lack the depth Sutcliff gives them in the novel and they don’t change as a result of the conflicts and ordeals they undergo (as epitomised in that horrible, trite ending). So it’s hard to take the heroes to our hearts – frankly, I don’t much care what happens to film-Marcus and film-Esca, I’m just enjoying the pursuits and the fights. Which, I suppose, is how the movie moguls de nos jours perceive themselves to be giving their target audience (young males 15-30?) what they want. I’d like to think they’d want more.

One of Sutcliff’s major themes in the novel is the bond of friendship and loyalty. The film keeps the master/slave relationship between Marcus and Esca throughout the quest, even reversing it during the most dangerous phase. So there’s no room for Marcus to free Esca before they set out and to declare, stirringly, ‘Esca, I should never have asked you to come with me into this hazard when you were not free to refuse…No one should ask a slave to go with him on such a hunting trail; but – he might ask a friend.’

Another important theme is that of the tension between conqueror and conquered. I'm sad that in the film there’s no Cradoc and no Cottia and therefore no indication, except on the most brutal level, of the clash of culture and outlook between Roman and Briton, much less how it might begin to be resolved. In the film, Marcus, if he thinks about them at all, appears to see Britons as unreconstructed savages from beginning to end. In the novel, his encounters with conquered Cradoc and semi-Romanised Cottia and her family, as well as his growing friendship with the enslaved Esca, all contribute to changing his attitude to Rome’s subjects, so that at the end of the novel he decides not to return to his native Italy but to settle in Britain of the ‘pale and changeful northern skies and the green plover calling’. Even if there was no time in the film for Cradoc and Cottia, surely the novel’s symbolism of Cub’s release or the wonderfully visual metaphor Esca makes from the contrast between the straight lines of the pattern on Marcus’s dagger sheath and the formless swirls on a British war shield could have taken their place? Surely there should have been room for at least one of these in a film nearly two hours long.

In sum, The Eagle, though good of its type, is a less interesting film than it might have been. But if it encourages people to read The Eagle of the Ninth and revives interest in Rosemary Sutcliff’s other absorbing, inspiring novels, then it will have done its work.

27 March 2011

The Eagle - '... admirably embraces certain unfashionable virtues ...'

Thoughtful review by Philip French from The Observer, 27th March:

First published in 1954, The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff's novel for older children, is now regarded as a classic. Her title refers to the standard carried by the Ninth Legion of the Roman army that disappeared in the north of Britain in the second century AD, and it's the story of how the young Marcus Aquila later sets out to discover what happened to its leader, his father Flavius Aquila, and the 500 men he led ...

See the rest at:


26 March 2011

The Eagle - '...a solid, watchable piece of storytelling'

The 3 star review from the UK's Guardian newspaper:

'Kevin Macdonald has made a decent, forthright, if finally uninspired sword'n'sandal drama, based on Rosemary Sutcliff's 1954 children's novel The Eagle of the Ninth ... '

Find the rest of the review at:


17 March 2011

Sutcliff and Sword at Sunset by Annis

Annis has written an interesting article about Sword at Sunset at:


"Sword at Sunset is a vision of the legendary King Arthur as the man he might really have been. Rosemary Sutcliff has created a compelling and memorable figure in Artos, a Romano-Celtic warrior prince who spends his life fighting to stem the tide of Saxon tribesmen who flood into Britain following the departure of the Roman army in the fifth century AD ... "

With a longer article about Rosemary Sutcliff at:


"Ask any baby-boomer who loves historical fiction what inspired their appreciation, and chances are the reply will be, “Well, when I was a kid I read Rosemary Sutcliff’s books”. Out of print for years, Sutcliff’s novels are making a comeback as their original readers reach an age when they can influence the reissue of old favourites ..."

16 March 2011

Anthony Lawton's Rosemary Sutcliff Pages

Anthony Lawton has moved the Rosemary Sutcliff site to:


There's also a Facebook page which can be found here:


And you can follow on Twitter:


The Eagle, released in the UK 23rd March

Adapted from The Eagle of the Ninth, this film is eagerly awaited. Reviews from the US are currently a little cautious, but Sutcliff fans are likely to turn out anyway. This blogger is looking forward to the 23rd March!

7 June 2010

A Rosemary Sutcliff website ...

Anthony Lawton's web pages about Rosemary Sutcliff - lots of information about the forthcoming film of Eagle of the Ninth too:


29 March 2008

Rosemary Sutcliff Rides Again!

There seems to be a resurgence of interest in reissuing Rosemary Sutcliff's novels - and not before time, either!

Sandra posted advance notice here in January that Sutcliff's consummate Arthurian novel, Sword at Sunset, is to be reissued in May by an American publisher, The Chicago Review Press, with a new cover design and foreword by Jack Whyte. (NB on making the links, I see that it's available now on amazon.co.uk and on amazon.com.)

Meanwhile, another U.S publisher, Front Street, which specialises in young adult fiction, has brought out
The Mark of the Horse Lord (2006)

and Frontier Wolf (2008)

in paperback with very striking covers and high quality print and paper. Sadly the illustrations from the original OUP editions aren't included.

And what about her old publishers, the Oxford University Press, here in Blighty? Well, they're doing their bit too.
The Eagle of the Ninth

has never (I believe) been out of print since it was first published in 1954 and the most recent edition came out in 2004, marking 50 years since it was first published. New editions of the other two novels in the trilogy, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers, were reissued in 2007, so that all three classic novels are now available in a uniform edition.

The OUP will be reissuing Outcast in July 2008

and (according to amazon.co.uk, though it isn't mentioned on the OUP website yet) Warrior Scarlet in August 2008.

I should love to see new editions of Song for a Dark Queen, The Capricorn Bracelet, Dawn Wind, Knight's Fee, Blood Feud, The Shining Company, Sun Horse, Moon Horse...and, oh, all of her other wonderful novels made available for a new generation of readers. But this is a very promising and welcome start to be going on with!

12 February 2008

Opening Doorways in the Mind by Hazel Wood

This article is from Slightly Foxed Issue 17:

Opening Doorways in the Mind

by Hazel Wood

I grew up in a house on the edge of a cliff, looking out over a bay. There was an upstairs drawing-room which was never used, and in the evenings when I was a little girl, I would go up there and close the door. Kneeling on the window-seat, I would gaze out at the sunset over the sea and the clouds banking on the horizon, and escape into my imagination. In those clouds I saw horses and chariots, marching legions, the thronged streets of medieval towns, knights in armour, great ships in full sail on a golden sea – vivid images from the books my father read me. The worlds they conjured up were consoling and utterly real to me, and I lived in them more than I lived in the present.

Rosemary Sutcliff was the creator of some of those worlds, and years after I first encountered her through her early books The Eagle of the Ninth and The Armourer’s House, I came to know her again – insofar as one can know such a complex person – through her memoir Blue Remembered Hills. It was first published in 1983 and the cover shows its author sitting in a wheelchair in a garden, looking straight out. It is in some ways a startling picture for a book jacket, for her body, hands and arms are twisted by the infantile arthritis, known as Still’s Disease, that burned its way through her as a child, leaving her permanently disabled. But what to me is most arresting about the photograph is her direct and humorous gaze. It sums up the spirit of Blue Remembered Hills which, despite the inevitable pain it often records, is the very opposite of a misery memoir. It is a record of the growing up and making of a writer, and it is full of poetry, humour, affection, joy in people and the natural world, and the kind of deep understanding that can come out of some very hard experiences. It is a book I would recommend to any apprentice writer as an example of what really good writing is.

Rosemary Sutcliff was born in 1920, the only child of a naval father – a dear, straightforward man who ‘you could never for a moment have mistaken for anything but a sailor. He had a quiet steady face with a cleft chin, and grey-blue eyes crinkled up by years of narrowing them against rain and wind’ – and a pretty, manic-depressive mother with bags of charm and a wild imagination, who in an ideal world would probably have become an actress but instead found herself travelling from naval station to naval station – Malta, Chatham, Sheerness. And although she loved dancing and parties, she missed out on the social life that went with being a naval wife because she was caring for a sick and increasingly disabled child.

‘She was wonderful, no mother could have been more wonderful,’ writes Rosemary. ‘But ever after, she demanded that I should not forget it nor cease to be grateful, nor hold an opinion different from her own, nor even, as I grew older, feel the need for any companionship but hers.’ It was an intensely close and intensely difficult relationship – but as Rosemary observes: ‘Very few of the worthwhile things in this world are all that easy.’

Even so, in some ways Rosemary’s was an enchanted childhood, lived among the vivid sights and sounds of the dockyards, ‘the smell of pitch and hot metal, wood and white paint, salt water and rope and oily smoke’ which would later feed into her books. There were the people, too, of these small closed communities – adults on whom Rosemary, as an only child who couldn’t walk very well, was particularly dependent, though she did make friends of her own.

Memorable among these was Miss Beck, who ran a school in Chatham for the children of naval families, with ‘no teaching qualifications whatsoever, save the qualifications of long experience and love’. ‘Any elementary schoolteacher of today would have fallen into strong hysterics or sat down with a banner in some public place after one look at our schoolroom, though I don’t think we ever had much fault to find with it,’ Rosemary writes. ‘It had mud-coloured walls with damp stains in the outer corners, three shelves of limp and weary school-books, a bit of unravelled carpet on the floor.’

In this unpromising setting Miss Beck’s students made cross-stitch kettle holders, drew elaborate kaleidoscopic patterns on graph paper and learned to read from a tattered copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. When Rosemary joined Miss Beck’s Academy at the age of 7 or 8 she was still unable to read, but by the end of her first term, ‘without any apparent transition period’, she was reading anything that came her way. A lesson there perhaps? Certainly the description of the relaxed and happy days given over to singing around Miss Beck’s piano, declaiming verses from Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, and observing what Miss Beck called ‘the Beauties of Nature’ make one think rather sadly of the world of SATs and League Tables in which children live today.

Sometimes Rosemary’s father was away on foreign postings, and then she and her mother were relegated to digs in places like Westgate, on the bleak north Kentish coast, or to the mercies of Uncle Acton, the good-hearted bad penny of the family, who had spent a brief working life building roads in India, was fat, funny and fond of the bottle, and given to renderings of the ‘Waikiki War Chant’ and ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ on the Hawaiian guitar.

Interspersed with these were Rosemary’s frequent stays in hospital. They were lonely, often painful experiences, but even at this early stage in her life Rosemary could observe and admire the skill of her surgeon, kindly Mr Openshaw, who could cut off a plaster cast from hip to toe in one unceasing movement without leaving a single mark on her body. And of Mr Snow the instrument maker, much loved by the children, who would go to any lengths to make sure that his small patients were comfortable when he fitted them with callipers and splints.

It was after one of these stays that Uncle Acton had the inspiration of installing Rosemary, her mother and Uncle Acton’s long-time companion Miss Edes (Uncle Acton was not the marrying kind) for a six-week break in a bungalow called La Delicia on Headley Down, near Haslemere. Despite the frequent recurrence of what Uncle Acton called his ‘malaria’, which made him strangely unsteady on his feet, it was a magical time, ‘filled with the smell of leaf-mould and pine woods and bonfire smoke and frost; and above all of lamp smitch . . . to me one of those magical smells which open doorways in the mind, letting out the sights and sounds and smells of some other place and time . . .’

There were other magical times too – especially those when she and her father sat down together to look at the albums of his travels, their brown hessian covers ‘folded back with a heart-leap of expectancy’ to reveal fading photographs – of ships and ‘grinning faces in balaclava helmets, with icebergs in the background . . . Pompeii, with the wheel ruts of chariots deeply shadowed by the afternoon sun on a paved street . . . the Lyon Gate at Mycenae in the days when you could pick up shards of Mycenaean pottery as easily as anemones from the rough grass’. The writer in her was storing it all up, just as she was storing up the feel of the marsh country round Sheerness, and of the South Downs, where the family sometimes went to visit her grim Aunt Lucy.

When her father retired from the sea the family moved to Torrington in North Devon, where her father had been born and bred and where they had always taken their holidays. They bought a house called Netherne, perched on its own on high ground on the edge of Dartmoor, and – country people at heart as they had always been – it felt like heaven. They had hens, and vegetables, and an Airedale puppy called Mike, and her father wrote Sailing Directions for the Admiralty in ‘a sort of cabin’ in the garden (a perpetual job as they almost immediately went out of date). Rosemary loved her small bedroom with a view of the crown of a big lilac tree on one side and ‘Orion hanging in at the Dartmoor window’ on the other. She loved the sounds of the curlews coming in from the coast, the owls that ‘perched on the chimney to warm their feet and made eerie noises down to us’, and the magical moment of cockcrow in the first green light of morning, ‘a sound with a bloom on it, like dew, and shaped like a fleur-de-lys’.

The nearby school, however, was not a success. Rosemary left at 14 and went to Bideford Art School, where she was the baby of the class, treated kindly by the other students, but definitely not part of their social world – though in time she became extremely skilled as a miniaturist, whose work would even one day cause a stir at the Royal Academy.

Deep loneliness was beginning to set in, her mother was becoming increasingly depressed and difficult to live with, and neither of her parents could see that Rosemary, at 16 and 17, was in desperate need of company of her own age. So of course she fell in love with any young man who paid her the slightest attention – first with her cousin Edward, a bittersweet experience that ended with the declaration of war in 1939, when Edward, who was in the Navy, went off to join his ship.

Her father went off too, to command his own ship, and Rosemary and her mother were left alone to soldier on at Netherne in increasing isolation. And then, after the war was over, in the summer before the great freeze of 1947, along came Rupert, the son of a recently arrived neighbour, invalided out of the RAF, glamorous with darkly flaming red hair and ‘blazingly-golden hazel eyes’, who spoke to her as an equal – ‘the first person to whom it ever occurred that I could be asked out without my parents’. They grew closer and closer, but then Rupert clearly took fright, and eventually had to tell her that he had fallen in love with someone else. He broke her heart, and I felt my own heart breaking at the description of their last bleak parting: ‘Why does it seem so much more final when somebody goes away in a train than when they drive off in a car?’

Fortunately for us, however, she had just begun to discover writing and before long her first book for children, The Queen Elizabeth Story – ‘written out of heartache, but also out of something set free within myself’ by that searing experience – was accepted by the Oxford University Press.

There she ends her story and the rest, you might truly say, is history. It is a wonderful memoir, and one feels braver somehow, more alive, more philosophical for reading it. Because it is written out of the truth of the heart, it is timeless – the kind of book one can return to and find the same golden qualities again and again.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s Blue Remembered Hills (1983) is now available from Slightly Foxed in a new limited and numbered cloth-bound pocket edition of 2,000 copies, each priced at £10 (plus post and packing). Copies may be ordered by post (67 Dickinson Court, 15 Brewhouse Yard, London EC1V 4JX), by phone (0207 549 2121) or via our website http://www.foxedquarterly.com/.

(NB: Images added for this blog)

7 February 2008

Slightly Foxed



Rosemary Sutcliff is one of the most distinguished children’s writers of our time withover forty historical novels to her name. Blue Remembered Hills is the vivid and touching memoir of her childhood. (see p.13 SF No. 17; also SF No.4).

Rosemary Sutcliff was born in 1920, the only child of a naval father and a pretty, manic-depressive mother with bags of charm and a wild imagination. She suffered from infantile arthritis, known as Still’s Disease, that burned its way through her as a child, leaving her permanently disabled, but this is the very opposite of a misery memoir. It is a record of the growing up and making of a writer, and it is full of poetry, humour, affection, joy in people and the natural world, and the kind of deep understanding that can come out of hard experiences.

Despite moving regularly between naval digs and frequent, lonely stays in hospital, Rosemary’s childhood was, in some ways, enchanted, lived among the vivid sights and sounds of the dockyards, which would later feed into her books. When her father retired from the sea the family moved to Torrington in North Devon - it felt like heaven. However, the nearby school was not a success. Rosemary left at 14 and went to Bideford Art School, where she became a skilled miniaturist, eventually exhibiting at the Royal Academy. In time, feeling cramped by the small canvas of her paintings, isolated in the country and hurt in love she turned to writing and there found success and fulfilment. Blue Remembered Hills is a wonderful, timeless memoir critically acclaimed and much loved since its first publication in 1983.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s Blue Remembered Hills (1983) is now available from Slightly Foxed in a new limited and numbered cloth-bound pocket edition of 2,000 copies, each priced at £10 (plus post and packing). Copies may be ordered by post (67 Dickinson Court, 15 Brewhouse Yard, London EC1V 4JX), by phone (0207 549 2121) or via the website http://www.foxedquarterly.com/.

5 January 2008

Sutcliff listed amongst the 50 greatest post war writers

Sarah Cuthbertson kindly brought this to my attention:

January 5, 2008

Rosemary Sutcliff

The 50 greatest postwar writers: 49

click here to see the rest of the article.

The item also makes a link to the Historical Novel Society's appreciation of the author

Sword at Sunset to be reissed

Sword at Sunset will be reissued in May 2008 as a paperback by Chicago Review Press. Listed on Amazon the price will be around £7.00 or $15.00. A foreword has been written by Jack Whyte, who himself is an author of a series of novels exploring the Arthurian myths.

1 November 2007

Sutcliff reviewed: Sword Song (August 1997)

Go for good writing -
Another of Blyton's traits I dislike is her laziness. I don't believe she ever researched anything - unlike her contemporary Rosemary Sutcliff, whose posthumously published Dark Ages saga Sword Song (Bodley Head, Pounds 12.99, ISBN 0 370 323 94 7) is packed with precisely described Viking sea battles and sacrifices in a linguistic smorgasbord of thongs, thralls and fiery-bearded men.

I was never a Sutcliff fan as a child, tiring too quickly of the sun glinting off the halberds of people with names that sound like Haggis Bogtrotterson, but the opening of Sword Song is a stunner: a 16-year-old boy is exiled from his settlement for the manslaughter of a monk who had kicked his dog. Beat that, Melvin Burgess.

Regrettably, the story quavers thereafter, meandering around the coast of Britain as young Bjarni sells his fighting skills to one fiery-beardy after another, but the dense historical detail and rich colours are all still there.

Go for good writing -
Times, The (London, England)
August 23, 1997
Author: Sarah Johnson

18 July 2007

Sutcliff reviewed: The Shield Ring (July 1992)

Nursery rhyme and unreason -
Children's Paperbacks
Times, The (London, England)
July 11, 1992
Author: Brian Alderson

The Shield Ring by Rosemary Sutcliff (Puffin, Pounds 3.99): This story of how the Norse settlers of Butharsmere held out against the Norman invaders is one of Sutcliff's most engrossing novels. It has been too long out of print and this edition should be the cause of much rejoicing.

23 June 2007

Sutcliff reviewed: The Shining Company (June 1990)

Violent land of our fathers -
Times, The (London, England)
June 9, 1990
Author: Brian Alderson
Estimated printed pages: 2

THE SHINING COMPANY, By Rosemary Sutcliff, The Bodley Head, Pounds 7.95

Y GODODDIN is not a species of baby-talk, but a tale of bloody strife, said to have been written around the end of the 7th century by the Welsh bard Aneirin. It tells how the High Chief of the Gododdin, Mynyddog Mwynfawr, called a hosting of the Celtic tribes at Edinburgh. There, for the space of a year, he trained a war-band of 300 princes and then unleashed them on the invading Saxons at the Battle of Catterick. Everything went wrong, and only one hero returned from the fray. But his exploits and those of his companions were celebrated by Aneirin in ``the Great Song that others will sing for a thousand years".

This Great Song is at the heart of Rosemary Sutcliff's Shining Company, thus bringing Aneirin longer life than he expected. For as he gave elegiac voice to the deeds of hero after hero, so she has taken the names from his telling and has sought to imagine them back int historical reality. Speaking through the persona of Prosper, the son of a Welsh chieftain, and eventually shieldbearer to the knight who returned, she begins by establishing a sense of the closed tribal world of the time after the Romans, and then introduces unbardic perceptions of form and motive. Personal relationships and the countryside of the Dark Ages become vital ingredients in the renewed story, and as the episodes pile up the ride to Edinburgh, the welding of disparate forces into a single fighting group so the reader is made ready for the great setpiece of the battle and the long dying fall of its tragic aftermath.

Such a theme is natural to Sutcliff's art. She is moved by simple concepts of loyalty and integrity that may be as foreign to today's children's literature as they were to the no-baby-talk Gododdin. But by admitting their possibility, while not shirking the real facts of ferocious woundings and pragmatic betrayals, she still persuades us that a bardic reading of the past is sustainable alongside an awareness of its squalor and its indifferent, but unpolluted, landscapes.

Section: Features
(c) Times Newspapers Limited 1990, 2003
Record Number: 1007894754

OpenURL Article Bookmark (right click, and copy the link location):

16 June 2007

Anthony Lawton's blog has moved ...

Dom's contribution is hidden away in the comments, but he points out that Anthony Lawton has started a new blog at: rosemarysutcliff.wordpress.com

Total Pageviews