Eagles should soar

December 23, 2012

So far in this Christmas series I have been dealing with books published, or largely written between the two world wars.   Now I remain convinced that this was the golden period for Children's literature as posts over the next few days will confirm, however it is not the only period.   My own recollections are limited by my birth date, but I will probably finish this series with the books my children loved.  That said my daughter's top three are all from the interwar years and I have yet to check with my Son.  From the little list on a Levenger's pad to my right there are at least seven more posts to come by the way, and its growing faster that I can write them!

Published in the year of my birth, Rosemary Sutcliffe's The Eagle of the Ninth was one of the very first books I owned.  Now owning a book back in the 60s was a big thing, it could not be read until it have been covered with plastic which made the acquisition a highly ritualised event in its own right.  Most of the time we had a weekly visit to the public library and came out with out maximum allowed three books to occupy the week.  The annual three week vacation was a nightmare in this respect.  You were allowed five books, but the whole family had to negotiate which ones.  If it rained, which it frequently did in Llangwnadl playing board games or reading were the occupations to stop you going stir crazy in a small caravan! 

The book's inspiration was from the discovery of a wingless eagle in the excavations at Silchester back in the 19th Century and the legend of the lost ninth legion.  Unfortunately more recent history indicates that the legion was not lost and the eagle is not a legionary one, but Sutcliffe was not to know that at the time.   I'm not going to repeat the story but it explores a series of relationships under tension.  That between Marcus Flavius Aquila and his freed slave Esca being one of the most important.   Also important is the level of moral tension involved in key decisions.  Marcus poses as an occultist as he goes north to find his father's eagle and in that role saves the life of the child of the leader of the tribe who are its custodians.  The tension in that relationship allows Marcus time to escape and he and Esca are also saved by the former Legionary they find living as a native north of the Wall.

All of that is ruined by the film.  The whole sequence of the healing is replaced by a rather silly role reversal between Esca and Marcus, the former Legionary assembles a cohort for a nonsensical battle scene in a river and worst of all the child is ritually slain for a crime he does not commit in the book.   All very very silly and dumbing down the key teachings of the book into a simple series of cinematographic scenes.  If you have the misfortune to own the DVD then the alternative ending is even more absurd.

Replacing moral subtlety and ambiguity with simplistic battle scenes and a good guys – bad guys mentality radically reduces not just the quality of the story, but its role in preparing a future generation for their lives.  Yes stories should entertain, but they should also challenge, they should stimulate thinking, forcing the reader to think differently about a situation creates a wider subtlety of thought that is important for children, but even more important when they become adults.

The book was followed by The Silver Branch which I also faithfully covered with plastic when it arrived one Christmas.  In researching this blog I discovered the series continued so my Amazon account was active this morning!     That one told the story of the Roman withdrawal from Britain and the growing threat of the Saxons.  After I read the Eagle of the Ninth I escaped a family shopping trip to Chester by going to the museum in the Fort.   Chester was a one of three Roman forts in Britain and has had a military garrison of some form ever since.  The Museum had a life size statue of a Roman Legionary and multiple finds on display.  There were no visual experiences, but there were things to read and curators to talk too.  From there on a trip to Cardiff I demanded a side trip to Caerleon which with Deva (Chester) was established to contain the Welsh.  Of course that interest grew and history was never a burden at school.  The story resulted not just in learning, but in a desire to learn.


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