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How I Learned the Secret to a Successful Literary Pilgrimage

31 December 2017

From Book Riot:

Last July I set out on a literary pilgrimage across England, coast to coast, along Hadrian’s Wall.

. . . .

Quick refresher: Roman Emperor Hadrian started building his wall back in 220 BCE, to keep out the pesky Picts. They stayed several hundred years, and then hit the high road in about the 5th century CE.

Frankly, when you’re out there in the hinterlands, gazing across the sweeping landscape dotted with sheep and cows, often for hours not seeing another human, you begin to wonder why they even stayed that long. What the Hell was Hadrian thinking?

. . . .

So I was curious about the whole wall concept, historically. You know, like, How’d that work out for you, Hadrian?

Hint: Roman mass exodus plus ruins.

Also! There’s something satisfying about traveling on foot across a whole country. I mean, one of my friends is walking across North America, and, wow, that’s super cool. But I only had time for a tiny country, and just the skinny part.

But mostly I did it for Rosemary.

I had learned about Hadrian and his wall in college courses, but that chunk of history didn’t come alive for me until I read aloud Sutcliff’s Roman Britain novels with my boys, The Eagle of the Ninth and the companion volumes, The Silver Branch and The Lantern Bearers.

. . . .

I thought for sure I’d happen across a beautiful edition of one of her books. Nope. I mean, I saw her books at every trinket shop in every wall town and village, but none of them were lovely.

. . . .

To see a country at a walking pace means there is plenty of quiet time to reflect on the march of civilization, the changing of the landscape, the evolving relationship of peoples with the land over generations, centuries.

Walking, I thought about the lives of Roman soldiers, especially, the legions and their marches, beautifully evoked in Sutcliff’s novels. And slaves, too, how many individuals, each an essential part of a constellation of relationships, who were sacrificed for the ambitions of a few powerful men.

Link to the rest at Book Riot

PG had forgotten about Rosemary Sutcliff and her many books which he read as a boy just as fast as trips to the library could provide them (as he recalls, a patron was permitted to borrow a maximum of 2-3 books at a time and PG never lived very close to a library until he went to college).

A comprehensive website, created and maintained by Sutcliff’s “godson, cousin & literary executor,” includes the following about The Eagle of the Ninth, first published in 1954, which PG remembers reading a very long time ago:

One Alan Myers once compiled an ‘A to Z of the many writers of the past who had a significant connection’ with the North-East of England. It seems now to have disappeared from the web . He writes of Rosemary Sutcliff:

“One of the most distinguished children’s writers of our times, Rosemary Sutcliff wrote over thirty books , some of them now considered classics. She sets several of her best-known works in Roman and Dark Age Britain, giving her the opportunity to write about divided loyalties, a recurring theme. The Capricorn Bracelet comprises six linked short stories spanning the years AD 61 to AD 383, and Hadrian’s Wall features in the narrative.

The Eagle of the Ninth (1954) is perhaps her finest work and exemplifies the psychological dilemmas that Rosemary Sutcliffbrought to her novels. It is a quest story involving a journey north to the land of the Picts to recover the lost standard of the Roman Ninth Legion. A good part of the book is set in the North East around Hadrian’s Wall (a powerful symbol) and a map is provided. The book has been televised, and its sequels are The Silver Branch (1957) and The Lantern Bearers (1959), which won the Carnegie medal. Sutcliff returned to the Romano-British frontier in The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965) and Frontier Wolf (1980).
Northern Britain in the sixth century AD is the setting of The Shining Company (1990), a retelling of The Goddodin (v. Aneirin) a tragedy of epic proportions. The story, however, is seen from the point of view of the shield-bearers, not the lords eulogised in The Goddodin, and treats themes of loyalty, courage and indeed political fantasy.”

And here’s a description of the book from the same website:

The ninth legion marched into the mists of northern Britain and they never came back. Four thousand men disappeared and the Eagle standard was lost. Marcus Flavius Aquila, following in the steps of his father (supposed dead when the legion disappeared ten years earlier) has joined the Roman army, given his oath to Mithras and taken command of his first cohort in the southern part of Britain. He dreams of commanding a legion of his own and of an early retirement to a farm in the Etruscan hills that once belonged to his family. But in his first battle he is seriously injured and forced to leave the army.

During his long and painful recovery, Marcus hears rumours that the Roman eagle from his father’s lost legion is being worshipped by one of the pagan tribes up in the north. Eager to to discover what happened to his father and the Ninth Legion, restore his reputation, and recover the eagle that could be used as a rallying symbol against the hated Roman invaders should a revolt ever break out again among the barbarians, Marcus and his British slave, Esca, travel north. All through the summer, they criss-cross the unknown wild regions beyond Hadrian’s wall that keeps the untamed tribes from the Roman world – in search of the eagle. The quest is so hazardous no-one expects them to return. But he is successful, but not before battling with the Seal people and a desperate chase South to Hadrian’s Wall to safety with the eagle.

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One Comments to “How I Learned the Secret to a Successful Literary Pilgrimage”

  1. Richard Hershberger

    “Roman Emperor Hadrian started building his wall back in 220 BCE…”

    Um… Credibility-building this is not.

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