March 16, 2011

The Small Things

Yesterday I finished rereading one of my sister's favourite novels, The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff. I read it years ago, but I had forgotten how much I liked it until I bought it (she carried off all our Sutcliff books when she married, and now I'm having to build up my own stash) and started it. I had forgotten how Sutcliff sweeps you away to another place; I had forgotten how beautiful her writing is. There were a dozen things I loved about the book - the main characters (Esca!), the minor characters (Uncle Aquila!), the descriptions (Etruria!) - but one of the things that stood out to me most was Sutcliff's ability to evoke emotion through small things. She could make an inanimate object or an animate being symbolic of so much, and I loved the way she employed this here and there throughout the novel.

The Rose Bush When Marcus takes command of the cohort at Isca Dumnoniorum, he notices a rose bush, just beginning to bloom, that was planted years ago by some predecessor. The pot-bound plant reminds him of his family's farm in Etruria, which was sold after his father's and mother's deaths, and also links him to the past and the Romans who came before him in the frontier fort. Through the months he commands Isca Dumnoniorum he watches the rose bloom; but after the native British uprising, when Marcus is told that, due to a bad wound to his leg, he is being discharged from the Legions, winter is coming on. As Marcus watches his career - and the only life he ever expected to follow - slip away, the rose loses its last petal.
"Now that he could sit up, he could look 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..."
Cub Cub, the wolf pup that Esca brings home to Marcus after a hunt, does not at first glance seem to come into the story much; he is left at home when Marcus and Esca set out to find the lost Eagle, after all. But Sutcliff draws parallel between the collared wolf-cub and Esca the slave, the Briton of the tribe of the Brigantes who was taken captive and made into a gladiator. The time comes when Marcus has to take Cub's collar off and give him the chance to return to the wild; and the time also comes when he has to give Esca his freedom, and allow him the chance to return to his own people.
"And watching him, Marcus remembered suddenly and piercingly the moment that afternoon when he had taken off Cub's collar. Cub had come back to him; but Esca?"
The Signet Ring Marcus' clearest memory of his father is of him standing in the courtyard of the farm in Etruria, the sunlight glinting on the flawed emerald and dolphin of his great signet ring, the ring that links many of Sutcliff's novels together over generations. Like the Eagle itself, it is a bond between Marcus and his father, a bond of family and honour, of strength and loyalty.
"Looking back across the years, Marcus remembered that his father's eyes had been very bright, like the eyes of a man going into action; and the light had caught suddenly in the great flawed emerald of the signet-ring he always wore, striking from it a spark of clear green fire. Strange how one remembered things like that: little things that somehow mattered."
The Olive-Wood Bird On the farm in Etruria there was an olive tree with a gall, which Marcus, as a child, cut off and carved into a bird and has carried with him for years as a reminder of that beautiful place. It is his last physical tie to the farm, which he had hoped to buy back after he earned enough in the army, and in the long days and nights where Britain feels cold and foreign to him, the olive-wood bird is a sign of home. When Marcus burns it as an offering during the hunt for the Eagle, his old life seems to be burning away as well.

"But a new life, a new beginning, had warmed out of the grey ash, for himself, and Esca, and Cottia; perhaps for other people, too; even for an unknown downland valley that would one day be a farm."


  1. Ugh, I'm so sentimental. I think without the magical skill of the small things, Sutcliff might only be like any other historical fiction writer. I don't know. But it's the power of the small things, the tiny, meaningful details, which somehow pull you in and make you feel the dragging ache or sudden silverwing joy of the character. Her writing is so elemental: it lies as close to the heart as a harp-thread newly struck, hum-thrumming inside you. That's what makes you cry.

  2. Oh, wonderful. Wonderful!

    And as usual, Jenny's caught it. Sutcliff doesn't use description. She takes you by the hand with her exquisitely-chosen words, leading you into another dimension, another time, another place, so sweet-soft that you don't realize you're there until you've already crossed the threshold....

    Of all the great-though-small things, it is the rose bush that I remember best. I don't know why, but it tugs at me.

  3. The two that were most poignant to me were the rose bush and the olive-wood bird. Tears were tugging at my throat in both places. But, strangely, I remembered the rose bush from whenever it was that I first read the book, so for one reason or another that's one that sticks.

    The thing about Sutcliff is that she does describe, but she does it in just a few choice words - often metaphors and similes - that bring whatever it is alive in one's mind. I actually stopped quite a number of time to gawk and drool and mumble about how wonderful her writing is.

    "Strange how one remembered things like that: little things that somehow mattered." I think that quote exemplifies Sutcliff's own writing style: using those little things that matter.

  4. Yes! Sutcliff's power of making little things so meaningful, and of describing things so vividly in so few words are what I really love about her writing--though of course her characters are wonderful too.
    I have only read The Eagle of the Ninth, but I look forward to getting hold of the others so I can find out about these other generations that you keep talking about.

  5. To tell the truth, most of what I know about Sutcliff's books comes from Jenny's love of them; I've only read a few, and I'm having to reread them to see all the things I missed the first time around. Many of her books are rather expensive; is a good place for finding some used copies, though.


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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