I'm grateful to the movie The Eagle
for two things: Jamie Bell, and the fact that it made me reread the book.
I love Sutcliff's language, not just her poetic descriptions of the landscape but also how, in a few, brief words, she's able to sum up complex emotional states. "He was very afraid of kindness just then" never fails to make me tear up.
And I love the way the main character slowly realizes that his grail, the quest object he's built his life around, is nothing more than a MacGuffin--that his quest will be just as successful if he tosses it into the sea as if he brings it home again--and yet risks life and limb to bring it home anyway, because it matters to him
. That belief in building our own meaning, that assertion that symbols can be both only symbols and still be powerful, resonates strongly with me.
I also appreciate the delicacy with which the author builds her central theme: that there's no going back for any of them, not Marcus nor Esca nor Guernn nor the Legion. The wounded will never be made whole, the freed never forget loss of freedom, the deserter never rejoin his people, the legion never march again. It would be easy to write that as a tale of despair, but Sutcliff hasn't; instead, she's written about the need to move beyond that, to find a path forward.
I do find Esca's easy acceptance of slavery a little jarring. And as an adult reader, I note that for a book set in a polytheistic society, it takes a remarkably Christian approach to religion; yes, there are temples to many Gods mentioned, but the protagonists both pray only to one God, and much is made of the fact that while they are praying to different Gods, both Gods are ultimately "Gods of Light." But other than that, it holds up superbly for an adult reader, both as an adventure story and as something deeper. I should reread it more often.