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The Lantern Bearers

Style: Outstanding

Attitude: Unobjectionable → Positive

In Brief: Superb story mingling action with authentic historical detail without losing depth or accessibility. Some brutal but not gratuitous violence; positive portrayal of Christianity; loyalty in friendship in spite of many hardships

Cover of The Lantern Bearers

Author: Rosemary Sutcliff

Series: The Eagle of the Ninth

Publisher: Puffin

Published in: 1959

Age Range: Pre Teens+

Period: 4th C

Setting: post-Roman Britain

Genres:  AdventureHistorical


Characters:

  • Aquila is a young Roman Decurion who deserts when his troop is recalled to Rome and stays in Britain. Taken captive by Saxon raiders, he escapes and makes his way to join Ambrosius, leader of the last remnant of the pro-Roman Britons.
  • Artos is a young warrior who looks on Ambrosius as a father and whose strength and vitality help the Britons against the Saxons.
  • Ness is taken against her inclination by Aquila in an attempt to unite her father's tribe to Ambrosius' cause. In spite of initial antipathy, she gives Aquila a son and they come to love each other.

Synopsis:

A young Roman Decurion, unwilling to leave Britain with the last of the Legions, lights the beacon of Rutupiae one last time. It is an act of desperate defiance, a symbol of the struggle of the light of late-Roman civilisation against the dark of the Saxon invaders surging in on every spring tide, the Sea-Wolves. Years later, celebrating the fragile peace wrought by a victory against the Saxon alliance, the same man looks out through the branches of a tree in the courtyard and sees the stars of Orion's belt caught as though “fragile, triumphant blossom all along the boughs” of a damson tree.

Between these two images of light are years of darkness for Aquila: his family massacred, his enslavement and escape, his revenge overturned, battles with fickle allies against an outnumbering enemy, a political marriage. But also a loyal comradeship with the other warriors allied to the cause of Ambrosius, heroism in battle, the warming of love in his marriage, especially after the birth of his son, the undemanding help of a Christian monk, and the unexpected reconciliation with his lost sister.

Notes:

While even younger readers could well enjoy this book at some level, a certain maturity is needed to appreciate the character and decisions of Aquila. Since I'm going to spend most of the time praising the book, I would point out first aspects which might benefit from some explanation at least to younger readers.

Aquila takes Ness for his wife for political reasons and with little grace. Although they later come to love each other it is first a marriage of convenience and both know it. Even when a measure of love is achieved between them, and Ness has a son, Aquila asks incredulously: “Is it mine?” A separate issue: after a battle, Ambrosius' soldiers are heard killing off Saxon stragglers painfully. This is regretted but not condemned by our point-of-reference characters. Finally, when Aquila helps a wounded Saxon to escape, he expects censure or worse for his actions. The world we now live in with humanitarian conventions governing even times of war is very different from Britain of the 4th century AD.

I have rarely enjoyed a book so much as I enjoyed this climax to the loose-knit trilogy which started with Marcus Flavius Aquila in The Eagle of the Ninth and which finishes here with his several-times grandson, Aquila. There is little connection in the conventional sense between the books in the trilogy: they are not simple continuations of the same story with the same characters. Yet there is a common thread: the mixture of people and cultures that was Roman Britain, in its earlier days, in its decay, and after its end.

One aspect of any historical story is the hindsight which we, the modern reader, possess. We know that, in effect, the Roman party which Ambrosius and Aquila's family represent did not prevail. We are about to enter on the period of four hundred years known as the Dark Ages in which all traces of British Civilisation are lost. We know, and Ambrosius and Aquila both know they lack the resources to survive any single failure. The book has no happy ending: Aquila never returns to the farm, he is reconciled with his sister but does not meet her again, the peace gained in victory is fragile at best. Yet, oddly enough, that has its own lesson because we are here, in our modern civilisation, reading a book based on the battles they are fighting. And that is because, although the Roman-Britons did not survive, civilisation carried on. We are the doorstep of Augustine's arrival at Canterbury.

The previous stories have been set in a time when Christianity was unknown in the Empire or was just gaining a hold. Here, it is understood that Aquila and Ambrosius are Christians, although Aquila, at least, finds it hard to pray after he has lost his sister Flavia. The various parties' religions hardly intrude on the book, but one character deserves a mention: Brother Ninnias. Here is a sympathetic Christian character, a rarity in books nowadays. He offers his help ungrudgingly to Aquila three times, helps him to overcome his quest for revenge, and offers a model of simple sanctity, preferring to offer a stranger his meal to give himself a chance for penance. His charity is for Briton and Saxon alike.

Which is also true of the author: when Aquila is taken as a slave back to the Saxons' Scandivian home, we catch a glimpse of a way of life, with its nobility and its hardships, and we understand what drives them every Spring to sail down the Saxon Wind to Britain whose soil is richer, whose climate less harsh, whose spaces wider. Their indiscrimate butchery is hardly condoned, and Aquila never ceases to condemn them for the damage they've done to his life and his family, but their motives are seen more clearly.

That loss of his family to the Saxons hits Aquila the hardest in the case of his sister, taken away by a Saxon pillager. When he meets her again, she has become the wife to that Saxon and has given him a son. This union she will not desert when she helps Aquila to escape, which devastates Aquila. The suggestion is that she married him willingly when she believed her family dead. For this reason, family is a fragile concept for Aquila throughout the book: he takes a wife for political convenience and she and he, equally hardheaded, take a long time to come to love each other. Even when they have a son, Aquila mishandles that relationship and only towards the end, after he has helped his sister's son, a Saxon warrior, to escape, does he really learn to love his own wife and son. And yet there is no element of trite sentimentality: Ness stays by him for the same reason that Flavia stayed by her husband: because of that bond between them (“He is my man.”). Once again, the modern reader has the advantage: I exist because of some such union of peoples in the dim past of my land. Bloodlines are less important than people.

Finally, the plot of the book turns on the efforts by the Romano-British Ambrosius to forge some sort of alliance against the invading Saxons between disaffected British tribes, each with its own reason to favour one party or another. Aquila, following his father's preference, offers his sword to Ambrosius and becomes one of his Companions. While earning the nickname of Lone Wolf for his taciturnity, he nonetheless finds in his fellow warriors the easy but loyal companionship which helps him to overcome the pain he feels for the loss of his family and for Flavia's desertion in particular. As in the previous books, what motivates those closest to Ambrosius — including young Artos, the King Arthur analogue in this story — is the love for the land of Britain and for its people.

Themes:

  • Civilisation
  • Love in a marriage of convenience
  • Undertanding the people behind national conflicts

As the man plunged on, his feet drumming hollow on the crazy bridge timbers, the ten resolute men at the Saxon end of it closed up shoulder to shoulder, their drawn swords ready in their hands, their eyes turned in the direction from which the enemy must come. Behind them the ring of axes took on a redoubled urgency. in the tumble of bright clouds above Durobrivae a lake of clear sky shone blue, a faded harebell colour with the shadow of dusk already upon it; and the gulls swept and circeld by with the sunset on their wings. And then, from away south-eastward beyond the slient town, a Saxon war-horn boomed.

Aquila braced himself, tensing like an animal ready to spring. He felt the slight movement run through the men with him, the tautened body and the softly indrawn breath.

'Brothers,' he said almost wonderingly, 'whoever, in the years to come, strikes the last blow in this fight for all that we hold worth fighting for, to us — to us ten — is the honour of first blood.'

Saturday 15th July 2006