“The Lantern Bearers” by Rosemary Sutcliff
Sometimes a book comes back to you, decades after you first read it, and you find there was far more to it than you grasped at the time. I first read “The Lantern Bearers” in my teens, but it didn’t grab me the way the first of the series (“The Eagle of the Ninth”) did. It’s a much subtler, more nuanced and more ambiguous book that to my mind surpasses the Young Adult category it’s been pigeon-holed in. Even the blurb does not do it justice:
The last of the Roman army have set sail and left Britain for ever, abandoning it to civil war and the threat of a Saxon invasion. Aquila deserts his regiment to return to his family, but his home and all that he loves are destroyed. Years of hardship and fighting follow and in the end there is only one thing left in Aquila’s life – his thirst for revenge . . .
The novel sounds… schlocky, and it’s not. It explores the relationship between love for native land and family, and more abstract concepts such as honour and mercy. There’s plenty of action but compared to “The Eagle” the action feels very different. In “The Eagle”, Marcus (who is Aquila’s ancestor) is invalided out of the army (he’s a very young officer, almost fatally injured in his first conflict) and later sets out on a quest to discover what became of his father’s legion, the famed Ninth Legion that vanished. Aquila’s quest is a very different one, and one that is not fully defined to him; he grasps at vengeance as a reason to stay alive and to fight his way through the truly terrible things that happen to him. Yet long before the novel is over, he grows to understand that there is more needed of him than exacting a private vendetta.
Aquila is not the attractive, charismatic figure that commands instant liking from a reader; he’s a very damaged man, and he’s not much liked by his fellows, or even by his wife or son. But I found myself warming to him much more than I did when I first read the book; he seems a more complex, more REAL figure than Marcus did.
The last few years I have felt very strongly that we are on the cusp of some very dark times ahead. During my lifetime, there has been a greater level of peace and prosperity than there’s been in the world, pretty much ever. You may know that I studied Latin at university, and also have long had an interest in the long history of the Roman Empire. I cannot help but see powerful parallels between the last days of Rome in Britain and what I see now. Reading “The Lantern Bearers,” brought this back to me quite forcibly.
I’d like to share some lines from the last few pages of the book. Aquila is talking with an old friend, the surgeon attached to Ambrosius’s army.
“I sometimes think we stand at sunset,” Eugenus said after a pause. “It may be that the night will close over us in the end but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always grows again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”
Aquila was silent a moment; and then he said and odd thing. “I wonder if they will remember us at all, those people on the other side of the darkness.”
Eugenus was looking back towards the main colonnade, where a knot of young warriors, Flavian among them, had parted a little, and the light of a nearby lantern fell flush on the mouse-fair head of a tall man who stood in their midst, flushed and laughing, with a great hound against his knee.
“You and I and all our kind they will forget utterly, though they live and die in our debt,” he said. “Ambrosius they will remember a little, but he is the kind that men make songs about to sing for a thousand years.”
The “he” that Eugenus refers to is, of course, Arthur, called here Artos. The Once and Future King of so many of our legends, novels, songs and films. The darkness may sweep over us, and that scares me. I don’t want to be lost, but Eugenus’s words haunt me. History does not tend to remember the little people, even though it could not be made without the participation, and often the sacrifice of ordinary people.
This time of year, as the nights become colder and longer, and sunshine less brilliant and far less frequent, it feels as if we are going into the night and being lost. There’s a lot of psychic debris around, a kind of dark, malign stickiness, not quite sentient but almost, that lurks in the corners like supernatural cockroaches that you see from the corner of your eye but when you look straight at them, they’re gone. There’s a lot of stress and angst around, and people try to lose their unease by focusing way ahead of time on festivals such as Christmas, but that can just make things worse as midwinter feasts have become overwhelmed by materialism that just drains people of joy and finances.
I can’t do much to help. I’m fighting deep depression, and world events (mad leaders of world powers for example) and national ones, local ones and personal ones, are getting on top of me. But what I can do, I do.
And I light a candle as dusk falls, to remind me of my duty as a lantern bearer to kindle a flame and guard it as long as I may, in the hopes that on the other side of the darkness, those who live there may bless the unnamed hosts who kept hope and light alive for them.