“The Lantern Bearers” by Rosemary Sutcliff

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.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Lantern-Bearers-EAGLE-NINTH/dp/0192755064/

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Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Christmas Eve (day twenty four)

Day Twenty Four

Christmas Eve

There is a feeling that sometimes arrives on this day, usually after the sun has set and the shops are all shut, and all that can be done has been done. It’s hard to describe and I am unsure of its origin, but it arrives like a benison from heaven and is like a sweet balm on sore skin, easing away pain and anxiety and suffering.

The best I have ever been able to do is to put some of my responses into poetry.

Bliss

Deep bliss, a feeling of velvet inside

An inarticulate rightness of being,

brightness of being right

And I cannot tell why or how

This feeling comes:

A simple certainty that all shall be well,

Now and always.

I cannot capture this feeling, pin down

And dissect it, tear its secrets apart

To reveal the truth I already know.

An image of bright butterflies,

The lark rising with its song,

A moment of purest knowing

Beyond that of intellect

And I sit here now,

Passive

Creative

Alive.

Christmas Eve 2003

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty Three

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty Three

Day Twenty Three

Traditional music

I’d be the first to admit I have a poor singing voice and don’t enjoy singing very much but at this time of the year, neither fact matters. Winter songs, carols and other music are so much a part of this season that even those who usually sing out of tune find, almost miraculously, find themselves able to carry a tune. The tunes of our most popular carols are probably quite ancient, and the words embedded (to some extent) in the brains of a lot of people. Most of us who grew up in this country went to schools where assemblies included a small (often quite nominal) religious content, but during the run up to Christmas, the nativity play is ubiquitous along with about ten carols that almost everyone knows.

I have about ten or fifteen CDs that I can play only at this time of year. Some are by my favourite singer, Canadian Lorena McKennit, and include less well know carols like the Coventry Carol. Another favourite is Maddy Prior (and her Carnival Band), who sings some of the most ancient of carols like The Boar’s Head. Another is flute music played by a good friend of mine, Jane de Silva, and sent instead of a Christmas card. I have also a CD of Latin chants for the season, sung medieval style. I cherish the few weeks a year when I can legitimately play these CDs.

I sometimes even sing along…

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty Two

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty Two

Day Twenty Two

Christmas food traditions

Every country has its seasonal specialities for food and drink. We’re tending to lose some of them because almost everything can be grown somewhere and shipped to us (at significant costs) so the seasonal food traditions are becoming blurred now. When you can have crisp, fresh apples any day of the year (often shipped from Chile) people don’t get excited about the arrival of the first Coxes from our own orchards.

Traditional foods for this country have changed, and not so subtly, over the centuries. At one time, the standard Christmas dinner was a big haunch of beef; later, goose, and now it tends to be turkey. Turkey is high in tryptophan, which is a good reason why people fall asleep after Christmas dinner as this is used in health supplements for insomnia and sleep problems.

Certain delicacies are only on sale in the shops at this time of year; our local deli has already run out of marzipan stollen. My late father-in-law loved mince pies so much that my mother-in-law used to make them all year round, from scratch. She made the best mince pies I’ve ever tasted, serving them hot, the pastry lids flipped up to insert a dollop of brandy butter before sticking the lid down and putting them in the oven for a few minutes to melt the butter and crisp up the pastry.

I’m not a huge fan of mince pies myself; I can take them or leave them, but I like the history of them. It’s a myth that they were once banned by law (during the Commonwealth, while this country was a republic under Cromwell) but they were seen as idolatrous and frivolous by the Puritans. All the more reason in my mind to keep the tradition going! If you follow the two links, you can find out more of the history of the humble mince pie, and an original recipe for the savoury type that my ancestors enjoyed.

http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/features/sweet-delight-a-brief-history-of-the-mince-pie-6270572.html

http://blog.english-heritage.org.uk/recipe-for-real-mince-pies/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=Blog_Mince_Pies1812&utm_campaign=Christmas     

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty One

Day Twenty One

Winter Solstice

The winter solstice this year falls tomorrow (22nd of December), and is the shortest day of the year. The date on which the Solstice falls is slightly variable, from the 20th to the 23rd though it is rare for it to fall on the 20th or the 23rd (there’s complicated reasons why it varies and I’m scared of getting the explanation wrong and looking stupid, so do look it up). The word solstice comes from Latin, meaning the sun stands still, and that is what happens. For a few days, everything is held in this strange holding pattern before the days begin lengthening again. For me, there is a huge relief in this.

Sunrise on the winter solstice is a powerfully moving moment; the reality of watching it can be cold, wet and somewhat of a damp squib if you expect magical rays and invisible choirs.

I wrote the following poem last year and it sums up the feeling of expectancy and emptiness that I experience at this time of year:

Hallowed hollow

I will hold a space

A dark space

An empty place

A hallowed hollow,

Cupped between hands

Hidden between breaths

Lost between heartbeats

Harrowed from soul-falls.

I will hold a space

Without prayer

Without hope

Without desire.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Twenty

DSCI0082 DSCI0079Day Twenty

Angel lights and angel chimes

The putting up of the Christmas decorations is my cue to get out my collection of angel lights, and also the angel chimes. Angel lights are little metal whirligigs that hold a candle; the heat from the flame rises and sets the thing spinning. I have five or six, all with slightly different pendant themes; some have angels, some have deer, some have stars. When they spin they create patterns of light and swirling shadows in a darkened room. It’s a simple, magical thing that brings me great pleasure.

I wrote a short Christmas tale about an angel light that you can read here.

Things of Winter Beauty and Wonder: Advent Day Nineteen

Day Nineteen

Unexpected Kindness and Goodwill

Amid the elbow-gouging frenzy of consumer madness, there are gleams and glimmers of something closer to the proper spirit of Christmas. Acts of kindness and courtesy shine out here and there, and lighten the days.

Look for them. Create them. Remark on them. Share them. These are the things that remind us of the core of this winter festival that predates the name it bears but which prefigure its arrival, for time is not truly linear and goodness transcends the limitations of our understanding of time and space.