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The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff

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parthianbow
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The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff

Post by parthianbow » Fri March 4th, 2011, 4:55 pm

The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff was first published in 1959, and in a remarkable testament to its appeal, it is still in print. It should also be noted that this is the novel that won the author the Carnegie Medal, a prestigious award for outstanding children’s books. It’s the third part of the loosely linked Roman Britain trilogy that began with The Eagle of the Ninth and continued with The Silver Branch. Readers are probably well aware that the first novel has been dramatized into a movie, The Eagle, which is currently showing all over the United States and is shortly to open in the UK and elsewhere.

In my review of The Eagle of the Ninth (posted here recently), I described how it was one of the main influences in my choosing to write about Rome and its legions. I have read it many times, and although I cannot say why, the same cannot be said of the second two books. I read The Silver Branch for the second time specifically to review it, and while I enjoyed it greatly, I didn’t think that it quite matched the first book in calibre. I expected that also to be the case with The Lantern Bearers. How wrong could I have been?

The Eagle of the Ninth fuelled my boyish imagination with pictures of stealing back an eagle standard from wild Scottish tribes, and to this day, I remember and enjoy and honour it for that. I had few childhood memories of The Lantern Bearers, however. Rereading it over the last few days was akin to reading it for the first time. To my surprise and joy, it gripped me not just with the richness of its prose, but also with the depth and accuracy of its description of human emotions and relationships. I was moved to tears on numerous occasions, and I now regard this finely crafted novel to be every bit as good as The Eagle of the Ninth. If anything, it’s aimed at an older audience than the first two parts of the trilogy. In my opinion ― and I write this as a man rather than a boy ― it is a far better book than either of the others. The Lantern Bearers stands four square with any piece of adult historical fiction that I have ever read. Indeed, it’s superior to most of them.

The story begins in 410 AD, more than a century after the events that took place in The Silver Branch. This was the year when, in a desperate attempt to shore up its defences closer to home, Rome withdrew the last of its troops from Britain. The main character is Aquila, a decurion, or junior officer, of cavalry. Torn between his loyalty to the legions and to his homeland, which is under severe threat from Saxon raiders, he deserts. Riven by guilt, Aquila watches his comrades sail away into the evening mist, ‘the last of the Eagles to fly from Britain’. In a last act of defiance, and in attempt to hold back the dark for one last night, he fires the coastal fort’s beacon before journeying to his family home.

Aquila’s joyful reunion with his father and sister Flavia is all too short. Just two days later, the homestead is attacked by a Saxon war party. In the vicious fight that follows, Aquila’s father is killed and Flavia is carried off as a prisoner. The wounded Aquila is left behind, only to be enslaved by another group of Saxons the following day. Three years of brutal thraldom in Juteland (Jutland in modern day Denmark) ensue, a period when Aquila’s anger and bitterness at his fate festers within him like a malignant growth. When those who hold him captive are driven by bitter winter weather to settle in Britain, Aquila can at last dream of freedom.

Poignantly, Aquila’s first real chance to escape comes by chance, when he meets Flavia, his sister. She has become the wife of a Saxon noble, and because of her young child, she dares not flee with Aquila, instead aiding him to do so. The tragedy of his situation carves an even deeper grief into Aquila’s heart. Bereft of any direction in life, he wanders into the camp of Ninnias, a kindly monk. There he is freed of his thrall neck ring, and finds some kind of purpose: to travel to Arfon in Wales, and there swear fealty to Ambrosius, the man upon whom the last hopes of Roman Britain lie. Although he succeeds in joining with Ambrosius, and becoming a valued officer in his forces, Aquila’s heart is empty. Even when he enters into an arranged marriage with Ness, the daughter of a Celtic chieftain, his emotions remain untouched. It is not until Ness bears him a son, whom he names Flavian (after his sister), that the ice in Aquila’s heart finally starts to thaw.

More than a decade of warfare against the Saxons follows, and all the while Aquila struggles with the bitterness that has shaped his life thus far. While his relationship with Ness improves, Aquila is constantly ― no matter how hard he tries to be otherwise ― at odds with his son. It isn’t until the final pages, when Ambrosius, his charismatic cavalry leader Artos (a nod to the legendary figure Arthur), and Aquila lead an army against the Saxons that all the strands of the tale are brought to a satisfying conclusion. Even the memory of that finale brings a lump to my throat, and I urge you to go out and buy a copy of The Lantern Bearers. You won’t be disappointed!
Ben Kane
Bestselling author of Roman military fiction.
Spartacus - UK release 19 Jan. 2012. US release June 2012.

http://www.benkane.net
Twitter: @benkaneauthor

annis
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Post by annis » Fri March 4th, 2011, 6:24 pm

Who could forget the futile but magnificent gesture of that last lighting of the Rutupiae beacon? It's both an act of furious defiance and a farewell to a whole way of life. Welsh poet Dylan Thomas comes to mind with his, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” (Appropriate given that the Welsh feature so strongly in this story as the defenders of the light, ie Romano-British civilization) There's added poignancy in the fact that Rutupiae (modern Richborough) was both where the Romans first landed during the Claudian invasion of 43 AD and where they departed for the last time. (Though I believe there's now some debate about Rutupiae as the initial landing site).

As you point out, Lantern Bearers is a novel of greater depth than the first two books in the Eagle of the Ninth trilogy, and much of this is due to the complexity of the main character. Aquila holds the darkness within himself as a result of his bitter experiences. The theme of darkness and light is clear in many of Sutcliff’s novels, but perhaps at its strongest in Lantern Bearers.

In Silver Branch, the Saxons we meet are villains, blood-thirsty mercenaries with no redeeming features, but in Lantern Bearers Sutcliff humanizes the invaders. When she takes us to Juteland with Aquila, we experience the harshness and bleakness of life for Aquila’s captors, see them as real people, and can understand what would drive them to seek a better life in Britain.

There’s a good reason why Lantern Bearers won a Carnegie Medal. It also serves as a prequel to Sutcliff’s compelling Arthurian novel, Sword at Sunset, where Artos the Bear comes into his own.
Last edited by annis on Fri March 4th, 2011, 7:41 pm, edited 5 times in total.

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parthianbow
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Post by parthianbow » Tue March 8th, 2011, 1:41 pm

Thanks for the mention of Sword at Sunset, Annis. I'm not sure if I read that one as a kid - I think I did, but I can't remember. Guess what my next book purchase will be now? :D
Ben Kane
Bestselling author of Roman military fiction.
Spartacus - UK release 19 Jan. 2012. US release June 2012.

http://www.benkane.net
Twitter: @benkaneauthor

annis
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Post by annis » Thu March 17th, 2011, 3:13 am

Just came across this article quite randomly, and though it's not really connected to Rosemary Sutcliff's story, I couldn't resist adding it here just for the curiosity value.

Rare Roman lantern found in field near Sudbury
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-suffolk-11161686

Image

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