"The Lantern Bearers" Review
The Lantern Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff, is an incredibly beautiful and sad book. Naturally I've read it before. The Lantern Bearers was first published in 1959 and received the Carnegie Medal for outstanding books for children that year. This means that it has not only been around for a long time but, with such high credentials, has been kept on shelves.
Of course, the arrival of a new movie based on Sutcliff's earlier book, The Eagle of the Ninth, helps keep interest in her work alive, all the more so because the characters of the two books are connected. I used to think this was my own little secret, a little detail I had noticed in the course of the stories,but now it's trumpeted as part of the publicity, so kids these days miss the joy of figuring it out for themselves.
The Lantern Bearers is the story over many years of Aquila, a young Roman decurion in Britain when we first meet him visiting his family villa. Here we see that Rome is on the wane, and we learn that without Rome's legions Britain will soon fall to the Saxons who come each year to kill and pillage. Indeed, shortly after we learn this, Aquila is called, with his legion, to Rome to help the defense against the barbarians.
Sutcliff keeps her plot moving along, keeping it exciting but also placing Aquila where he needs to be in order to show us history is taking shape. What makes this wonderful is that she seems to shape her plot so effortlessly. Aquila chooses to stay behind in Britain, a decision that is not easy for him to make and which he is not entirely comfortable with. However, that is the choice he makes.
His family villa is attacked by Saxons, his sister Flavia is carried off and he is left for dead, only to be taken away by yet another Saxon gang. One of the Saxons thinks the dolphin tattoo on Aquila's shoulder is a lucky sign.
So Aquila is taken to be a thrall for an old Saxon at a time when the Saxons are finding it hard to make ends meet and are thinking of moving to Britain. Aquila is there to see the effects of a hard winter and to hear the case put for the move to a settlement in Britain, and introduce us to the main players on the Saxon side of the campaign.
With the return to Britain comes Aquila's chance to escape. His sister helps him. He meets again in the Saxon camp and asks her to come with him. However, in the three years that they've been apart Flavia has had a baby with the Viking who carried her off.
Of this relationship, Aquila asks, "Is it love, with you, or hate, Flavia?"
"I do not know," Flavia answers.
Towards the end of the book we see this ambivalence of Flavia's again. When Aquila first sees her with the baby, she looks the picture of maternal love. Later, we learn that the babe was born she named him Mull, or Half-breed. Sutcliff doesn't spend time examining such things, she just gives us these moments and leaves the reader to put it together for themselves.
Another thing Sutcliff does effortlessly is make use of certain words to convey a sense of being in a different culture. The Saxons have a Mead Hall, they live in a burg and the women might wear a kirtle. The context gives us the meaning of the word, and their use gives us a flavour of not-Roman culture. This is something a lot of writers these days struggle with, so it's a pleasure to read a master and see how it's done.
There is also a slightly archaic use of language that conveys a sense of another time. To take a piece at random:
"He drank, and gave the cup to the Young Fox, who took it from him with a bend of the head, and stood for a moment spear-straight in the firelight with the great cup shining between his hands."
Even that one sentence echoes old sagas and conjures a sense of a world before technology, of spears and fire and rituals that keep people from tearing each other apart.
The echo of old legends is an important, although background, thread to the story. Having escaped the Saxons, Aquila finds himself fighting for Ambrosius, Prince of Britain, helping to build up a cavalry with which to stem the continual tide of Saxons invading Britain's shores. The characters know that eventually they will be overwhelmed and that their struggle will be forgotten, but they suppose that someone important like Ambrosius will be remembered. What we know is that even Ambrosius will be largely forgotten, although his nephew, Artos, might just be said to have made a scratch on the pages of history.
The Lantern Bearers is a beautiful book, highly recommended not just as a reader, but, if you want to think about it from another angle, for what it shows about the craft of writing.
List of Carnegie Winners