The Lantern Bearers (1959)

Clearly, writing the blog post last week on how I was stuck on The Lantern Bearers cleared some sort of blockage, and I read it all in one sitting yesterday. Of course, it is brilliant, and I am not at all sure why I wasn’t caught up into the story in the first couple of chapters. In fact, it is one of those books I think I will return to again and I’ve just bought the first in the series, The Eagle of the Ninth to read them all chronologically. Denmark, where I’m from, was never occupied by the Romans (I believe we were some of the original ‘barbarians,’ i.e. ‘the people across the border’) and consequently I don’t really know much about the Romans, certainly not in the way that British children do as a matter of course.

The Lantern Bearers is the third of four books, loosely interconnected, sometimes called the Marcus series, or the third of eight books called the Eagle of the Ninth series, both of which starts with The Eagle of the Ninth. The Marcus series is about Roman Britain, though The Lantern Bearers is about what happens when the last Roman troops withdraw from Britain. 18-year-old Aquilla, a Roman decurion, finds that he belongs more to Britain where he has grown up and desserts the Roman army on the eve that they leave Britain. He deserts the Roman army to return home to his father’s house on the Downs. A couple of days later it is sacked by the Saxons, and Acquilla is taken as a thrall and brought to Jutland (Denmark). Three years later he returns to Britain with his masters as part of a settlement wave, escapes, and joins Ambrosius Aurelianius’s army. The rest of the book is about his life and destiny fighting against the Saxons and the Scots.

This is a story about divided loyalties, suppressed emotions and finding purpose in life. There are no glib storylines, hardly even a traditional happy end, but instead, depth and sadness at the loss of so much richness and civilisation as Britain enter the dark ages. It is beautifully written, and many reviewers have pointed to the fact that Sutcliff asks a lot of her readers, but they are well rewarded! The historical facts are an essential background to the stories, and with it comes a sense of loss of light and civilisation.

To me, what is striking is the sense of distance. Emotional distance because of the character of Acquilla, who is emotionally unavailable to himself, his peers and to us as a reader. And distance because of the ‘otherness’ of the characters. Having recently read quite a lot of 21st Century historical fiction, often written from the point of view of girls, partly in an attempt at reclaiming the history of girls and women, The Lantern Bearers strike me as very different. While Acquilla is a traditional hero in many ways, strong, loyal, skilled, there is little attempt at making us identify too much with him. We live in his world because it is so skilfully presented by Sutcliff, seamlessly weaved into the story as utterly believable background, less so because we share universal human sentiments with him. At least that is how it feels to me. And, having read The Silence of the Girls, I can no longer read a historical novel without thinking about the silent girls in the military camps.
Sutcliff is considered one of the best authors of historical fiction for children (and I would argue, for adults). Belatedly, I join the ranks of her fans. 10/10.

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