“It may be that 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.” (1)
I am contemplating the role of ‘lantern bearer’. The Lantern Bearers is the last book in a trilogy set in different periods when some people thought of themselves as both Roman and British. This makes for cultural complexity and a need to make conscious personal choices. Aquila, the main character, is a young officer in the last auxiliary cavalry cohort remaining in the province at the time of the final withdrawal*. The mission is to maintain the lighthouse at the decaying fortified port of Rutupiae (Richborough near Sandwich, Kent) to guide ships and demonstrate a continuing presence on the ‘Saxon Shore’. On being told that his unit is to leave, Aquila deserts and hides.
When night falls, he lights the beacon for one last time. Then he goes home to his family farm. His commitment is to them and the land. It is an old military family, originally from Tuscany, but his father forgives him saying that he would have done the same. They have little to connect them to fallen Rome and even less to distant Constantinople and the orient.
After a brief and beautiful family reunion, Aquila loses everything, as his farm is attacked and destroyed, his father killed, he and his sister taken captive. Then come three years of thraldom (slavery) in Jutland; return to his homeland when his owners migrate permanently; escape; a bitter discovery that his sister has become reconciled to a forced marriage with a one of the hated invaders following the birth of a son; a journey to join Ambrosius Aurelianus and his new resistance army, its heartland already far to the west, in the mountains of modern Wales. Aquila becomes militarily effective, while still traumatised and emotionally frozen. He too accepts a loveless arranged marriage with the daughter of a local warlord as part of Ambrosius’ plan to bring the ‘Roman’ and ‘Celtic’ sections of his coalition closer together.
Over time, and long years of war with peaceful intervals, Aquila begins a process of healing and increasing insight. The conversation about ‘lantern bearers’ comes at the end of the book, when Aquila and the army doctor Eugenus are talking during a victory celebration. The young Artos (presented here as a beloved hero, though not quite the Arthur of legend) has won a major battle. But it is obvious to both Eugenus and Aquila that the invaders will not be thrown back to the sea or even held back in their current territories for very long. The imbalance of population and forces is too great, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes themselves in flight from other invaders further to the east. Despite knowing this, the last Roman British will not give up. They will continue to do what they can. They will be lantern bearers, trusting in the possibility of a legacy, holding onto the hope that something of value may be carried on, even into a distant future that they cannot even imagine.
I read The Lantern Bearers when I was 11 or 12 and it made a strong impression on me. Even then I thought that the lantern bearing philosophy wouldn’t work for a nuclear war. But I thought that it might work for anything less drastic and immediate. Now we have the climate crisis, which is global and much more serious than the fall of the western Roman Empire. Military operations are no part of any just solution.
They are not the only solution even in The Lantern Bearers. Brother Ninnias is a refugee monk and bee-keeper, sole survivor of a monastic community in what is now the invaders’ territory. He isn’t the stuff of which the masterful saints of the Celtic Church are made – equally willing to become martyrs or princes of the Church as the faith appears to demand. Indeed Ninnias’ formal practice is much decayed, as he stays with a community of destitute refugees, one of them, a healing presence who helps out where he can. His occasional meetings with Aquila are a crucial part of the soldier’s psycho-spiritual recovery, because he listens and understands without judgement, also helping Aquila to save his ‘Saxon’ nephew from a massacre of fleeing wounded enemies, and then return him to his mother with a reconciling message. Brother Ninnias is not much interested in the wider context of history and culture. He scarcely seems interested in his religion, as a Religion. Rather, to use the deeper language of his tradition, he helps to open spaces where grace can come in, wherever the moment of opportunity arises. He is a lantern bearer too, though after another manner.
I can take on the notion of lantern bearing – bearing witness, choosing consciously how to live, taking appropriate action, favourably influencing events as far as lies in my power. It helps me to feel more resourceful. My recent reading of The Lantern Bearers has been a gift to me from my younger self, across sixty years of chequered history.
(1) Rosemary Sutcliff The Lantern Bearers Oxford: the University Press, 1959 (Third of a trilogy – the others are The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch).
*Sutcliff places this in the 440’s, a generation after after the departure of the legions.
Illustration: the Hermit card from Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The DruidCraft Tarot: Use the Magic of Wicca and Druidry to Guide Your Life London: Connections, 2004. Illustrated by Will Worthington.
I’ve read The Lantern Bearers many times since I was a child, and re-read it again recently.. I think it’s very relevant to our time, or perhaps all times, though there are no easy or comfortable answers to anything in it..
Thanks Paul. I strongly agree with you that the book is relevant to our time and perhaps all times.
I read the other two as a child but hadn’t even heard of this one!
I’ve learned this morning that there are two others: Frontier Wolf set between the first two and Sword at Sunset after The Lanterns Bearers. Still available, too!
Thanks! I’m going to get these for my public library as well.
You are welcome, Victoria.
Ooh, thank you! Nostalgia project, possibly.
Yes. I’m thinking the same way.
I loved these books as well. And now, as a children’s librarian, I am introducing them to a new generation. I am so happy they are still in print.
That’s great to hear, Victoria. Thanks for commenting.