The Lantern Bearers
by Rosemary Sutcliff
illustrated by Charles Keeping
Age: 12 +
Interests: history, British history, war, violence, Vikings, Romans, slavery
Oxford University Press: 1959
306 pages, 22 chapters
Next: This is the 3rd book of 3 in the “Roman Britain trilogy”. The first two titles are The Eagle of the Ninth (aka The Eagle) and The Silver Branch. All three books have also been published together in one volume under the title The Eagle of the Ninth Chronicles. The Eagle was made into a movie in 2011 starring Channing Tatum. And just to make things more confusing, the three books are often grouped with five other titles which continue the loose story of the same family tree, even though Sutcliffe did not write them as an official series. The full list in story-chronological order:
- The Eagle of the Ninth (1954)
- The Silver Branch (1957)
- Frontier Wolf (1980)
- The Lantern Bearers (1959)
- Sword at Sunset (1963)
- Dawn Wind (1961)
- Sword Song (1997, posthumous)
- The Shield Ring (1956)
Also by this author: Black Ships Before Troy; Arthurian Trilogy: The Sword and the Circle, The Light Beyond the Forest, The Road to Camlann; Tristan and Iseult, Warrior Scarlet, The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, Blood Feud, Song for a Dark Queen, Chess Dream in a Garden, The Wanderings of Odysseus
The dramatic story of a young Roman soldier – Aquila – who chooses to stay behind when Rome withdraws from Britain. His family, however, is soon betrayed and attacked by Vikings. The farm is destroyed, his father is killed, and Aquila and his sister Flavian are captured by different marauding bands. Aquila ends up a household slave in a Viking village for two years. Sailing with the ‘Sea Wolves’ in their return to Britain Aquila finds an opportunity to escape, with the help of his sister, who he has discovered in a Viking village – now married to her captor and mother to a young son. Aquila asks her to escape with him but she refuses, choosing to stay with the Vikings. Aquila feels great anger toward what he perceives as her betrayal of their people. He also seeks revenge on the man who led the Sea Wolves to destroy his family home, but a stay with a peaceable monk reveals to him that the man is dead, and only betrayed them because he was tortured. Aquila’s anger and very purpose for living are both extinguished, until the monk suggests he find and serve the Roman general in exile, Ambrosius, who is recruiting an army in the mountains to retake Britain.
Many years go by as Aquila serves Ambrosius faithfully, even marrying a Celtic girl for the purpose of a political alliance. Once Aquila has his own son and realizes that his wife Ness gave up her life with her own people to join him does he realize his sister’s dilemma and forgive her. During the Roman victory over the Sea Wolves he comes across his sister’s son, who is wounded, and Aquila helps him to escape. Indeed, during his time in the Norse village and afterward, Aquila’s trials make him a very hard individual, and only late in life does he realize the price he has paid. His inability to form a warm connection with his own son is one of his chief regrets and as the novel ends he is trying to make amends.
This narrative covers many years, and while its frequent leaps in time are accurate to events, it rather diffuses the dramatic tension and flow of the story. The gradual mellowing of Aquila’s perspective is a quiet counterpoint to the frequent brutal battle scenes. The confusion and adrenalin rush of war is caught in these pages, as Aquila is a well-trained and fearless warrior.
I like the detailed depiction of everyday life in several different communities – Roman estate, poor Scandinavian village, larger British towns, and finally in a military outpost. There is a fair amount of political intrigue here, as the Sea Wolves con and finally murder their ally Vortigern, the very Roman renegade who had Ambrosius’ father Octavian assassinated. In the end this is historical drama with a long, long view. Even Aquila, at the end, thinks mainly in terms of what their victory will mean to the generations to come.
This book is the third of a trilogy – I haven’t read the first two, and this book is fine as a stand-alone, but they seem to be about Aquila’s grandfather and father, so the trilogy covers the entire span of Rome’s direct rule of Great Britain.
Rosemary Sutcliff is an incredibly masterful writer of historical fiction for preteen and teen readers, and her books are eminently suitable for adult readers as well. (I loved her Black Ships Before Troy, click here to read my review of that book.) If your reader is into both action and historical fiction, be sure to look up more of her novels, they are very well-written, intense and challenging!
The Lantern Bearers is an exciting but ambitious read for young readers interested in distant history. Full of action, intrigue. betrayal and murder, but also about independent action, patience, regret, ethical dilemmas, and even some empathy toward one’s foes. It’s an adult tale, but told in a way that keeps it accessible to teen readers. This is a portrayal of a young man who loses everything and struggles to find a purpose in life and keep going.