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Rosemary Sutcliff

Lantern Bearers, The
Walck, 1959


Instead of leaving with the last of the Roman legions, Aquila, a young officer, decides that his loyalties lie with Britain, and he eventually joins the forces of the Roman-British leader Ambrosius to fight against the Saxon hordes. Threatened by an unstoppable tide of invaders, the last of the Roman Auxiliaries are setting sail to leave Britain forever. But Aquila, a young legionnaire, chooses to stay behind, in order to join the fight to save his native land. -Borders

- Borders , 12/19/2005

This is one of many books, set at the end of the Romano-British era, that serve as precursors to the story of King Arthur, but it is a very good one. Aquila, a young decurion of the Auxiliary Cavalry in Britain, stationed at Rutupiae, with its own Pharos lighthouse, is on leave visiting his family, including Flavia, his lovely and lively sister, when he gets orders to return to camp. When he gets there, he finds the garrison leaving, recalled to the defense of Rome, even though this means stripping Britain of its last Roman military presence. Aquila decides to go “willfully missing” so he can stay and help defend Britain from its enemies, especially the Saxons, the wolves of the sea, who have been raiding further and further inland. Aquila’s father has a ring with a dolphin on it and Aquila has had a dolphin tattooed on his shoulder. On Aquila’s return to the family’s substantial holding, he has but a short time to enjoy with his family, who are Christians, before a Saxon raiding party attacks, killing everyone but himself and Flavia. Flavia is carried off by a big Saxon warrior and Aquila is not killed because a worse fate is intended for him, since he slew the war-band leader. He is tied, naked, to a tree, to await the arrival of real wolves, while the Saxons go on to new raids. However, a second band of Saxons comes by and the youngest of its members sees the tattoo on Aquila’s shoulder and wants him for his grandfather back home in Western Juteland, because his grandfather had always considered dolphins a lucky sign. Thus Aquila, given the name Dolphin, becomes a thrall to Bruni and considers escape many times, intent on trying to find out what happened to Flavia. He hopes he will encounter her in one of the Saxon camps. Meanwhile, he increases his value to his masters by being the one person able to read the Greek manuscripts of Homer that the raiders have seized, and he tells the stories of Odysseus during the long winters. But harvests are not good in Juteland and the Saxons need to move to Britain, not just as raiders but as settlers too, and Hengest, a Saxon leader, is cooperating with Vortigern, the Red Fox, who has just wiped out as many of his fellow Britons as he could who supported the return in Britain of the house of Constantine, who had succeeded for years in throwing back the Saxons after the Roman left. Constantine had been murdered, in a Pictish plot, supposedly, but many suspected Vortigern was behind it, since he shortly seized control and the sons of Constantine, Utha and Ambrosius had taken to the hills with a few loyal supporters. Vortigern had subsequently, a few years back, called in the Saxons to help him repel the invading Picts, and many Saxons were now settled on the island the Romans called Tanatus, almost down to the White Cliffs. Eventually, after the death of Bruni, Aquila and his masters come to Tanatus to settle and Aquila finds his sister in the camp, married to the Saxon and having borne his son. He also sees the closeness of Hengest and his daughter with Vortigern, now King of Britain, and takes a special dislike to a dark follower of Vortigern, Guitolinus. Flavia helps Aquila escape during a great feast, but is unwilling to come with him; she is tied by her man and her son to this new life. Aquila has the first of 3 meetings with a cheerful, kindly bee-keeping friar, Brother Ninnias, when the good brother files the slave-ring off Aquila’s neck and nurses him back to health. Aquila’s father, Flavian, had been one of the supporters of the young Ambrosius and Aquila decides to go off to the mountains to join his resistance movement, which seeks to overthrow Vortigern and drive out the Saxons he has brought in. But, though now free, Aquila remains a bitter, withdrawn and lonely man, however good at fighting and command. Aquila meets Eugenus, physician to Ambrosius Aurelianus, who does him a good turn, and then takes him on to the mountain fortress of the leader of the Roman party and King of Arfon, who accepts his offered service. There Aquila joins the company of Valarius, formerly the body-guard to Constantine, Ambrosius’ father, and Brychan, an ironic young man, both of them Companions of Ambrosius, and the young boy, nephew of Ambrosius and son of the late Utha, Artorius, better known as Artos, the Bear. Soon after, Vortigern divorces his wife and takes the daughter of Hengest as wife, so Vortigern’s three sons, the Young Foxes, led by the eldest, Vortimer, offer their service to Ambrosius against the Saxon encroachers, binding themselves with the ancient oath, “If we break faith with you, may the green earth gape and swallow us, may the grey seas roll in and overwhelm us, may the sky of stars fall on us and crush us out of life for ever.” Aquila is sure the 3 young men will abide by their oath, but doubts that the dark-faced Guitolinus is bound by any oath. At a festive dinner that night, Aquila sits next to and talks to another chieftain, Cradoc. Just then, a messenger bursts through the doorway and shouts that the Scots are close in shore and heading for the bay. Ambrosius and his new allies ambush the raiding Scots, to good effect, and Aquila saves the life of Cradoc, who pledges that it is a thing he will not forget. That is called upon the next year when Ambrosius asks Aquila to marry one of Cradoc’s two daughters as a further tie between the Roman party and the British chieftains. Aquila does not want to marry, still bitter about Flavia, but takes Ness, the less pretty, sharper daughter, not to the delight of either him or her. Aquila has no emotion to spare for any woman, and the long-awaited confrontation with the Saxons is drawing nearer. A good bit of time is spent on the fighting, especially the initial action with the advance parties, where Aquila distinguished himself for valor at one of the bridges. The Saxons are driven back and Aquila returns to the mountains to find that Ness has borne him a son, whom he names Flavian, after his own father, but Ness calls Minnow, because he is so small and because he is the son of Dolphin. Aquila returns to the army and worries over Ambrosius’ ability to hold together the mixed confederation. He is sure that Vortimer will stay loyal and the Celts will stay for him, but Vortimer’s brother Pascent, also loyal, he knows does not have that same leadership ability. He is a faithful follower. But Vortigern’s Saxon bride prepares a poisoned needle which she slips into a glove she sends to Vortimer as if it came from Ambrosius. When he dies, the Celtic chieftains, led by Guitolinus, who accuses Ambrosius of having become jealous of Vortimer, leave (except Pascent). Aquila gives Ness leave to go with her father, but Ness says that she (and their son) will stay. She belongs to him now -- and Aquila hears echoes of his sister Flavia. Vortigern, restrengthened, tried to work out better terms in his alliance with the Saxons under Hengest and was rewarded with a huge unity dinner, at which the Saxons, on cue, slaughtered 100 of the Celtic nobles. Those who escaped either returned to Ambrosius or, more often, melted back to their own domains. Aquila gives more responsibility in his own command to young Artos, now 14, and meets Brother Ninnias again as the bee-keeper accompanies and ministers to refugees, driven out by the Saxons. And soon thereafter, Vortigern, who had been preserved as a mere figure-head dies and is replaced by the vigorous and duplicitous Guitolinus as Celtic leader. After 6 more years of Ambrosius fighting a harassment war with the Saxon hosts, Aquila has become one of his captains and Artos has been developing the cavalry and had “begun to gather to him all the best and most gallant of the young warriors; Artos, who rode like a flame in battle, a superb leader of mounted men and a rebel against the old-established order.” Meanwhile, Flavian/Minnow has become 9 years old, much less interested in the schooling his father is stressing, more interested in warfare -- and idolizing Artos. Aquila, trying to make amends to his son after some harsh words about his schooling, allows him to ride his war-horse back to the stables, but the horse is startled by an owl and rears, throwing the boy, who strikes his head on a root and goes into a coma for 3 days, during which Ness hardly sleeps and Aquila is not worth anything at his duties. Soon after the boy emerges from the coma and starts a quick mend (with a scar similar to his father’s), the Saxons approach in force and Aquila must depart for the confrontation, relations a bit better with his son, but still rather distant. Aquila lacks social skills and is still bitter in his heart about Flavia. But the fight is postponed, as Hengest and Ambrosius agree to a division of territory. Hengest wants an exchange of hostages and Ambrosius gives him old Valarius, his bodyguard and friend. Ambrosius refuses to take a hostage from Hengest, saying “I ask no hostage in return. If Hengest is not bound by his sacred oath, I do not believe that the life of one of his hearth-companions will bind him. Therefore, I accept his oath alone, though he does not accept mine.” Five years of peace followed, but the last few more and more uneasy, until Ambrosius had established border guard-posts, one of which Aquila was commanding the night when Valarius appeared, running from the brush, only to be brought down by a Saxon arrow as he reached the post. But he lived long enough to warn Aquila that Hengest’s Saxons and Guitolinus’s Celts and many Picts were poised to launch a surprise attack. Ambrosius summoned all his hosts for what would be the battle for Britain. Minnow, now 15, wants to fight in Artos’s cavalry, but Aquila wants to keep him near him and orders him to join one of his own squadrons. The battle is vividly told - the initial confrontation and then Artos’s cavalry striking and breaking through the enemy lines, followed by Aquila and his men. As the battle goes badly for the Saxons, Hengest forms a shield-burg for defense. When Aquila attacks it, driving straight for Hengest, he sees in the wall “the face of a young warrior glaring up at him over a broken shield-rim. A dark, fine-boned face, distorted now with rage and hate, that was yet as like to Flavia’s as a man’s can be to a woman’s.” But he is drawn to parry a blow from a Scot and the young Saxon is gone when he looks back. The victory for Ambrosius is complete, though Hengest gets away.When Aquila meets Minnow after the battle, he is angry that the boy left his command and followed Artos’ charge, but he says that happens and Minnow says he was still behind his father in the attack on the shield-wall and that it was magnificent. Later that night, Aquila is talking with Artos about the fact that Ambrosius can now be crowned High King of Britain. Artos wishes he were Ambrosius’ son, note for any advantage but just because he would like to be his son. Aquila replies harshly that “To be father and son does not always bring any kind of nearness.” During the night, escaped Saxons are being hunted down and killed throughout the woods by drunken Britons. Aquila hears one ghastly cry and then goes off to check on his men at the field hospital. Here he finds Brother Ninnias, tending the wounded. As they are walking back to Ninnias’ hut over the next ridge after Ninnias treats Aquila, they find the body of a young Saxon, with the same face that Aquila had seen in the shield-wall. The young warrior turns out to be seriously wounded, but still alive and they take him to Ninnias’ hut for treatment, where they find, before he passes out, that his name is Mull and that his mother is British. Aquila needs to deflect 3 drunken soldiers, out hunting Saxons, from the hut before he can arrange with Ninnias for Mull to be taken care of and then gotten away to Saxon lands. Aquila gives his nephew his dolphin ring to be sent back when he reaches safety, as a token of his having gotten away, and a safe-conduct pass, should he be stopped by British troops. He also tells Mull to take his mother greetings from her long-lost brother. They part with mutual respect. On the day that Ambrosius Aurelianus is crowned High King of Britain, a great feast is being held. Before Aquila goes, Ness gives him a ball of wax, with a dolphin ring embedded in its middle, left by a trader. And Aquila remarks also that now Ness’s people and his own are once again united under the same king. They have a moment together as the reflect over their life together, without regrets. At the feast Artos remarks to Aquila that he now has back his dolphin ring that he had lost. Aquila feels he must speak out, and now, not later privately to Ambrosius, about the Saxon, the ring, the pass; not to do so now “would be in a queer way to deny Flavia; to deny something more than Flavia, that had no name to it, a faith that all men must keep within themselves.” Everyone is shocked, but Ambrosius says, “If the Dolphin, of all men, has had dealings with the barbarians, then it is to my mind that the reason must have been a strong one. Who and what was this certain one among the Saxon kind?” Aquila replies, “My sister’s son.” and explains about the raid and her help in his escape and his finding her son. At this point Minnow comes to stand with his father, despite Aquila’s muttered “keep out”. and says he would have helped in this escape if he had known about it. Ambrosius remarks “a strange and uncomfortable thing is honour” and then bids him be seated at the table. Aquila salutes Ambrosius and thanks Minnow. Artos pushes his wine-cup to Aquila and spoke loudly, “I never had a sister; but if I had, I hope I’d be as true to her over twenty years.” Afterwards, , Aquila is talking with the physician Eugenus, who says that a Britain bonded together may manage to hold off the barbarians -- for a while. Aquila questions him on this last phrase and Eugenus says “I sometimes think that we stand at sunset...It may be that the night will close over us in the end, but I believe the 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.” Aquila wonders whether the people on the other side of the darkness will remember them, and Eugenus looks back at a crowd of young warriors, in the midst of whom is Artos, later to be known as Arthur, and says “You and I and all our kind they will forget utterly, though they live and die in our debt. Ambrosius they will remember a little, but he is the kind that men make songs about to sing for a thousand years.” Aquila turns to go back to Ness and sees an old damson tree and a lantern hung in the colonnade, “and in the starlight and the faint and far-most fringe of the lantern glow it was as though the damson tree had burst into blossom: fragile, triumphant blossom all along the boughs.” Linda Adamson calls it “one of Sutcliff’s best”. Certainly Sutcliff writes with good narrative movement and effective characterizations, but for me it was the poetic beauty of her prose that made this novel a delight to read -- and to re-read. I’ve tried to give some feeling of this with the quotations in this review, but that’s like snatches of tune out of Beethoven’s Fifth. You need the whole thing for the effect. It is listed as a Young Adult book, and certainly young adults should be able to read it with a little bit of work on the vocabulary (including many terms that adults will not recognize either) and lots of enjoyment, but it would be too bad if any adult felt too old to enjoy it also. Yes, there is no sex (though there is, of course, some violence, but not graphic), but there are some interesting and mature relationships between Aquila and the 2 most important women in his life. I recommend this to anyone who likes a good story, well told, with the added advantage of a story that makes comprehensible a crucial time when the history of the Western world, Britain in particular, was changing forever. -Fred Mench 7/99

- Fred Mench, 7/1/1999

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