Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The Lantern Bearers - Rosemary Sutcliffe

This is the third book of Sutcliffe's Late Roman trilogy, published as long ago as 1959. It is a book for Young Adults but makes no concessions to juvenile sensibilities. The battles are brutal and forced marriage laid out with all its consequences. Oddly for a woman writer, the female characters are all cyphers - they get carried off against their will, they have children and for that reason only stay with their unwanted spouses - including our hero Aquila.

Aquila is Romano-British. He is meant to be with the last legion when it sails away from Britain in 410. He deserts, gets captured by the North Saxons and ends up fighting with the Celtic resistance in the mountains of Wales. |For me, this is where things get interesting - how does Sutcliffe handle the Arthur problem? Head on. She starts with Geoffrey of Monmouth, strips away the magical fluff, and leaves us with Ambrosius Aurelielinus and his young nephew Artur. On the opposite side she gives us the story of Vortigern, elected king of the Britons, and his rebellious sons. Vortigern invites the Saxons to settle and defend him against the Scots and Picts. He marries Hengist's seductive daughter Rowena and essentially loses all his illusory power.

The historical detail is magnificent, as accurate as it can be, given that Sutcliffe is writing about the onset of the so-called Dark Age. Aquila, who we follow from his late teens to middleaged warrior with a battle-aged son, is a compelling character, deeply conflicted over his lost Roman roots and loyalty to the island of his birth, however hopeless the cause. It is only at the very end that the meaning of the title is revealed and I found it quite moving.

The real treasure here, though, is the magnificent artwork of Charles Keeping.

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