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The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff was born 100 years ago today – on 14th December 1920. She died in 1992 having written more than 40 novels, most of them historical fiction for children. Many adults, including me, love to read her books, for the story, the accuracy of the historical setting and for the themes she explores. 

“I would claim that my books are for children of all ages, from nine to ninety.” [Interview in 1986, quoted on Wikipedia]

Does she deserve her reputation as one of the best writers of the post-war period?

The Lantern Bearers

Some of her best known books are set in the period of the Roman occupation of Britain. The Eagle of the Ninth, perhaps her best known work, was set after the Antonine wall had been abandoned, and when Hadrian’s wall was still a barrier. By 410 AD Rome had more or less abandoned Britain, and Saxon warriors were already threatening to plunder eastern Britain, and also to settle on its fertile land. The Lantern Bearers is set in this turbulent time.

Aquila is a young man serving with the cavalry of the last of the Roman troops stationed in present day Rochester in Kent. His family live in Sussex, farming their land peaceably. He is recalled from leave because the last of the troops are being withdrawn (Rome is under attack). At the last minute he fails to board and deserts, feeling loyalty to Britain rather than to Rome. He returns to his family farm. But soon the Saxons come, many in search of good plunder or new homes. The Saxons who destroy his father’s farm come to murder Flavian because he had bonded with the British tribes against Saxon invaders. Aquila’s sister is dragged away, and he is left to the wolves.

He is discovered by another band of marauders who take him as a slave. He spends some winters in Jutland. He worries about his sister, and how to return to Britain. The tribe eventually decide to transfer to Britain so he goes with them and escapes. He does this with the help of his sister who he finds in a large Saxon encampment, but she won’t come with him because she has a son. Since he lost his freedom, to find and liberate Flavia Aquila has been the purpose of his life, but she has rejected him. For a short time seeks vengeance on the messenger who betrayed his father to the Saxons, but discovers that the man was tortured and died. 

Now he is lost and his life is empty, but he makes his way to the hills of North Wales and joins the resistance forces there, a band of British and Anglo-Roman soldiers led by Ambrosius. He joins them as they prepare for battle with the Saxons, and sustain some victories and some defeats. He remains isolated, but a trusted member of Ambrosius’s Companions. The commander asks him to marry a Celtic warrior’s daughter to help bind the allies, which he does. But it takes many years and a son to bring any warmth to his marriage. Ness’s decision to stay with him, because of their son, echoes Flavia’s rejection and it helps the gradual healing of Aquila’s wounds. However, the combined forces are not able to defeat the Saxons decisively, and must learn to live with these new neighbours. 

The story-telling

The story is a quest, at first for revenge for the loss of Aquila’s home and family, but later it becomes the quest of all exiles – to find a home, not just a place, but with people who care for him. It’s a long quest, and he is helped by those he meets: a monk Brother Ninnias , an old physician called Eugenus, Artos (aka Arthur) a brilliant horseman, and his own wife Ness. He even manages a kind of reconciliation with his sister. 

The quest is successful because Aquila has many qualities, shared with other heroes of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels: loyalty, integrity, resilience and intelligence. As in all good stories, the path is strewn with failures, near misses and temptations to take the easier path. 

The action of the quest is helped along by splendid descriptive passages. In this extract Aquila is in Jutland and he has brought his dying master to the sea one night for the last time.

The grey sky was hurrying overhead and the high-riding moon showed as a greasy blur of brightness, rimmed with smoky colours behinds the drifting flecks of cloud. The tide was full out, and the brightness fell in bars of tarnished silver on the wet sandbanks beyond the dunes and the cornland, and the oily tumble of the water beyond again. The wind swung blustering in from the south-west and the sea, with the smell if salt in it and that other smell so long delayed, that was the promise of spring, and the whole night was alive with the trickle of melting snow. (60-61)

The title is significant. The period following the withdrawal of Rome used to be called the Dark Ages. Not only does Aquila light the great beacon at Rutupiae (Rochester) after the last Roman troops have left, creating a legend which is repeated to him for time to time, but Eugenus describes their role as the book ends. 

‘I sometimes think we stand at sunset,’ Eugenus said after a pause. ‘It may be that night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always comes 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.’ (246)

I was conscious that Rosemary Sutcliff had lived through the threat in the Second World War of invasion from Europe, of loss of freedom and self-determination. The novel was published in 1959, just 14 years after peace was established in Europe. 

Exile and home

The theme of exile and belonging runs through this novel, which makes it of interest to adults as well as young people. For Aquila it meant an existential challenge. For the two women, Flavia and Ness, both of whom were absorbed into alien tribes, it meant dilemmas that were almost impossible to resolve. We are left in no doubt that the warring bands will not resolve the issues of who will rule Britain. These continued for another half millennium and were not resolved until after the Norman conquest.

But the individual finds a home by making connections, through family, through shared endeavours, through commitment to community, through honest relationships. These themes are as relevant today as they were after the Romans left, after the end of the Second World War, and are difficult for people of all ages.

I salute Rosemary Sutcliff on her centenary and for her achievements.

The Lantern Bearers by Rosemary Sutcliff first published in 1959 by Oxford University Press. I used an edition published in 1972. 248pp

Related posts

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff on Bookword in June 2019.

Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers on Kate Macdonald’s blog in 2016. She is interested in how Artos in particular is portrayed, but also admires the psychological insights into Aquila’s character.

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Five great covers for five recommended novels

According to Charles Dickens, ‘There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’ On the whole the best I expect is that a book’s cover does not detract from its contents. But some book covers enhance what lies inside. And a few are works of art on their own. In this post I celebrate some excellent covers together with links to my reviews of the books.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter

This short but lyrical novel plays with the idea that Crow, from the poems of Ted Hughes, comes to assist a family through their grief when the mother dies. Sometimes it is amusing, sometimes poignant, and everybody I know who has read it has been moved by it.

The sparseness and simplicity of the cover design exactly matches the book’s contents. The cover was designed in-house by Faber using an illustration by Eleanor Crow.

Grief is the thing with feathers by Max Porter, published in 2015 by Faber & Faber 114pp

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Among its many achievements, this classic novel displays Virginia Woolf’s perceptiveness. Here is an example, as Mrs Ramsay concludes the book she reads to her youngest son James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

The cover of the first edition was by Vanessa Bell, Virginia Woolf’s sister. It was published by the Woolfs’ own Hogarth Press.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) published by the Hogarth Press. Available in the Penguin Modern Classics edition (1964) 237pp

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

Not a traditional fairy tale, but The Sleeping Beauty is the story of an awakening. The central characters are not in the first flush of youth but love manages to awaken them from inner deadness. It is set in a seaside backwater and begins with a dreamy walk along the cliff. This cover was an inspired choice for an early Virago edition. By Winifred Nicholson it is called The Gate to the Isles (Blue Gate) and was painted in 1980. It is on display at the Falmouth Gallery until mid-September.

Many readers find the more recent cover designs for Elizabeth Taylor’s novels insipid in contrast to the original Virago choices such as this one.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor was published in 1953, now available in the Virago Modern Classics series.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

It was the cover that first attracted me to this novel. Its intricate, dense and convoluted patterning of natural objects reflects the storyline. It was designed by Peter Dyer, with acknowledgement to William Morris. Morris was contemporaneous with the setting of the novel. It’s a mystery and an investigation about beliefs and science all at the same time.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, published in 2016 by Serpent’s Tail. 418pp

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

I reviewed this children’s classic recently accompanied by a photo of the cover of my copy. Many people commented on it, saying they had read it in a much drabber schools editions. This cover captures the rituals of the Seal people north of Roman Britain. It was also inspired by the mysteries and dark dangers of the ancient world. It is by C Walter Hodges.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954 by Oxford University Press and still on their list.

Related post

Thinking about … Book Covers was a blogpost from January 2014, which includes more examples and links to archives etc.

A post from Louise Harnby’s blog The Proofreader’s Parlour: The Design Essentials: creating a stand-out book cover. Advice for authors. It draws on work for Salt Books that frequently have captivating covers.

Over to you

Do you have any covers to nominate as adding something to the book? Or is an exceptionally pleasing cover?

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Filed under Books, Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reviews, Virginia Woolf

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

From time to time I reread books that have meant a great deal to me. The Eagle of the Ninth was a book I loved in childhood. And I enjoyed rereading it recently for its Romano-British adventure, for the sassy female character and for Rosemary Sutcliff’s skill in storytelling.

I consumed a great deal of historical fiction after this, and wonder if Rosemary Sutcliff contributed to my decision to read history at University?

The story of The Eagle of the Ninth

Marcus Flavius Aquila, who grew up in Italy, has his first command in Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter), in the second century AD. After establishing himself as a leader he is severely wounded in an attack by the local tribes who have risen against Roman rule. Invalided out of the army he recovers at his uncle’s house in Calleva (Silchester). While there he plans to rescue his father’s reputation and the Eagle from the standard of the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion. Marcus’s father had commanded the cohort when it disappeared after marching north to deal with rebellious tribes in 117 AD.

Marcus saves a British slave, Esca, who is about to be killed at the local gladiatorial games in Calleva. Esca becomes the devoted companion to Marcus, and is freed at the start of their expedition to find the lost Eagle.

The story is a quest. They set out in disguise to follow any clues that will lead them to the truth of what happened to the Ninth and its Eagle. Their quest takes them to the Highlands of Scotland, north of the abandoned Antonine Wall. Of course they find and reclaim it, but the quest turns into a hunt as they attempt to bring it south of Hadrian’s Wall, where Roman rule is still in operation. Marcus and Esca become the quarry, but in the end …

Rosemary Sutcliff

Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) said she wrote books for children of all ages, from 9 to 90. It is true that her fiction does not talk down to readers, is not busy providing information, although she was careful with her research. She wrote many books, some situated in pre-historic times, others in Tudor and Stuart period and is perhaps best known for her Roman Britain stories.

In the Introduction to The Eagle of the Ninth she explains how she brought together the mystery of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion and the discovery of a wingless Roman eagle in an excavation at Silchester in 1866. No one could explain how it got there.

It is from these two mysteries, brought together, that I have made the story of ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’.

I love her imaginative ability to weave adventures from the events of the past in all her novels.

Why I like the book

It’s a good adventure, with plenty of cliffhangers – at the end of almost every chapter. Here are three examples:

But to Marcus everything seemed for the moment to have grown still. For the last comer was carrying something that had been a Roman Eagle. (157)

But Esca’s suddenly widened eyes were fixed on one corner of the cloak, outflung towards him, and he did not answer; and Marcus, following the direction of his gaze, saw the cloth at that corner torn and ragged. (185)

Up over the edge of the spur, three wild horsemen appeared heading for the gateway. (209)

The storytelling is excellent, just what young readers (between 9 and 90) want. We guess that Marcus and Esca will manage to find the Eagle and to escape their hunters, but we enjoy their efforts to achieve these. Both young men are authentic because neither is perfect.

I also liked the representation of the tribes, both near Exeter and the Seal people in the Highlands. The cover of my copy of The Eagle of the Ninth captures the rituals of the Seal people in a dramatic and attractive way, better than your Roman soldier. It is by C Walter Hodges.

Is The Eagle of the Ninth dated?

The novel was published in 1954, and at the time the explanation for the Silchester Eagle given by Rosemary Sutcliff was as good as any other. Archaeology has moved on and today it is not thought to be from a Roman Army standard, but more likely was part of a larger statue and held in the hands of an important person. It can be seen in Reading Museum.

It is a little unsettling to read such an accepting account of colonialism of the Romans. The rebellions are presented as the last struggles of the ancient tribes against the superior might, economic power and civilization of the Romans. I guess, critiques of the British Empire were not yet commonplace in the 1950s. In the same way, although Marcus does the decent thing and frees his slave Esca, there is no suggestion that slavery was the dark and essential underside of the Empire.

Perhaps most of all, The Eagle of the Ninth is dated because the feisty and delightful young woman, Cottia, remains behind to wait for the return of the young men. Today any self-respecting writer would have sent her on the quest alongside Marcus and Esca.

However the novel is of its time and these reservations did not spoil my rereading.

Film

And, there is of course a movie called The Eagle starring Channing Tatum, Jamie Bull and Donald Sutherland (2011). I have not seen it so I do not know how faithful it is to the novel, but it is sad that the second part of the novel’s title was omitted, because the whole has mystery in its rhythm. On the other hand, Donald Sutherland seems to me an inspired casting as Uncle Aquila.

The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, first published in 1954. I reread my own 1970 edition from Oxford University Press, which it is still on their list, not only because it has just been filmed.

Over to you

What novels from childhood do you reread? Have you any thoughts on The Eagle of the Ninth?

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