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 He is recalled from leave because the last of the troops are being withdrawn (Rome is under attack).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 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
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.