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The Lantern Bearers – Rosemary Sutcliff

by on January 19, 2012

Overview

It is the 5th century, and Aquila is a junior officer in the last Roman force in Britain. When the entire force is ordered to pull out and return to Rome, Aquila makes a difficult choice. He was born in Britain and his father and sister would be all alone without him, so he decides to abandon his post. Shortly after being reunited with his family, they’re attacked by the barbarians the Romans had held back for so long. Thrown into slavery, he must find a way to survive, and to find his sister who was also taken.

My thoughts

Rosemary Sutcliff was primarily a children’s book author, and that would be something that would immediately turn me off. However, this novel was written in 1959, when kids were actually still smart. It was a time where new children’s books included CS Lewis’ Narnia chronicles, Lord of the Rings (thought not strictly children’s books, definitely for all ages). Lloyd Alexander’s Prydian Chronicles came out a few years later, and Roald Dahl was writing some of his best works. Great literary works all, and shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence as children’s literature of today (Harry Potter, Twilight). They not only excited one’s imagination, but were also full of complex and mature themes lying subtly under the surface; to appeal to adults as well as children, along with not treating children like idiots. Kids today, however, are idiots, so maybe it’s an understandable progression.

I read this book for a class called Historical British Fiction 1950-present, a topic that I didn’t really know much about. I like literature, and I like history, so it seemed like a perfect fit. It was also one of two literature courses in the entire English department, so I didn’t have much choice to begin with. This first novel is the third in a series, which instantly made me a bit edgy about reading it. My OCD was screaming “start on the first book!”, but since I still have another 18 novels to read this semester, I decided to ignore it and the first 2 books in the sequence. It didn’t matter much, since I learned later that the novels span many centuries of the same Roman family in Britain, and a century or more passes in between each book, so they’re essentially stand-alones.

While I wouldn’t count The Lantern Bearers as one of my favorite novels, or even a very good novel, it was definitely something I enjoyed reading. It was, as children’s literature is wont to be, a rather light read, flowing well, moving the story along at a brisk pace and having something at least semi-interesting going on at all times. It deals with many adult subjects such as death, loss, and the notion that neither side in a war is necessarily “evil.” It’s so prevalent in children’s literature today that it’s good against evil, light against darkness. Harry Potter is pit against a group of people who call themselves “death eaters.” It’s almost as ludicrous as the decision of the SS in the 2nd World War to have skulls on their caps. More often than not, the differences between two sides in a conflict is merely ideological or just something to do with the rulers (the kings, chieftains and such.) The barbarians in The Lantern Bearers start off as some sort of ultimate evil force, but as the story progresses, we see reason in the madness, and notions of black and white is dispelled.

It’s an enjoyable book, I heard the first one The Eagle of the Ninth just recently got made into a movie. I also heard it sucked. This novel wasn’t bad at all.

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