“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.”

The Lantern Bearers — Rosemary Sutcliff
Eagle of the Ninth , book 4

Lantern2

While I know I read this when I was a teen, I was actually only ten when I first encountered it and while I didn’t like it much at the time – because I was ten and this isn’t really a book for a ten-year-old – I reread it several times that year. In part that is because even though I didn’t like it I did find it fascinating but the real reason was we were living in Brazil, we had gone three months without any books in English1  to read and this was in the big case of school books that finally caught up with us around Christmas. It was actually my brother’s allotment of course books for grade nine but I didn’t care. I read all the books in that box over and over, except maybe the math books.

So, hint to authors: you want me to fixate on your novel, arrange for me to be stuck in a tropical nation for a long time without books before sending me a copy of your novel. I have in mind some land near Hilo2 that would be particularly efficacious in this matter.

Aquila is a loyal evil bastard colonist Roman soldier stationed in Britain, where his family has lived for generations. Lately the wheels of the Empire have gone a bit wobbly, with slave revolts, invasions and the like but the Romano-Britons are clinging to memories of the old days of evil bastard colonist glory despite the evidence all around them that those days are well over and that a long dark age looms.

What had been a slow, steady decline suddenly accelerates into collapse when the Roman soldiers in Britain, the force whose presence keeps supposed ally Hengist the Saxon in line, are recalled en mass to Rome. Aquila finds his loyalty to Britain is greater than his loyalty to Rome so he remains behind. What fate would have met him in service to Rome, none can say, but in Britain what happens is he is with his family when the Saxons attack the family farm, kill his father and carry off his sister Flavia. Aquila survives the Saxon attempt to execute him only to be enslaved by raiding Jutes. It sucks to be a declining imperialist treated by the next wave of imperialists as one’s people treated the poor bastards who got in the way when the Empire was expanding instead of imploding.

[Actually, if the barbarians go in for the sort of organized mass brutality that left the Appian Way lined all the way from Rome to Capua with crucified prisoners we never see it. People are brutally murdered and Aquila is left tied to a tree for wolves to eat but the various atrocities seem to be carried out retail rather than wholesale]

Years pass before Aquila manages to escape and while he does manage to find Flavia, she is married to and has had a child by the man who carried her off and will not abandon her family. Aquila had a second goal in mind, one involving bloody revenge, but he discovers that the man he blamed for the raid on the farm was himself a victim and is now long dead.

This leaves Aquila to find some new reason to keep on living. Rome is out of his reach, but the remnants of Roman Britain are still hanging on under the leadership of Ambrosius Aurelianius and so it is to Ambrosius that Aquila offers his service. He will spend years fighting for Ambrosius in the chaos that is 5th century Britain only to come face to face with a relic of his own past in the midst of battle.

So, not technically SF but the Fall of Rome or at least versions of it as understood by various genre authors have had a lot of effect on SF. Rome is one of the two big go-to models for great empires in SF, the British Empire being the other one, and the Western Empire’s collapse is wonderful material for drama, although it kind of sucks to be the Romans in those dramas. 

It just occured to me why in the Canada of my youth, where the Winds of Change were recent memory and where the Great Flag Debate had recently divided the country, our school curricula were so full of Fall of Rome stuff. You know, if you look at JFK as Vortigern and LBJ as Hengist….

While the evil bastard colonist Romans were not without their faults, faults alluded to in this novel, the Romano-Britons in this are genuinely civilized in ways the Saxons, Jutes, Angles and the rest are not3 (and of course most of the people in the Empire were its victims, not conquerers). Once enough people die or are distracted by their efforts to stay alive, a lot of useful skills are going to vanish from Britain for a long time. The Jutes who enslave Aquila, for example, see his ability to read as a kind of magic.

For some reason I had completely forgot every significant event aside from the poisoned needle in the glove after Aquila meets his sister for the last time. The book is a bit of a downer – unless you’re a Saxon, ha ha – but ending with him realizing his old life is in no way salvageable without moving on to something new is much darker. Totally accurate for a lot of people in the period, though.

I gather this is part of a larger series and that the earlier books were aimed at kids and the later ones for teens. This is probably not a great book for children, although they might fail to make the connection between the various forced marriages and the children that soon follow (Aquila for his part very belatedly comes to understand that what he did to Ness when he decided for political reasons that she would be his wife is not very different from what happened to his sister Flavia). As a ten-year-old I was not used to books quite so steadfastly morose – even the happy ending is of the form ‘in the long run our culture is totally screwed but perhaps a tiny spark of civilization will prevail and in any case this moment right now is good’ - so this was all very educational for me. I can’t say I liked it when I first read it because it was so different from what I was used to but I did keep coming back to it over and over in the 1970s.

The series of which The Lantern Bearers is available from Oxford University Press.


  1. I don’t want to say how long it took us to realize the University had lots of Anglophone books but let’s just say “a lot longer than it should have.”
  2. Yeah, the other side of the island is less likely to vanish under lava but this is me we are talking about and the other side is only less likely.
  3. Phrasing because I don’t know much about the actual Saxons4 etc of old except that they were yet more waves of evil bastard colonists pushing my distant relatives5 to the ends of Europe and beyond and that they got theirs when the Normans rolled in. Speaking of the Normans, they are going back to Normandy at some point, right?
  4. The More You Know: Saxons are named after the “Seax”, a kind of knife they carried. Basically, they’re the Stabbies. Angle may come from a word for narrow or perhaps hook so Anglo-Saxons are the skinny or perhaps hooked stabby people.
  5. I am not the sort of person to keep a grudge but history since 275 BC has not exactly favoured the Celts (see map in link). Apparently weaponized ADHD married to sunny misapprehension of comparative strengths no longer cuts it as a primary tool of expansion and now the focus is on stable, complex organization across expanses of time and space as well as not attacking the nearest heavily armed nation with a poorly equipped rabble. 
    Although the US does look pretty disorganized right now and a small group of enthusiasts might do quite well….

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