At the end of Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers, the aging physician Eugenus reflects on the ways in which the lives of British and Romano-British peoples stand at the close of an era. The protagonist, Aquila, is looking into the night, wondering whether the victory over the encroaching Saxons will hold. Aquila is right: we know, with the author, that the Romano-British way of life is doomed. It is a story set no more than fifty or a hundred years, say, before the start of Wordhoard, with that painful first story of grubby accommodation and oppression.
Eugenus’ lines are therefore a vaticinium ex eventu: Sutcliff can see – as Aquila and Eugenus cannot – the Osrics and Edwins, the Augustines and Bedes as well as the Great Heathen Army, the Normans, and the wars in Europe of C20th…
“It may be that the night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again.
Morning always grows again out of the darkness that 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.”
She is writing in a world that has seen appalling hardship; Eugenus is speaking words of comfort but knowing that the peace will likely not last.
But they are words of comfort and hope beyond the trite “tomorrow is another day;” Aquila and Ambrosius and Ness and Artos, the future King Arthur, are looking for a time ahead of peace and stability, knowing it may not be theirs to see: like Moses gazing into a promised land he will not set foot in.
In the difficult incident where Aquila chooses to help an injured Saxon (skirting spoilers here) we see the first glimmer of a new Britain made of Roman, Briton, Saxon, Pict – and people whose ties to Britain were only half conceived when Sutcliff wrote. She sees a possibility of unity, of a loyalty bigger than tribalism. Hers is not the magical transcendence of Lewis but more like the charge of Cooper’s Merlin that after the grim times of the two World Wars “the world is yours and it is up to you.”
We are at a similar point now – a time upon us, maybe, or looming, where resentments are revived, nationalism is violently imposed – but Eugenus (a name suggesting “Good People”) reminds Sutcliff’s first readers – and us – of the importance of the basic relationships: Ninnias, the pottering herbalist monk, and Eugenus, the Roman doctor, are no magic patriarch Merlin, but advisers alone. It is worth noting that Sutcliff does not give us Merlin to contemplate, and that Ninnias has a gentle and largely unheroic gospel to proclaim: hope comes from humanity for post-war Sutcliff and for the last remnant of Roman Britain.
Up to us, then, to remember aright, to read the signs well, to act as best we can. It is not the apocalyptic Son of Man we conjure (who could?) or a Merlin to stride in to save us, but peace and compassion that we need to work for ourselves.
A thought for Armistice Day and Martinmas?