Book review: The Lantern Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Lantern Bearers, a 1959 historical novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, is officially a children’s book. It is also one of the best, most mature stories I have read in a long time, with a simple but powerful appeal. When it comes down to it, most stories – books, films, games – show us the world as we would like it to be. Some show us the world as their creators think it is. Some show us the worlds we fear. But every so often, one will show us* the world as it really is. And in TLB, I feel lucky to have read one of those rare gems.

 

Set in fifth-century Britain during the Anglo-Saxon invasions that followed the Roman withdrawal from that island, TLB tells the story of one Roman who stays behind to make a stand. Instantly, that tells us something. Regardless (no spoilers!) of what will happen to the characters, we know how this war will eventually end. We know the Roman Empire, both as a whole and in Britain, will collapse. We know the Dark Ages are about to descend. And that sense of changing times is imprinted on every page of TLB. It propels the world. It propels the plot. It, notably, propels the characters – the subtitle of this book could be, “Times change, and people change with them.” The realism with which they do is one of the book’s greatest strengths. This, I felt as I read it, is how people would really behave.

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