The difficulty has been deciding whether my favorite male character is defined as the most admirable, or as the one in whom I am most interested as a person. I must go with the latter. He is not the most admirable, nor is he a model for how to live one’s life. His flaws are aggravating and his spiritual wounds are deep. He has few friends, and fewer that truly know and understand him.
But no other character’s situation has moved me so much, nor in the end given me such long-sought joy, as that of Aquila from The Lantern Bearers.
Make no mistake, Aquila is a hard man to like, both for those around him and for readers. He is cold and distant. He will not speak of the grief he has suffered in the past, nor does he speak of his feelings or inner thoughts. He spends years bottling up his pain and giving himself no relief, no closure, no peace. His manner is hard, his face usually inexpressive. His friends are few, and his respect is hard to win, although no man will gainsay his honor, courage, or the surety of his word and sword. When he does speak, his words are usually businesslike, or bitter. No one, it often seems, can understand him, least of all himself.
The loss of his family, especially his beloved sister Flavia, to the Saxons hurts so much that he cannot bear to tell of it to anyone else, even the few people he trusts. Further indignities he suffers as a Saxon thrall, and then another great dream dashed when he finds Flavia again but is unable to rescue her from her new life. He meets Brother Ninnias and refuses the monk’s warnings against vengeance, but does learn of how he can focus his energies and anger to a more productive end; that is, joining Ambrosius Aurelianus, Prince of Arfon, in the fight against the Saxons. Of all men he comes to trust Ambrosius the most, partly because the prince always respects him by never asking about his past, and also because he proves uncanny at knowing the kind of friends Aquila needs. But Aquila’s marriage to Ness, the daughter of a Celtic chieftain, at the request of Ambrosius, only serves to bring more pain and confusion. The two neither get along nor understand each other; Ness has her own heartbreaks and indignities she has suffered, and is quick to fling bitter barbs at her husband, barbs which he pretends to ignore, trying to believe they do not hurt. At one point Ness finally exclaims:
“It is never the things that you do, but the way you do them…You took me from my father’s hearth as you might have taken a dog—no, not a dog; I have seen you playing with Cabal’s ears and gentling him under the chin—as you might have taken a kist or a cooking-pot that you did not much value.” (167)
But Aquila, importantly, does not know this about himself; or at least, not until Ness tells him in that passage. He knows he is a difficult man, but he has never tried to be so, nor ever truly desired to hurt anyone. Ness’ confession surprises him, because he has never thought that he was important enough to have such an effect on someone else’s life. It’s almost as if he just doesn’t know how to be sensitive. And this is why he is such a sympathetic main character. We follow Aquila from just before his troubles start, when he was happy and loved and healthy in spirit, all through the events that batter him and shape him.
Sutcliff manages the difficult task of tracing the essential development of a man over twenty-some years in just under three hundred pages, and she does so without wasting a page or missing a defining moment. Aquila is one of the most complex and believable characters I have read, and I like him despite his faults because I feel I understand him so well.
The most beautiful part, the reason he is my favorite male character, is the slow and tender way he softens, grows, and begins to heal. This change does not come in clear, dramatic moments, as they usually do in book and most especially in movies, but in quieter events that demand a shift of attitude from him. Naming his only son after his father marks the first time Aquila has admitted to anyone any detail of his past; in this case, Ness learns that he had a father, and that he loved him.
A strong and cunning warrior, he is responsible for turning Ambrosius’ bands of horsemen into a highly trained cavalry force, and thus might be considered the grandfather of the English knight (considering how in Sword at Sunset Artos, the historical King Arthur, builds on Aquila’s foundation to increase the importance and effectiveness of the cavalry). All men respect him. He is a legitimate authority, a man who in his outward life is pragmatic and rational, purposeful and not to be trifled with.
The final chapters of the book are what solidify him as my favorite male character. I dare not say much for fear of spoiling it, but Sutcliff brings all the strands of her story together into a single event that is startlingly unassuming despite the its importance to his life. Aquila is confronted by the fruit of what caused his pain, and finds himself with a choice: enacting his anger or coldness of heart is supposedly what he has wanted, but enacting mercy (and even, in a way, love) would entail forgiving himself and coming to terms with his past. He chooses the latter, and what follows is a short series of moments that are painful in the way that the cleansing of a wound is painful. He makes the choice to heal. And it is a brave choice, a hardy one that takes more courage than any battle charge he has been part of. For this, he is my favorite character.
I fear I have given too much detail, and veered too closely to a book review. Forgive me for that. It is difficult to describe my affection for a character who on the surface should be unlikable. The magic is in Sutcliff’s handling of him. For the record, The Lantern Bearers is the only book at the end of which I have shed tears.