Commentary: The Lantern Bearers
Murray, KY – Maybe you know someone with a tough exterior and a hidden heart of gold, someone with an internal kindness only revealed to those closest to them. Author Robert Louis Stevenson called this kind of person a "lantern bearer." Commentator Duane Bolin examines this trait in Stevenson's essay and in his own life.
One of the highest compliments that my father ever paid anyone was to say, "He is always the same." Or "She is always the same." I think what my father meant was that in such people there was a certain transparency, a genuineness that transcended any tendency toward hypocrisy or falsehood. To say that someone was always the same meant that you could depend on that person. Such a person had character.
As much as we herald this sort of integrity, we must admit that most individuals have a secret nature known only to the closest of family and friends. Only those dearest to us see us as we really are. We are glad of it too, for we cherish such privacy. And we hope that our secret natures are honest and pure, although to be honest, we all know that our innermost beings sometimes include dishonesty and impurity.
Robert Louis Stevenson, the author of "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped," knew about this dichotomy of character. After all, he also wrote "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." It is in his personal essay, "The Lantern Bearers," however, that I think he shows most forcefully the place of private thoughts and dreams, private thoughts and dreams that we share only with those we love the most.
The essay is about a group of boys in England who "congregated every autumn about a certain easterly fisher-village, where they tasted in a high degree the glory of existence." "There was nothing to mar your days, if you were a boy summering in that part," Stevenson wrote, "but the embarrassment of pleasure." These boys, a group that included the budding writer, involved themselves in a clandestine, yet not so secret, exciting, and completely innocent activity. No sneaking of cigarettes or bottles of beer here. This game was altogether different.
According to Stevenson, toward the end of the summer, "when school-time was drawing near and the nights were already black, we would begin to sally from our respective villas, each equipped with a tin bull's-eye lantern. The thing was so well known that it had worn a rut in the commerce of Great Britain; and the grocers, about the due time, began to garnish their windows with our particular brand of luminary. We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigour of the game, a buttoned top-coat."
The boys went about the village with their buttoned-up topcoats as if in a secret society, believing that it was only known between each of them that they hid beneath the coat a bulls-eye lantern. "But take it for all in all," Stevenson said, "the pleasure of the thing was substantive; and to be a boy with a bull's-eye under his top-coat was good enough for us."
For these boys, "the essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide [of the lantern] shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool's heart, to know you had a bull's-eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge."
According to Stevenson, the attraction of the game was the simple knowledge that only you and a few others knew the secret. "Justice is not done to the versatility and the unplumbed childishness of man's imagination," he wrote. Although "his life from without may seem but a rude mound of mud," inside "there will be some golden chamber of the heart . . . in which he dwells delighted." "And for as dark as his pathway seems to the observer, he will have some kind of a bull's-eye at his belt."
Stevenson knew that such privacy is important for anyone. Just think though. The man or woman we see everyday might have a secret spark of goodness, devined only by those who love them most.
Dr. Duane Bolin teaches in the Department of History at Murray State University.