The first two books in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles Series are worth the read. The story is based on King Alfred the Great’s unification of England in the 9th Century. I am a big fan of Bernard Cornwell and he brings his usual superb writing and research to this series. Cornwell has the unique ability of giving you a great story at the same time telling you the history of an area or time period.
The first book, The Last Kingdom, begins in 866 when the main character Uhtred is captured by Danish invaders after they kill his father and his allies to take control of Northumbria, a kingdom in northern England. Uhtred is raised by a Danish warlord, Ragnar the Fearless, who treats him more like a son rather than a slave. He comes to love Danish life with its warrior and pagan culture over the stuffy and rules-oriented life of Christian England. Eventually, Uhtred assists the Danes in conquering three of the four English kingdoms. However, he switches to helping King Alfred after Ragnar is killed and succeeds in leading the Saxons to victory against the Danes at Cynuit in southern England.
Cornwell is a master storyteller. He is able to weave together an interesting plot. Uhtred goes all over England fighting with Ragnar and creating enemies – both English and Danish. The story gets more interesting by the page – at first he is totally enthralled with the Danes and their conquests, but this begins to change when he joins the first invasion of Wessex and meets Saxons who are willing and able to resist the Danes. Cornwell also adds interesting historical and mythical tidbits – for instance, how King Edward from East Anglia tried to convert the Danes to Christianity and all he got was a body full of arrows.
The second book, The Pale Horseman, begins in 877 after Uhtred’s victory at Cynuit. Although Uhtred has led the Saxons to a victory, he considers switching sides again because he is more comfortable with them than with the Saxons and he and King Alfred do not get along. He is further divided in his loyalties when his female companion foresees a great victory for Alfred, even though Alfred is isolated in a swamp with very few supporters. The book ends with another climactic battle at Edington.
As with the first book, Cornwell excels at character development. Uhtred has traits that are admirable, but he also has traits that are from that – arrogance and pride for example. Being a Christian, I do not particularly care for the slams on my religion by Uhtred, but I also understand the context for which they are made. Many Christian clergy living then, as is the case today, were more interested in accumulating wealth than helping their flocks.
Back to Uhtred, Cornwell does a fine job depicting the conflict within Uhtred between his love of the Danish lifestyle, but his allegiance for his people the Saxons. This conflict never goes away in the first two books – it is always under the surface. I think this adds a certain reality because Uhtred makes a decision and sometimes regrets it – as many of us do as well. Although I cannot under stand the allure of a 9th Century Danish lifestyle, I can understand how that would appeal to an impressionable boy who is raised in it.
I find Cornwell’s depiction of Alfred fascinating. Alfred is not a king who is strong and loves combat – he is the exact opposite. From what I have read, Cornwell depicts him fairly accurately in that Alfred was a very pious leader who strove to unite his country in whatever means were necessary – even negotiating truces with the Danes to preserve his territory. Despite his physical weaknesses, Alfred uses his brains to reach his goals.
Cornwell provides a window into the types of people who were needed to unite England.