Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell - Review

I am old now, and look back on many years, long years, of happy perusing of the tomes written by the venerable Bernard Cornwell.  Well I remember the young private soldier Richard Sharpe slogging his way across the cold wet dark threatening landscape of Spain in retreat from the conquering hordes of Napolean Bonaparte and how young Sharpe, bold in his anger, triumphed in the first of oh-so-many volumes of the now famous Cornwellian prose.  And I still garner, these many years later, deepest pleasure from having ignited a similar passion in young Alex, our youthful offspring.  The tales of young, and later aging, Sharpe continue through twenty-one volumes of novelistic invention through the historical period of the Napoleanic Wars.  In the ensuing period, Cornwellian literature has, with passion and a keen eye for story, history, and the dollar taken willing readers to the land of King Arthur, the American Civil and Revolutionary Wars, and in search of the Grail itself.  Now he leads his readers to enter into that nearly hidden and largely unknown period between the darkness of non-pre history in the mythic world of Merlin and Arthur and the dawn of recorded history by creating a series exploring the world of Britain as Danes and Anglo-Saxons vie for supremacy in the dawn of northern European civilization...and a good tale 'tis, too.

Well, I ain't much good at parody, so let's get to it.  Bernard Cornwell begins his latest series of historical novels focused on the dawn of modern England with The Last Kingdom, published in 2004, and followed it with a title a year since then. As in his other series books, he has created a fictional character to tell the story of historical events taking place in the 9th and 10th centuries when Alfred the Great created a unified country that became England and them the United Kingdom.  His narrator, and hero, is Uhtred.  Born of Saxon nobility in Northumberland and raised by Danish invaders who killed his father and took him away from his birthright home of Bebbanburg (now Bamburg Castle in Northumbria), Uhtred is raised by the Danes and taught the skills and mores of the conquering Danish horde.  Through a series of happenstances, he enters into the service of King Alfred as Alfred is facing defeat by the more warlike and effective Danes. While his loyalties often remain with the pagan Danes, Uhtred is a man of his word and, through the first two books in this series, usually ends up serving Alfred while using his warlike skills and cross-cultural knowledge (isn't that a good example of anachronims?), to serve his king. Uhtred through many battles and much gnashing of teeth, helps his lord achieve military and political success.

Cornwell's prose is filled with blood and gore, jolly good story telling, and lots of testosterone.  Writing in a series format, he can linger over the tale, but each volume never loses its narrative drive.  His books aren't particularly long on characterization, but the character Uhtred shows significant growth as a person through the two volumes I've read, and I suspect will show much more through the projected seven or eight that will comprise the Saxon Chronicles.  From what I can gather about the future of this series, it will extend through to, perhaps, the Norman invasion in 1066, when Alfred's descendants lost England, forever.  Meanwhile, there was plenty of back and forth between the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons for the two hundred or so years between Alfred and William I (The Conquerer).  Cornwell is fully capable of using a dozen or two volumes to fill in the period, as long as the stories continue to sell.  

Bernard Cornwell
 Cornwell, insofar as I can tell, does a good job with the history and geo-politics of the Anglo-Saxon period.  The ongoing struggle between Christianity and the Norse pagan gods seems reasonable, as does the blood-lust of the Danes.  He seems to work the available historical documents without ever being overly burdened by the need for total accuracy, an historical novelists prerogative.  As in the Sharpe series, the Saxon Chronicles offers absorbing stories and lots of good fun. If Cornwell sometimes falls into a formulaic mode, the formula is not so overwhelming as to distract from the current story.  It does seem to be true, that each book he writes ends with a rather long-delayed but well worth the wait major battle, and that his heros are always preserved for the next volume.  So far, I've read The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman and am looking forward to volume III, The Lords of the North.  I recommend they be read in chronological order.  This is important for the Sharpe series, which has a number of pre-quels as well as sequels to the original eleven novels.  So far, there are only five volumes of The Saxon Chronicles, written in order.  The books of Bernard Cornwell are available on line and at the big box book stores.  Support your local indpendent book seller.