With the impending October release of the sixth novel in Bernard Cornwell’s fascinating “Saxon Stories” series, “Death of Kings,” I thought it might be a good idea to take a look at the books that have come before. I’m a sucker for a good first person narrative, especially when the character in question happens to be someone with as much color as Cornwell’s Saxon-born Uthred. Told as a collection of yarns by an aging and battle-weary Uthred, these tales stretch from his life as a boy in Saxon Britain, through the reign of Alfred the Great in Wessex. Uthred himself was born in Northumbria, but was captured and adopted by the Danes, Vikings who harried the coasts of Europe and eventually brought almost the whole of Great Britain under their control with the exception of Alfred’s Wessex.
Cornwell’s writing paints Uthred as a hardened warrior with a Forest Gump-like knack for playing a major role in the significant events of the time, while somehow escaping the notice of history’s pen. And if Uthred is a bit sour about others taking all the credit, he always has another shiled wall to look forward to. It helps take his mind off of things.
The twisted thread of Uthred’s allegiance, both to his Saxon lineage and the Viking upbringing of his adopted family, sets the stage for a tale in which there does not seem to be a right or wrong. There is only battle, a situation that suits Uthred just fine as he stands shoulder to shoulder (or sometimes toe to toe) with a cast of ancient Britain’s more grandiose figures.
Make no mistake, these stories are rife with battle. They create a bone-jarring picture of the mighty shield wall and the way it can grind men into gristle. But at the same time, Cornwell manages to draw a vivid picture of his characters, both historical and imagined, so that the film of time that separates us from them seems very thin indeed.
If you have not yet had the pleasure of reading these books, you still have time to check them out before the latest installment becomes available.
- The Last Kingdom (2004)
- The Pale Horseman (2005)
- Lords of the North (2006)
- Sword Song (2007)
- The Burning Land (2009)