In the last five weeks, I’ve read the first seven books in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales series and enjoyed them all.
In Dark-Age Britain, the Saxons are trying to keep the ever-encroaching Danes at bay. With great difficulty, Alfred the Great, king of Wessex, and his successors push back against waves of Danish settlement in the late ninth and early tenth centuries, and form England out of the Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, East Anglia, Wessex, and Mercia. Ironically, within 200 years, the Saxons will be conquered by the Normans, descendants of the Norsemen.
Uhtred of Bebbanburg is one of the great Saxon warriors of his time. When Uhtred is ten, his father, the Lord of Bebbanburg in Northumbria, is killed by Danish invaders, and Uhtred spends the next few years living among the Danes, who he soon comes to admire. Uhtred, who has been baptized three times, adopts the pagan ways of the Danes, wearing Thor’s Hammer around his neck for the rest of his life and remaining proudly disdainful of Christians and their "nailed god". Though Uhtred is the rightful heir to Bebbanburg, his uncle usurps him as the Lord of Bebbanburg.
Soon enough, he ends up with King Alfred, with whom his fortunes become tied. Again and again, often reluctantly, Uhtred swears oaths of loyalty to Alfred and his successors. The pious Alfred doesn’t much care for Uhtred, but needs him to lead his armies in battle against the Danes.
Cornwell has long been renowned for his battle scenes, pulling you into the desperate struggles of hand-to-hand combat, as men fight for their lives, hacking and slashing and stabbing, screaming in fear and rage and battlejoy, killing well and dying badly, where life or death turns on luck or skill or fate.
Cornwell is an accomplished story teller, who spins enthralling yarns. He’s never been great at characterization and Uhtred is very much like Richard Sharpe or Thomas of Hookton, except with two swords instead of a rifle or a longbow. He’s big, strong, very dangerous, headstrong and disrespectful of authority, ruthless yet honorable, who makes enemies easily—and he’s catnip to women.
“Wyrd bið ful aræd”—fate is inexorable—Uhtred frequently says, as he recounts the tales of his conquests and battles and missteps. Somehow, despite having lived a dangerous and eventful life, the Norns have spared him so that he lives to a great age. Unlike Harry Flashman, however, Uhtred is no secret poltroon.
Amusingly, Cornwell’s birth name is Oughtred and he is descended from the family that held Bebbanburg (now Bamburgh), though Uhtred himself is fictional.