A Review of the The Last Kingdom (Saxon Tales #1) and The Pale Horseman (Saxon Tales #2) by Bernard Cornwell
The Last Kingdom (Saxon Tales #1) and The Pale Horseman (Saxon Tales #2) by Bernard Cornwell
If you like the television show Vikings on History, you will love the Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell. Yes, they are “Saxon” tales, not “Viking” tales, but you will get your fill of Vikings. I have only read the first two books in the series, but am definitely planning on reading the rest, especially after starting to watch Vikings and getting that urge to know more and spend more imaginary time in the 9th century. Uhtred is the son of a Northumbrian lord, but at the age of 10 is taken hostage by the Danish Vikings and is raised with them for a time. The first novel, The Last Kingdom, details Uhtred’s upbringing and journey into young adulthood. He comes to love his Danish captor, Ragnar, and starts to follow the Danes way of life, including their Norse religion. Uhtred does eventually rejoin the Saxons and King Alfred as he fights to unite England under one king.
This is a story about losing a home and family as a child, and the journey to become a man with the wealth, influence and leadership to retake it. The Danes rule Northumbria and Uhtred’s rightful seat at Bebbanburg and he is always yearning after returning and taking it back from the invaders, but other events in the southern part of England—specifically Alfred’s war against the Danes—keeps him in Wessex. Uhtred also needs men behind him to help him retake Bebbanburg, and in order to get men to follow him, he needs money. The only way Uhtred knows to obtain money is by marriage and raiding. He tries both, to his success as well as failure. There is humor, grief, loss, gain, deception, raiding, building, and much more in these novels—they have a little bit of everything, which makes things interesting.
King Alfred is a devout Christian and surrounds himself with other Christians—he finds Uhtred’s paganism disgusting. Uhtred has been baptized, twice, but after his time with the Danes, he would rather follow Thor and Odin and hope for a journey to Valhalla, rather than Jesus and heaven. I find his view of priests and Christians interesting, because when he is writing his story (after the events in the books take place), he seems to hint that he is Christian, but he still writes as if he hates the Christian way of life. Uhtred’s paganism gets him in trouble many times, but his commitment to Thor (and his long Danish-like hair, metal arm bands and ability to speak Danish) helps him keep Alfred alive when the Danish take over Wessex.
Bernard Cornwell is a master of writing historical fiction. There are several real historical figures in the Saxon Tales—including King Alfred and the monk named Brother Asser, who’s writings give us one of the only sources of information about the 9th century. He uses historical names for locations—such as Lundene instead of London—to keep things in perspective, and his battle scenes take place at actual locations that historians think may have been the real place. At the end of each novel he provides a short informational blurb about what really occurred and what didn’t, as well as who really existed and who did not. He does make a few changes in order to suit the story, such as having a battle take place before another event when they may not have occurred in that order.
While Uhtred tells the story and it seems to be mainly a tale about his adventures, King Alfred is really the center focus of the novels. Uhtred’s adventures occur all over England and (in the first novel) Denmark, but he always circles back to Alfred. Writing from a fictional character’s point of view allows the author more creativity while more broadly exploring King Alfred’s reign, which makes for much more interesting story.
As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews—and I’m sure I’ll mention again—I like novels with several, or even many, well developed characters. In the Saxon Tales, there are many characters, but Uhtred and King Alfred are the only ones that really carry through. Uhtred is involved with several women, but they always seem to be carried out of the story. He also has other friends that are explored within the novel, but they seem to end up dying in battle or otherwise leaving the story.
There isn’t really anything bad about the Saxon Tales. I don’t find myself rushing to read them all, but when the mood strikes or I don’t have anything else pressing to read, they make for a good interlude.
Anyone who likes historical fiction, in particular medieval historical fiction, will love the Saxon Tales. Bernard Cornwell is a great historian and is able to transfer history in fictional stories very well. The story of the spread of Christianity in England is also really interesting in regards to Alfred’s piety versus the paganism of the Vikings. Uhtred’s development from childhood to adulthood is unique based on his Viking upbringing and how that affects his views of the world and England.
If you don’t particularly care for historical fiction, prefer more of a focus on real historical persons, or aren’t interested in 9th century England, you may not like these novels. There are a lot of battles and fights, which some may find tedious. I personally don’t find myself reading all the books in the series one after another, which could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on perspective. I prefer to read other things in between—but I do come back to them after a time and perhaps enjoy them more when I take them in small installments.
Written by Heidi V
Heidi is a co-creator and writer at Definitely Not for the Birds (DNFB). She is an avid reader, a die-hard Badger fan, and knows from experience that a good hike can solve almost any ailment. Follow Heidi @heidi_5 and DNFB @not4birds.