The Pale Horseman: Bernard Cornwell

★★★

The Saxon Stories: Book II

This is the second volume in a series about the Northumbrian ealdorman Uhtred, born a Saxon but raised in captivity among the Danes as the adopted son of Earl Ragnar. The first book, The Last Kingdom, closed with a great battle at Cynuit, at which Uhtred led the Saxon forces to victory against the Danes and killed their leader Ubba Lothbrokson. This second book opens with the aftermath of the battle, as the Saxons once again fragment into their petty factions.

Despite his crucial role at Cynuit, Uhtred rides out to seek his wife and child, rather than hurrying to Alfred’s court at Exanceaster (Exeter) with the good news of the battle, thereby inadvertently allowing his rival Odda the Younger to reach Alfred first and claim the credit. Uhtred rapidly learns that his battle skills count for little when weighed in the balance against his shortcomings. First, he is not a native of Wessex and is thus suspect, even though he has marital and familial ties in the kingdom. Second, he was raised by Danes and has friends among them. Third, and worst from Alfred’s point of view, he remains a pagan at a devoutly Christian court, which makes him, once again, suspect.

As Alfred seeks to negotiate and treaty with the Danes, led by Guthrum the Unlucky, Uhtred retires to the country and to his family, chafing at the unfamiliar sensation of being at peace. A visit from his friend Leofric offers him the chance to go out sailing once again, scouting for Danish ships along the South Coast, and to probe into the territory of the Britons, seeking for evidence that Danish troops are being brought over from Ireland. Not only does he come home laden with loot from a spot of judicious raiding, he also comes home with a new companion: the British shadow-queen Iseult, who claims to be able to see the future and is as fierce and passionate as Uhtred’s wife Mildreth is bland and uninspiring.

Fortunately for Uhtred’s domestic situation, peace, like everything else in this troubled age, is short-lived. It isn’t long before Alfred discovers that treaties are useless in a world accustomed to taking what it wants by force. As the kingdom of Wessex shatters and the Danes flood in, Alfred and his threadbare court flee to the swamps and marshes of the Somerset Levels, whose treacherous paths will keep the Danes at bay; for now. With Uhtred at his side, Alfred must try to weave together the tattered threads of his kingdom, before Guthrum and his ally Svein lead out their forces to complete the harrowing of Saxon England.

Bring every man… bring every weapon and say your prayers, for what is left of Wessex will meet at Egbert’s Stone to carry battle to the Danes.

Comparing this second book to The Last Kingdom, this is very much more of the same. Once again it’s light, engaging and full of action and it doesn’t require you to think too much, which is exactly what I need just at the moment. Having said that, I am under no illusions that this is anything other than a light diversion. Uhtred continues to be a rather ambivalent hero, full of arrogance and bloodlust, and probably not all that bright when taken out of a strategic situation. He seems to have finally staked his colours with Alfred, on the basis that if he triumphs among other Saxons, he can recover his longed-for Bebbanburg in his own right, rather than having to take it as a gift from Danish conquerors like any other puppet Saxon ruler.

I am still to be convinced by Alfred himself as a character: he wavers between childish petulance, tactical intelligence and complete unworldliness and, to be frank, comes across as a bit of a liability. If I am expected to have faith in this man’s capabilities to unite the whole of England under one ruler, then either he will have to suddenly become more of a natural leader, or Cornwell will have to shift a lot of historical responsibility onto Uhtred’s fictional shoulders. Speaking of characters, though, there was one person in this book who cheered me up whenever he appeared on the scene and that was the British priest Pyrlig, who offered a much needed dose of light relief. I was particularly enamoured of his description of Alfred’s shrewish wife Ælswith, of whom he says: ‘Got a tongue in her like a starving weasel’. Now there’s an insult worth remembering.

On a linguistic point, I feel I must note the reappearance of ‘hump’, though it is thankfully used less often; and, for the first few pages, I had a horrible feeling it was going to be replaced by ‘plough’, so we must take our blessings where we can.

For my own part, I found The Pale Horseman slightly less engaging as a novel than I did The Last Kingdom, which I think we can probably put down to the reduced presence of Viking culture in this book. How far I continue with the series will depend on how much Uhtred grows as a character and whether the future books go beyond the formula we have at present, of the misunderstood hero overcoming the prejudice of those around him, culminating in a major battle in the final pages. Such a story is good fun the first two or three times you read it, but after that there will need to be a bit of variation. We shall see. At the moment I’m still enjoying it, and any book that sends me off to Wikipedia to look up battles and Iron Age hill forts must be doing something right.

Besides, there was one way in which this novel was much more fun for me than its predecessor, and that’s because much of it took place in the part of the country where I grew up – around Bath, the Somerset Levels and Chippenham; there was even a cameo appearance by Glastonbury Tor. In this sense, the book opened my eyes to the history of my native area and suggested that my ancestors in the 9th century probably spent a great deal of time being pillaged by Danes.

I’ve had a quick browse on Amazon and there seems to be an entire subgenre of historical fiction about the Saxon period in England, much of it in a similar mould to this, judging by the cover designs. While I have no objection to the odd all-out action novel (as shown by the fact I’m enjoying Uhtred’s story), the books that really stay with me tend to be slightly more nuanced – so I thought I’d throw the floor open for recommendations. Has anyone read anything particularly good set in this period which I really shouldn’t miss?

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4 thoughts on “The Pale Horseman: Bernard Cornwell

  1. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks for that, Jen! Yes, I had thought of giving his Arthur books a go, and now that you've recommended them I might well seek them out. The presence of Saxons is not a deal-breaker, of course, more a way to indicate the vague historical period 🙂

  2. Jen K says:

    I actually really enjoyed Cornwell's Arthur trilogy which starts with The Winter King. At least with a trilogy, there aren't enough books for it to start getting too repetitive (aren't there at least six books in this series?) It's not the same time period, of course, but does already have some Saxons appearing in the story.

  3. The Idle Woman says:

    To be fair, I came to Cornwell immediately after finishing Dorothy Dunnett's 'King Hereafter', so I think that made his style feel even lighter and easier. My opinions are of course only that – my opinions – and other people might disagree; but I would say this isn't heavy going. For me, it's the kind of summer-holiday, lazy-afternoon reading where you can just let yourself be carried along on the adventure. My one warning would be that the violence can be quite graphic (more so in this book than the last), and it's probably not a series to read if you don't enjoy battle scenes!

    If you do read it, I'll be interested to know what you think!

  4. Charlie (The Worm Hole) says:

    I have read very little set in the period so far so I can't recommend, but I have to say I'm surprised to hear you don't need to think too much when reading it. Cornwell's been on my list of historical 'someday' authors and the reason I haven't read him yet is because I've thought it would be heavy going. It sounds a good series, I guess I'd better start looking for copies!

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