Friday, February 5, 2016

True Confessions

I have to admit: I have a sneaking fondness for Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Saying so makes me feel like an entrant into a Twelve Steps program—Readers Anonymous, say: “I am C.P. Lesley, and I like Uhtred.”

The reason for my hesitation says nothing about the quality of the books. Rather, Uhtred and the books that have given him life are quite different from anything I normally read. In fact, had it not been for New Books in Historical Fiction, I expect that Uhtred and I would still be the most casual of acquaintances. Fortunately, NBHF exists, and my reading horizons have expanded as a result.

For those of you who don’t know about Uhtred, he is the hero of Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series (formerly known as the Saxon Tales) and the subject of a blockbuster miniseries developed by the BBC. I encountered Uhtred first when Cornwell’s publisher, HarperCollins, sent me The Pagan Lord, which is actually no. 7 in the series. I have since read five of the books; the remaining four are waiting on my tablet for me to find some free time. Warriors of the Storm, the latest book in Uhtred’s saga, came out two weeks ago.

Bernard Cornwell took part in a wonderful and informative discussion on New Books in Historical Fiction in June 2014. His alter ego is, to put it mildly, not so accommodating, although he has his own kind of charm. Uhtred is a battle-hardened warrior, a devotee of the Norse gods in a Christianized land, a Saxon raised by Danes who fights for the unification of a land that often fails to appreciate him and for the expansion of a religion that he at best tolerates, an outcast kept from the fortress of his birth by his own uncle. He is fierce and unrelenting to those he hates but steadfast in support of those he loves—especially Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great. Relentlessly—piece by piece, battle by battle, book by book—Uhtred pushes forward King Alfred’s cause: the unification of England from a collection of warring, mostly conquered parts. A century and a half before the Norman Conquest of 1066, the unification of England still hangs in the balance, but Uhtred, although by book 9 an aging warrior, is determined to see that cause succeed. Warriors of the Storm, in particular, is one battle after another, as Uhtred struggles not only against a new Danish chieftain but against the inexperience and gullibility of those on his own side.

In an interesting coincidence, my most recent interview for New Books in Historical Fiction was with Joan Schweighardt, the author of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. A very different book—set five hundred years earlier and from a woman’s perspective. Yet what pulls these two novels together is the pagan mythology that infuses their characters’ worldview. Uhtred believes in a universe where the gods play with human lives to entertain themselves, where the Norns weave destinies and cut life threads on a whim, where a man can hope to spend eternity carousing in Valhalla so long as he lives bravely and dies sword in hand. Gudrun, the heroine of The Last Wife, carries a sword that lays a curse on its owner, stolen as part of a dragon’s treasure by a warrior in search of valor and glory and destined to punish (she hopes) an enemy who has destroyed her people and appears invincible. Gudrun and Uhtred would understand each other if they ever met.

So let’s hear it for Uhtred, unbowed and unrepentant. May he enjoy many more battles before, sword in hand, he joins his beloved Danes in Valhalla in perpetual carousing and song.

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