As someone who writes about warriors without ever having gone to war, I rely heavily on the perceptions of those more knowledgeable than myself—especially other novelists who excel at communicating the internal experience of having to choose whether to kill or to be killed. That choice—so stark and so meaningful for the person concerned—must, it seems, inflict permanent change on the person making it, on that person’s views of self and the world.
No one portrays that moral and life challenge better than Bernard Cornwell. As Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin notes on the back cover of The Flame Bearer and several of its predecessors, “Bernard Cornwell does the best battle scenes of any writer I have ever read, past or present.”
Indeed, following the career of Uhtred, Cornwell’s pagan Saxon hero, is an education in what warriors do and don’t worry about, when and where and how they feel. Cornwell and I talk about these topics in my latest New Books in Historical Fiction interview. We also talk about The Last Kingdom, the BBC television series based on the books, now available for streaming on Netflix. (My first interview with him—where we talk about the early stages of his writing career, among other things—is still available on the site and complements this one.)
The technology of war has, of course, changed since Uhtred’s day. My Russians and Tatars rely heavily on the composite bow, shot from horseback and at a considerable distance from the enemy, although artillery and firearms are already on the scene—if not reliable or fast enough, yet, to replace bows and arrows in the hands of skilled archers. Yet even in the sixteenth—or nineteenth—century, combat all too often ended in one-on-one encounters between men with knives or bayonets, a gut-wrenching (literally) fight to the death. The technology changed, but the internal experience remained much the same, and probably does to this day.
We discuss this point, too, in the interview, in terms of both history and historical fiction—because Cornwell is not only a novelist. Last year, just before the two hundredth anniversary of Wellington’s climactic battle against Napoleon, he released his first nonfiction book. The title says it all: Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles. It’s richly informative and written in a lively style, filled with character studies, action, and soldiers’ own record of their hopes, dreams, and disappointments. Letters, diaries, and memoirs detail the plans, the mistakes, the casualties and miraculous escapes—as perceived by the men themselves. We see them marching across wet ground, through “high, obstinate crops,” or positioning themselves on a high plateau “which is about to become a killing ground” (235). Best of all, we see the battle from all sides: British, French, and Prussian. Although, to quote one participant, “the carnage was dreadful,” it would be difficult to imagine it better described than it is here. The results are horrifying, inspiring, and educational, all at the same time.
And if you’re wondering why I write about warriors despite my lack of personal experience with their main activity, the reason is simple: in sixteenth-century Russia, as throughout medieval and early modern Eurasia, the main occupation of aristocratic men—and nomadic men at all levels—was to wage war. Even those lower on the social scale, male and female, could not escape war, which destroyed their fields, their livelihood, and their lives. To ignore that reality would condemn me to writing books that bore little resemblance to the societies I portray. I do try to stay away from the day-to-day experience of battle, but even that sometimes proves impossible. Whenever I find myself in that unwanted situation, books like The Last Kingdom series and Waterloo are where I turn for answers.
As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction.
Here at New Books in Historical Fiction, we don’t often interview the same author twice. Bernard Cornwell is an exception. As I note in my introduction to this podcast, since I last interviewed him in June 2014, he has published three new Saxon Stories (now renamed the Last Kingdom series) and a nonfiction history of the confrontation between Napoleon and Wellington at Waterloo. Meanwhile, the BBC and Netflix have released his first two Last Kingdom novels as a hit television series, again under the title The Last Kingdom. With so much new material to discuss, a second interview seemed like the least we could do.
The Flame Bearer (Harper, 2016) is the tenth novel narrated by Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Uhtred’s story, which began at the age of ten in 866, is tied up with the drive of King Alfred the Great and his children to create a single English kingdom out of four warring principalities—three of them, at the beginning of the series, under the control of Danish invaders. Uhtred—descendant of kings, Saxon ealdorman by birth, Dane by adoption, and warrior by both temperament and training—becomes Alfred’s secret weapon. A pagan lord never quite accepted by Alfred’s Christian court, a fighter for the Saxon cause who at heart prefers the Danes, Uhtred has one unchanging goal: to recover Bebbanburg, stolen from him in boyhood by his uncle and held in later years by his cousin, who refuses to recognize Uhtred’s prior claim.
By 917, when The Flame Bearer begins, the situation portrayed in The Last Kingdom has reversed itself. The one remaining Saxon kingdom, Wessex, has expanded through alliance and conquest to include Mercia and East Anglia. Now the last kingdom is Northumbria, still largely under Danish control despite the existence of Saxon-held Bebbanburg. Sensing weakness, King Constantin of Scotland pushes south, pincering Northumbria between Saxons and Celts. And Uhtred must again choose between observing his oath of allegiance and recapturing his home.