Friday, October 5, 2018

War of the Wolf

We rarely publish interviews back-to-back on New Books in Historical Fiction, but in this case the scheduling made it essential. I’ve had a chance to speak with Bernard Cornwell several times now about his bestselling Saxon Tales (also called the Last Kingdom series after the television series based on it). He’s a thoughtful and engaging writer, and interviewing him in print or in person is always a pleasure—a privilege, too, given his extraordinary success. So when his publisher asked if we could run the interview on the simultaneous UK/US release date of his newest novel, I agreed.

It was no hardship. War of the Wolf has charms of its own. As the eleventh in a series that already spans more than fifty years, it must cope with the challenges posed by time: both the need to develop its main character steadily throughout his extended life span; and the need to keep the story line of each book new and interesting even as the long arc of the series as a whole draws to its close.

The novel succeeds at both tasks. I won’t say how Uhtred moves on from the position he reached at the end of the tenth novel, The Flame Bearer, because that would spoil the plot of that book for new readers. But I will say that War of the Wolf still managed to surprise me. Although few of the characters we met in The Last Kingdom survive into this latest novel, the vast sweep of the larger story extends into a second and even, it seems, a third generation. The pagan Danes remain undefeated, and the antagonist here appears in a guise Cornwell admits in the interview that he has long avoided. And perhaps most impressive in a novel so focused on war at its most hands-on and brutal, his hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, continues to evolve. Once a brash young recruit, to borrow a modern term, who succeeded as much by luck as by skill, he has become a seasoned commander without losing his inimitable sass.

And in an unplanned but fascinating coincidence, toward the end of the interview we discuss a topic that, although somewhat peripheral to Uhtred’s emerging England, is quite closely tied to last week’s interview about Leslie Schweitzer Miller’s Discovery: the question of priestly celibacy in the Catholic Church.

Historians and historical novelists, but perhaps not so much the general public, have long known that between Emperor Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century and the High Middle Ages approximately nine hundred years later, most priests lived with either wives or mistresses. The enforcement of celibacy in the priesthood by the church hierarchy took a long time to complete. The famous lovers Héloïse and Abelard—he a canon and she the niece of one—were caught in that transition.

Now, Jesus of Nazareth belonged to a different time, one in which many people in the Roman-run province of Palestine held the apocalyptic view that the Last Days were at hand. By the fourth century, never mind the twelfth, it had become clear that the Second Coming would be delayed. So the views common among the medieval priesthood should not be construed as evidence that Jesus himself married; he may have considered earthly ties a distraction from the greater enterprise of salvation, as many of his followers clearly did. Or he may have married years before he began his ministry, as most young Jewish men did, only to lose his wife or leave her for what he perceived as a higher cause. It’s unlikely we will ever know for sure.

But either way, no one can entertain doubts about where Uhtred stands on the question of celibacy—and of Christianity more generally. And if you do wonder, reading War of the Wolf is an excellent way to find out the answers.

As usual, the rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction

As seems appropriate for a character as resourceful, skilled, and self-confident as Uhtred of Bebbanburg, he goes from strength to strength. In addition to a set of bestselling novels, collectively dubbed The Saxon Tales, Uhtred has a television series to his name: The Last Kingdom, just renewed for its third year by Netflix.

Here in his eleventh adventure, War of the Wolf (Harper, 2018), Uhtred should be enjoying the fruits of his labors over the last ten books, but of course, that story would be no fun to read or to write. Instead Uhtred, now past sixty, receives a summons to travel south to protect the fortress of Ceaster (Chester) on behalf of Aethelstan, the son of King Edward of Wessex. Uhtred soon realizes that the summons is a ruse: the greater danger lies in the North, in the person of the Dane Sköll and his warriors, who dose themselves with henbane to harness the power of the wolf. Sköll also has the support of a powerful sorcerer, who Uhtred comes to believe has cursed him—especially after Sköll attacks the city of Eoferwic (York), where Uhtred’s son-in-law rules, with devastating effect.

Bernard Cornwell does not disappoint, and this latest entry in the Last Kingdom saga sees Uhtred at the top of his game and England a bit closer to its eventual unification, a goal that Uhtred both supports and fears as it becomes ever clearer that his kingdom, Northumbria, and his pagan religion increasingly pose the only barriers to King Edward’s success.

For my two previous podcast interviews with Bernard Cornwell, see New Books in Historical Fiction for June 2014, The Pagan Lord, and December 2016, The Flame Bearer. Our written Q&A about his non-Uhtred novel Fools and Mortals appeared on this blog on January 12, 2018.

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