All good things come to an end, as they say, but when that ending involves a beloved set of novels, it is often welcome to neither the author nor the readers. Such is the case with Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, also known as The Last Kingdom series. Fans of both the novels and the hit Netflix TV series based on them greet the appearance of this thirteenth and last novel, War Lord, with mixed feelings. But so does Bernard Cornwell. Read on to find out more.
And check out our three podcast interviews about earlier books in the series on the New Books Network. Over the years, we have discussed The Pagan Lord, The Flame Bearer, and War of the Wolf. Throughout the interviews we also talk about other novels, the TV series in its first season, how Cornwell got into writing, and even his nonfiction book about Waterloo. These and other titles also appear in interview posts on this blog. So plenty of opportunities for follow-up!
This novel opens with a broken promise. What can you tell us about that? I have in mind the nature of the promise, who made it, and why that person feels comfortable breaking it, even in an era where oaths were considered sacred.
Certainly Uhtred feels that the promise has been broken, but Aethelstan justifies it with some very narrow legalistic explanations, so really this is realpolitik. And yes, oaths were considered binding, so Aethelstan has had to wriggle like a snake to claim the moral high ground. None of that wriggling convinces Uhtred!
The broken promise affects the relationship between your hero, Uhtred, and Aethelstan, whom Uhtred has long mentored. How would you describe their interactions at the beginning of the novel?
Mutual suspicion? Uhtred fears Aethelstan’s growing power, not sure what that means for the ownership of his beloved fortress, while Aethelstan has been persuaded that Uhtred could side with the Scots against him. They might have a long history of cooperation and even affection, but Aethelstan is now a king and that has somewhat swollen his opinion of himself.
More broadly, when the series began with The Last Kingdom, the title referred to Wessex. Here at the end, Uhtred’s Northumbria is the lone holdout, besieged on all sides—including from Scotland. Yet Uhtred has spent his entire adult life fighting, sometimes reluctantly, for the unification of what is gradually becoming known as Aenglaland. How does he balance the conflicting demands on him?
I’m not sure he ever does. One of the things I like about Uhtred is that he’s so conflicted, never quite sure whether he’s Saxon or Viking. In truth he’s both, of course! In the end, despite his undoubted affection for the Vikings, he fights for what he believes is best for his native country—Northumbria.
You have mentioned in our podcast interviews that you don’t know where a novel will go until it goes there. Did you know when you started this book that it would be the end of your series?
I did. The one constant through the whole series was to end with the battle of Brunanburh, which was the culmination of the long effort to unite the Saxon kingdoms into one—England. So I was aware that writing about Brunanburh would necessarily end Uhtred’s story.
And will you miss Uhtred?
I’ll miss him a lot! I started writing Uhtred’s story seventeen years ago! And though I took a couple of breaks to write other books, he’s been a constant companion—forever haunting my thoughts. I take the dog for a walk and hear Uhtred in my head, and suddenly he’s no more. So yes, I’ll miss him.
Now that this series is over, where will your writing journey take you next?
Immediately? Back to Richard Sharpe. I’ve long wanted to add a couple of novels to the Sharpe series, so I’m suddenly back in the Napoleonic Wars. But beyond that? I don’t know … I’ll finish the next Sharpe novel and then see what suggests itself.
Thank you so much for answering my questions!
Bernard Cornwell is the author of, among many other novels, the acclaimed New York Times bestselling Last Kingdom series (originally the Saxon Tales): The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Burning Land, Death of Kings, The Pagan Lord, The Empty Throne, Warriors of the Storm, The Flame Bearer, War of the Wolf, and, most recently, Sword of Kings and War Lord. It serves as the basis for the hit television series The Last Kingdom. He lives with his wife on Cape Cod and in Charleston, South Carolina.