Author Topic: The Saxon Chronicles  (Read 1129 times)

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Offline z_randy

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The Saxon Chronicles
« on: October 12, 2008, 02:46:40 PM »
Just finished this series.  Includes 4 books:

1 - The Last Kingdom
2 - The Pale Horseman
3 - Lords of the North
4 - The Sword Song

If you like historical fiction, lots of sword play and fighting this was a great series.  I enjoyed them all.  Author is Bernard Cornwell

From The Washington Post
You will look in vain for burnt oatcakes in this novel of King Alfred the Great; like Bernard Cornwell's brilliant trilogy of novels on King Arthur, which lacked both Holy Grail and enchanted sword, The Last Kingdom caters to those of us whose appetite for rehashed legends was satisfied long ago. In addition to providing thrilling combat action and satisfying details of material life, military accoutrement and battle tactics, Cornwell's best historical fiction pleases us mightily in the way his renditions of the great actors and events of yore stray from received versions. Such contrariness is partly the product of meticulous research and partly of a mischievous sense of humor. Happily, both inform The Last Kingdom throughout.

The Alfred of history and fable was learned and just, a pious man of delicate health who saved 9th-century England from being entirely colonized by pagan Danes and was elevated to sainthood after his death. Indeed, W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman identified him as England's first "Good King" in 1066 and All That -- which peerless repository of mangled historical cliché went on, naturally enough, to confound him with Arthur. The Alfred whom Cornwell sets before us is also learned and just, and he's pious in spades, always "wearing out his knees" in prayer and cherishing such relics as "a feather from the dove that Noah had released from the ark" and "a toe ring that had belonged to Mary Magdalene." But he is also a compulsive, if remorseful, fornicator, a martyr to hemorrhoids and intestinal distress and, at times, a hard-nosed conniver.

What we see of him in this, the first volume of a projected sequence, comes through the eyes of one Uhtred, whose tale, narrated from the vantage of old age, this really is. Born of noble stock in Northumbria, Uhtred is only 10 in 866, when he witnesses the battle that brings death to his father, "a morose man, expecting the worst and not fond of children." Captured and adopted by the far more congenial Ragnar, a fearless, high-spirited Danish lord, Uhtred embarks upon a perfect pagan boyhood, freed of the trammels of Christianity. He spends his hours burning "green muck" off the hulls of Danish ships, shield painting, cattle slaughtering, house thatching, tending charcoal burns and practicing with his sword, all admirably described -- and, eventually, in youthful sexual dalliance, not described, but which would have brought fire and brimstone down on his head in a Christian community.

The boy does not miss his father, or monkish censure or the noxious grind of learning to read, and becomes quite the pagan Dane in most ways. Uhtred's great object in life is to fight in a "shield wall" -- one of Cornwell's specialties (whereby warriors advance in a row, shields overlapping) -- and to reclaim his inheritance, the family domain and stronghold in Northumbria. His uncle has taken possession of both, cementing his hold by marrying Uhtred's father's widow. Vexed loyalties begin to proliferate in Uhtred's youthful bosom: toward England, toward the good-natured Danish lord, against a treacherous Danish villain, toward Danish paganism and against English Christian morality. Treacheries and prevarications abound, fortunes reverse, battles rage, and soon enough the youth ends up back with the English -- and his loyalties, well shuffled, begin to gravitate toward Alfred. This feeling turns to rueful wonder when he realizes that the great man has sent him on a mission meant to kill him, a breach of saintliness Alfred commits more than once.

This is a most enjoyable novel, and Cornwell has seasoned it with dashes of intoxicating pedantry. He shuns the word "Viking" (which "describes an activity rather than a people or a tribe. To go viking meant to go raiding") and eliminates horned helmets ("for which there is not a scrap of contemporary evidence"). His prose is not always the equal of his historical imagination and sense of character: He does not, for instance, achieve Patrick O'Brian's marriage of language and vision. Still, he does convey the disquiet of change and the melancholy of extinction as few historical novelists manage to.

The England of the 9th century conjured up here is a palimpsest, an ancient isle giving ghostly testimony to successive civilizations. Prehistoric forts, "old when the world was young," still exist, moldering and growing into the land. So, too, Roman roads continue to bear traffic and Roman structures still stand, left behind almost five centuries ago and inherited by peoples lacking the engineering and architectural capability or understanding to repair them. Here and there these marvels of imperial technology, materials and manpower provide the foundations for crude Saxon building, as in London, "where huge Roman buildings were buttressed by thatched wooden shacks." Meanwhile, the city's great bridge is falling down, and the old wharves and quays are "long rotted so that the waterfront east of the bridge was a treacherous place of rotted pilings and broken piers that stabbed the river like shattered teeth."

Place names are abundant in this peripatetic adventure, and in their Saxon forms we find the weird, almost ectoplasmic predecessors of today's tame locutions: Lundene, Eoferwic (York), Suth Seaxa (Sussex), Thornsaeta (Dorset), Defnascir (Devonshire) and Snotengaham. Cornwell wouldn't be his merry self if he didn't teach us that Nottingham was once bountiful Snotengaham, "the Home of Snot's people." Nor would he be his generous and indefatigable self if he did not promise us that this story "is far from over."

Every day, from here to there,funny things are everywhere

Offline Jim

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Re: The Saxon Chronicles
« Reply #1 on: October 12, 2008, 08:59:24 PM »
I've read some Cornwell books before. Thanks for the suggestion, Randy


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