Books and reviews: Early Saxon history from Bernard Cornwell

I just recently discovered Bernard Cornwell and his series, The Warrior Chronicles/Saxon Stories. Do not ask me why it took so long, I have no answer or excuse! All I can say is that I have now found them and have been swept into this version of history from the very beginnings of the first book! If you are a fan of early Saxon history or Viking history, this series involves both. I am working my way through the first story in a series of eight books that chronicle the battles between early Saxon kingdoms and Danish Vikings for control of the future of England.

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

This first book begins the story and history as observed from a young boy, Uhtred’s perspective.  A young boy, he is captured by the Danish, befriended by them and treated as family.

‘I had been given a perfect childhood, perfect, at least, to the ideas of a boy. I was raised among men, I was free, I ran wild, was encumbered by no laws, was troubled by no priests and was encouraged to violence.’ Uhtred is an English boy, born into the aristocracy of 9th Century Northumbria, but orphaned at ten, adopted by a Dane and taught the Viking ways. Yet Uhtred’s fate is indissolubly bound up with Alfred, King of Wessex, who rules over the last English kingdom when the Danes have overrun Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia.

That war, with its massacres, defeats and betrayals, is the background to Uhtred’s childhood, a childhood which leaves him uncertain of his loyalties, but a slaughter in a winter dawn propels him to the English side and he will become a man just as the Danes launch their fiercest attack yet on Alfred’s kingdom. Marriage ties him further to the West Saxon cause, but when his wife and child vanish in the chaos of a Danish invasion, Uhtred is driven to face the greatest of the Viking chieftains in a battle beside the sea, and there, in the horror of a shield-wall, he discovers his true allegiance.

As an avid fan of this early history, both sides of it- I am totally engrossed and involved in Uhtred’s story, his constant struggle with where his loyalties should be, and his inner battle with the beliefs of  the Christians as opposed to those of the Vikings. In the telling of the story, Uhtred is an old man sharing his memories of his youth and the events that surrounded his life. He looks back on those events and recalls how he felt back then compared to what he knows or understands as one who has survived the years of war. 

The book tells the story from both sides as Uhtred lived it as young Saxon heir betrayed by his family, then as youth taken in by a Dane who cares about him. What I find interesting, though a bit confusing right now- and the confusion is my own doing, nothing to do with the book! The slight confusion is caused only by my not always knowing all of the many added details, facts and legend behind the story- or by knowing some of them but not always being able to keep them straight in my over stuffed mind of late! The story includes many references to historical figures such as Ivor the boneless and his brothers, and on the Saxon side- Alfred who will become eventually, Alfred the Great. If you are a fan of the Vikings saga on the history channel, and yes I do know that many of you are despite your criticisms of it and all of it’s inaccuracies! Anyway, for those fans, of course the names of Ivar the Boneless and his brothers will be familiar as they are the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok. Alfred the Great is a descendant of another familiar character, Aethelwulf.  Now, in reading these books, please set aside history as the Vikings Saga presents it because yes, we are all aware that there are historical inaccuracies in the show- we need no further reminders of that fact! Just keep in mind that many of those characters such Ragnar’s sons are based on actual people and you will enjoy the references to the future generations of them. Bernard Cornwell’s version of the history is fiction as well and he does much the same things, weaving these actual people and events into the story! That is what I find interesting, is being able to take another look at these people and the history from a different perspective! Everyone’s perception and accounting of any event will vary according to how they were involved in it, which side they were on and their emotions at that particular time in history. 

The books were written long before the Vikings Saga arrived on our viewing screens and are probably a far better and more accurate portrayal of the historical events that took place during that time. For that alone you should consider reading them if you have watched the series and are basing your historical knowledge on what you see there? I do have to add that if you are basing your view of history strictly on the show, please, please do some further research on all of it! That said, the show is a decent enough starting point and has sparked people’s interest in history… I will not get into another long drawn out explanation or debate on the criticisms of historical fiction verses historical fact! I am just presenting my views on all of it and making the suggestion that you seek out more knowledge in any way that keeps your attention!

In all of my discussions of the show, I try hard to present real historical facts as added information and reference. This series of books, while they are historical fiction, are part of that added information and reference. I think they will hold your attention, present you with an entertaining and still educational experience!

For more information on the series and on Bernard Cornwell’s writing, you can and should visit his website!

And, even better news about this series? It is being made into a television series!


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