Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Uhtred, Schmutred

This is the second of the arguments/debates with my friend and co-author Martin Bolton. Last time we raved at each other about Game of Thrones, the world-conquering fantasy series by George R.R. Martin. Now we're going to cross swords - or axes - over an almost equally popular series, the Saxon Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. My task is to tear the series to bits, Martin's is to stick it back together again. Any comments and opinions by readers are welcome!

So. Uhtred of Bebbanburg. It all started so well, didn't it? The first book in the series, The Last Kingdom, brilliantly depicted the muddy, bloody, rainy world of ninth-century Britain, where crazed psychopathic killers were hailed as heroes, and ramming a knife into someone's guts was regarded as career advancement. Cornwell did an equally brilliant job describing Dark Age Britain in his Warlord series, based on the legend of King Arthur.

Sadly, for all Cornwell's skill at capturing past worlds, he isn't so good as depicting past lives. My problem with the series started the moment Uhtred encountered the young Prince Alfred, later to become Alfred the Great.
Get stuffed, Uhtred. I'm the man, not you.

This version of Alfred is all but unrecognisable from the stubborn warrior-king of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, who fights the Danes 'like a wild boar' at Ashdown and is later hailed as 'England's shepherd, England's darling'. Alfred in this version is a long-nosed, watery-eyed, insufferably tedious little man who stinks of faeces, is devout to the point of insanity, and putty in the hands of the evil black-robed priests who cluster about him, dripping poison into his ears.

The ludicrous nature of Christian piety, and the essential nastiness of the Christian church, are themes that crop up over and again in Cornwell's work. It's especially overdone in the Saxon series, though to sweeten the pill Cornwell introduces a nice priest, Pyrlig, who rejects the standard teachings of the church and is a sort of Welsh Friar Tuck: fat, jovial, good at breaking heads. Uhtred, for his part, is especially talented at humiliating and beating up corrupt priests, something Cornwell clearly enjoys writing about. Which is why he writes it again. And again. And again. After a while you start to wonder if the author has got some personal grudge against the church.

As it happens, he might well do. As a child, Cornwell was raised by a particularly strange sect of Christian fundamentalists, and this experience seems to have affected his attitude towards Christianity in general. I mention this, not so much to have a personal dig at the author, but because it is clearly relevant to his writing. Alfred was a devout Christian, so Cornwell portrays him as a sickly weirdo who has to get a pagan to fight his battles for him. He also depicts priests, with few exceptions, as rapists and liars and villains. Some of them end up being righteously murdered by Uhtred - and of course, they always thoroughly deserve their comeuppance. It's dull and repetitive and slightly disturbing, and speaks volumes for the writer's own prejudices - however understandable they may be - rather than any kind of historical reality.

Cornwall is not only a talented writer, but a shrewd one who knows how to appeal to a mass market. Uhtred, who on the surface appears to be a rough, tough man of his time, is really a fantasy Alpha Male figure for a modern secular age: unbeatable in a fight or an argument, attractive to women, poetic, intelligent, and inclined to laugh at the mores and values of his day. I could just about take three books of Uhtred the Indestructible, though my gorge rose when it became clear that Cornwell was going to give all the credit for the Saxon victory at Ethandun - one of the most vital battles fought on English soil - to his fictional Rambo instead of Alfred, who really led the line against the Danes on that day.
An evil priest, probably off to stamp on some puppies. Booooo!!!
I think my breaking point came near the end of the third book in the series, Lords of the North, when a witch manages to calm some angry dogs by singing at them. Coupled with an earlier episode, in which Alfred's son Edward is cured of an illness by being dragged through a hole in the ground, it became apparent that Cornwell is pushing yet another agenda: not only is Christianity false, but paganism is real, and actually works.  Having mocked the rituals of the Christian religion, he now gives us singing witches and magic tunnels.

Now, I can just about accept an anti-religious stance, so long as it is consistent, but to be told that one faith is somehow 'better' than another - sorry, Bernard, no. That's not right. It's not particularly brave either. The Christian church is fair game these days, but would fiction writers like Cornwell dare to present Islam in the same light? Can anyone imagine a series of novels in which a tough, charismatic, no-bullshit Christian warrior mocks imams for their piety, and makes a fool of some famous Islamic historical figure - Mehmed the Conqueror, perhaps? I very much doubt it.

A Viking. Just because I needed a picture here
Speaking of Alfred's children, Cornwell fails spectacularly in his portrayal of Edward and Aethelflaed. For some reason he shows Edward as a callow teenager when he becomes King of Wessex, though in reality he was thirty years old and a veteran of several battles. Uhtred acts as a sort of unofficial tutor to Edward, and at one point hurls him into a ditch as a lesson in kingship. The idea of anyone hurling Edward the Elder, a hard-faced warlord who killed more Danes than the plague, into a ditch or anywhere else is frankly absurd.

Then we come to Aethelflaed, the famous Lady of the Mercians. Cornwell is a bit uncomfortable with female characters, and generally has them falling into bed with his heroes for lack of anything else to do. He does the same with Aethelflaed, who has an affair with Uhtred in an entirely pointless sub-plot. She also gets kidnapped by the Danes at one point, and is abused by her savage husband Aethelred. There's no evidence whatsoever for either incident, though Cornwell does at least admit that his treatment of Aethelred is extremely unfair.

There seems little sign of the Saxon series coming to an end any time soon: it's far too lucrative and Cornwell has said he wants to take the story all the way up to the Battle of Brunanburh, by which time Uhtred will be in his mid-80s or thereabouts. No doubt our hero will still be fully capable of tearing apart umpteen Viking warriors without breaking a sweat, while at the same urinating on a dead monk.

The case for the prosecution rests. In a few days Mr Bolton will take up the cudgels for the defence....


  1. An entertaining read. The argument well thought out and delivered with great aplomb. Do I agree with your findings? Actually yes I do. Look forward to the case for the defense. Best regards

  2. David, I do agree re Cornwell's inability to capture his characters' lives. I haven't read the series yet, but drawn a similar conclusion after reading his Azincourt. And introducing female characters - let me put it mildly - leaves much to be desired ;-)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks Kasia! I do like his stuff generally though...

  4. I absolutely loved Azincourt. It was really powerful, but I got the impression there was sth missing at the interhuman - intercharacter - level.

    Yes, I did understand that you liked B.Cornwell's books. I realize that in your post you had to express strong criticism so that M. Bolton could shower the author and his work with praise :-D I'm curious - did you draw lots who would write what? ;-) Or was it natural? ;-)

    1. Ah well, Martin is more of a fan of the Saxon series than me, so he decided to be Mr Positive on this occasion :)

  5. You have mentioned several things that usually annoy me in historical fiction: unrealistically successful characters, playing fast and loose with facts about historical figures, magic, and negative Christian stereotypes. So, why do I still love Uhtred??