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!!!|
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|
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....