‘The Pagan Lord,’ by Bernard Cornwell

January 10, 2014

THE PAGAN LORD

By Bernard Cornwell

Harper. 299 pp. $27.99

The Pagan Lord” is the seventh installment of the Saxon Tales, Bernard Cornwell’s ongoing account of the creation of the country that would one day be known as England. Like its predecessors, the book is a violent, absorbing historical saga, deeply researched and thoroughly imagined.

Up to this point, the narratives have taken place during the reign of Alfred, who ruled the independent kingdom of Wessex from 871 to 899. One of the seminal figures of English history, Alfred was a visionary driven by three ambitions: codifying a formal set of laws, promoting the spread of Christianity and uniting Wessex with the neighboring kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. He pursued this agenda while fending off a series of incursions by Viking marauders from the north.


Bernard Cornwell "The Pagan Lord" is the seventh installment of the exciting Saxon Tales series about the creation of England. (Harper)

In the previous volume, the aptly titled “Death of Kings,” Alfred died and passed his unfinished legacy to his oldest legitimate son, Edward. As “The Pagan Lord” opens, the various kingdoms have passed through a decade of uneasy — and uncharacteristic — peace. That peace is about to end: The Danes are massing under the formidable leadership of the Viking warlord Cnut Ranulfson, who plans to seize the island through a combination of subterfuge and divide-and-conquer military tactics. In the face of this latest threat, the defense of the Saxon world falls, as always, to the “sword of the Saxons,” Uhtred of Bebbanburg.

Uhtred, the hero and narrator of this series, is a fascinating mixture of divided loyalties and internal contradictions. Born a Saxon, he was raised by Danes and has the temperament of a genuine Viking. He disdains the “nailed god” of the Christians and favors older gods, such as Thor, whose symbol (a hammer) Uhtred carries with him everywhere. He served Alfred loyally and effectively but never really liked or sympathized with him. Uhtred’s one overriding ambition is to recover the Northumbrian fortress of Bebbanburg, which was stolen from him years before.

That ambition is once again frustrated when Cnut’s plans force him to take up arms against the invading Danish hordes. An escalating series of skir­mishes leads to a climactic though largely forgotten battle in a place called Teotanheale. That battle, which resulted in an against-the-odds Saxon victory, was a crucial event in “the slow process that created England,” and Cornwell invests it with a wealth of convincing — and grisly — detail, making the chaos and horror of hand-to-hand combat roar across the page. Like so much of Cornwell’s work, “The Pagan Lord” is both excellent history and first-rate popular fiction, offering a glimpse of the distant past that is viscerally exciting and difficult to forget.

Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”

the pagan lord

By Bernard Cornwell

Harper. 299 pp. $27.99

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