The Last Kingdom & The Pale Horseman – Bernard Cornwell
I first came across this series as a television show back in autumn 2015, in which we follow the story of Uthred. Initially baptised as Osbert, he is raised in his ancestral home of Bebbanberg until one fateful day, when riding along the beach with his father, Danish ships are spotted on the coast.
As Ealdorman of Bebbanberg, Osbert’s father has to take action immediately. He sends his eldest son, Uthred, to spy on the ships and report back, however emboldened by the apparent lack of numbers, Uthred attacks and is killed by the Danes; his head delivered to his father as a warning. The Ealdorman is also subsequently killed in battle and Osbert, (now baptized Uthred as the eldest son of the family) is raised by the Danes that killed his father and took his home.
Thus begins the invasion of the Danes. Throughout the first book of the series, “The Last Kingdom”, we observe as the majority of the kingdoms of England are gradually taken over by the Danes, leaving only Wessex to make a stand for its freedom.
Uthred’s mixed loyalties are constantly challenged throughout the books so far. Whilst he spends the majority of time bound by allegiance to King Alfred’s fight for a United England, in hope that one day he can take back his ancestral home, he secretly longs for the Danish way of life, to serve his half-brother and join the Danes.
I only discovered that the series was based on Bernard Cornwell’s novels when my sister bought me the DVD of Season 1 for my birthday. I discussed this with a work colleague of mine who happened to have a copy of the first book. I loved the book that much I read it in a week, using every free minute to read.
It is the second book of the series I have just read and I felt it appropriate to include the first book as part of this write-up to fully explain where I am in Cornwell’s novels to date.
The second book of the series, “The Pale Horseman” begins with Uthred returning from battle with the Danes, in which he gave Ubba, one of the men who raided his home his warriors death (Danes believe that warriors, upon death, go to feast in Valhalla). He then goes to find his wife and child before returning to Alfred, who has been told different stories of Ubba’s death. His immense pride gets him in trouble once again, and Alfred forces him to pay penitence by crawling to an altar in front of a laughing crowd for God’s forgiveness. Oswald (the King’s nephew) convinces Uthred to do it to keep the peace and accompanies him, drawing attention away from him by making a show of himself instead.
Uthred continues to fight for the King as Wessex is raided by the Danes, at one time commanding ships for him, others serving as a hostage. Peace is negotiated and broken time and time again between the two sides whilst the Danes bide their time, waiting for more ships to land and join forces. Uthred becomes impatient with Alfred’s lack of actions and at one point let’s himself off the leash, taking the last ship he has command of and raiding England, disguising himself and his crew as Danes to acquire wealth.
Alfred is slowly driven into hiding with his family deep in the country of Wessex until they at last have to make a final stand and fight, or die.
I have only given the bare bones outline here as I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else who is reading or wishes to read the books. I would absolutely recommend them to anyone who loves historical fiction. I found the place names used take some adjusting to; as they are in archaic English (and not consistent apparently – though I haven’t noticed yet) some are very unlike modern names. Cornwell does however provide a reference for anybody interested in learning the names and where they relate to in modern-day England.
I think having watched the series helped me read these books. Whilst this is a genre I liked to read, it helped give context as to the roles people played and the hierarchy within society etc. These are explained by Uthred in the novels, but I found it easier to see and to have the constant reminder of it in this way rather than just a one-off explanation.
If anyone had read these books please share your thoughts! Did you enjoy them? Alternatively if you are struggling perhaps or have any questions, maybe I can help. Please drop me a line either way.
My next book of choice is Terry Prachett’s “Reaper Man”, which I will introduce to you all and review in due course!