Ah, the Saxon Stories. Bernard Cornwell’s account of the reign of Alfred the Great and formation of the English nation is one of the best serials today. Are they great literature? Not really. But who cares? What makes these stories so engaging are the action-packed plots; the colorful cast of princes, priests and peasants; and the worldly, battle-hardened protagonist, the English warlord Uhtred of Bebbanburg.
It’s pretty much impossible to write about Death of Kings, the latest installment in the series, without getting into the backstory. So, here goes.
The Saxon Stories are so named because they’re about Britain’s Anglo-Saxon kingdoms’ struggle to preserve themselves from annihilation at the hands of invading Danish hordes, who continue to flood into the island year after year like the Borg. Uhtred, a fictional character in these based-on-true-events stories, is a sort of Middle Ages equivalent of an entrepreneur, but he deals in death instead of digits. He fights for what will one day be called England, but he identifies closely with the Danes — their love of battle, their war gods and their desire to reach Valhalla, the great hall of feasting and fighting, after they die.
Uhtred, son of a northern English nobleman, picked up a proclivity for Norse mythology and viking (a term that actually refers to the raids conducted by the Scandinavians, rather than to the people themselves) from a youth spent as the captive — and later the adopted son — of a Danish warlord. However, as Cornwell points out frequently throughout the series, fate is inexorable, and a series of events leads Uhtred to become a great warlord in the service of Alfred. Along the way, he loses several lovers and friends and experiences numerous rises to and falls from power. All the while, he schemes and dreams of getting back to his home, the impregnable castle Bebbanburg up near the Scottish border.
(While Cornwell writes these books in such a way that readers can jump right into the most recent one and still be entertained, it’s a series worth starting from the beginning, with The Last Kingdom. You’ll get through them quickly, I promise. And once you do, give Death of Kings a read. You’ll be glad you did.)
In Death of Kings, Uhtred is called to the capitol of Wessex on the eve of King Alfred’s death to renew his pledge of loyalty to the throne. He and Alfred have an ambivalent view of each other. Uhtred respects Alfred’s skills of organization and governance, but dislikes the king’s foolish and sentimental Christian piety. For his part, Alfred appreciates Uhtred’s understanding of war, but frowns at his lack of decorum and refusal to acknowledge Christianity as the one true religion. Consequently, he treats Uhtred unfairly, giving him relatively little in the way of rewards and favor even as Uhtred saves his kingdom time and again through cleverness, cunning and fighting spirit.
As he approaches death, however, Alfred seemingly has a change of heart toward Uhtred. He bestows many acres of good land on Uhtred in the kingdom of Mercia. However, it’s not all pure benevolence. Alfred also asks him to pledge loyalty to his son Edward following his death, and the land he gives him sits between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes. That’s fine by Uhtred, though, who’s always up for battle.
And he gets it soon enough, as the Danes seek to capitalize on the transition between Alfred’s death and Edward’s consolidation of power. (Alfred’s brother, who has a legitimate claim to the throne, complicates matters.) They undertake a massive invasion, using misdirection and secret alliances to strike deep into southern Britain and surprise the armies of the new king. So Uhtred must once more put aside his own plans to return to his homeland in order to risk his life by advancing into the glistening swords and battle axes of the shield wall.
There’s no point in getting into scholarly themes or deeper meanings, because there really aren’t any. Like all of the Saxon tales novels, Death of Kings is simply a rollicking story, well written. And that’s good enough for me.