Cornwell, Bernard. The Pagan Lord.

NY: Harper, 2014.

This is the seventh installment in the story of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and while it’s a good, rousing series of adventures, it nevertheless feels a bit as though the author is marking time. But that may be somewhat the fault of the historical record, which doesn’t always cooperate with novelists.

The previous book was centered on the death of King Alfred of Wessex in 899, and what happened when the Danes finally reacted to that event. Now it’s ten years on, a decade of Alfred’s son, Edward, as king, and there’s been a precarious peace — well, an armed lull in the generation-long all-out war, punctuated by raids for cattle and slaves. Uhtred has settled in on his estate near the upper border of Mercia, raising his two sons and chafing at the inactivity. Then his eldest son, also named Uhtred (it’s a family tradition), becomes a priest and his father not only disowns him, he semi-accidentally kills the abbot who consecrated him. This is not going to make him any friends in the Church. (Not that he had any.) Then he rides home only to find half the place in flames, thanks to Jarl Cnut, with whom he’s been at odds for many years. Someone has kidnapped Cnut’s wife and two children, and the miscreants were flying Uhtred’s banner. And then the local Christians, led by a bishop, burn the rest of his farm, in revenge for the abbot.

Enough is enough. Uhtred takes his few remaining loyal warriors, buys a ship in London, and sails north to see if he can somehow finagle his way into the fortress of Bebbanburg, of which he is the rightful lord, but which his uncle has held for forty years. He’s been yearning to make the attempt all his life, and now seems like a good time. And if he succeeds, he can just turn his back on the rest of the world.

Uhtred is getting older now (though we know he still has several decades left to live) and he’s beginning to doubt himself a little. Will he ever get back what’s his? Will he be able to continue defeating the Danes? Or will “Engaland” became Daneland instead? Will the Saxons ever wake up to the need for action and stop listening to the defeatist Church leaders? Well, he may be be slowing down a bit physically, but his brain is ticking right over, just like always. And when Cnut’s machinations and manipulations to capture first East Anglia, then Mercia, and then Wessex begin to look they might be successful, Uhtred comes up with his usual canny stratagems to rouse King Edward and defeat the enemy.

The finale is the battle at Tettenhall in AD 910, about which nothing is known, really, except that it was fought, that Edward was there with a Saxon army, and that the Danes were defeated. This gives Cornwell license to invent practically everything else in the process of telling his story, and in which (as always) he succeeds brilliantly. Nobody does battle scenes like Cornwell. Nobody.


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