“The Pale Horseman,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Oct

“The Pale Horseman,” by Bernard Cornwell (409p)

In the sequel to Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, depicting to the 9th century war between Saxon and Dane over the land that would become England, is The Pale Horseman. The sequel takes place immediately after The Last Kingdom, beginning in 876 and ending two years later in 878, and is set against Alfred the Great’s darkest hours in the Swamps of Athelney and the Battle of Edington.

Uhtred, the displaced Earldorman of Bebbanburg, is bored with the peace agreed between the Danes and Wessex. He frees himself from the insufferable piety and laws of Alfred’s realm and his wife’s household and commandeers a boat, deciding to go raiding off the Cornish coast. He gets into a scrape with a Welsh king named Peredur and carries off with his wife, Iseult but an acidic monk named Asser escapes to Wales, he would come back to haunt Uhtred. On his return he faces attack from Norse raiders and decides to ally himself with a Dane, Svein the White Horse to beat off the Norse. After they part their ways Uhtred returns to the Welsh coast and conducts another raid, capturing a huge hoard of treasure that he uses to pay off his wife’s debts. He also rescues a young Dane, Haesten, from being killed.

On his return Uhtred is charged by the Witan, which is more or less an early form of parliament, for using a royal vessel to incite war from the Welsh, who Wessex is at peace with. Uhtred is determined to prove his innocence, however, and challenges the strongest warrior in the employ of the Earldorman of Wessex, Steapa. But as they duel all of Cippanhamm (modern Chippenham) is caught unawares, for Danish lord Guthrum had broken the peace and attacked. The city scatters and Uhtred, together with his friend Leofric and Iseult, hide in a field until returning in the night to rescue Eanflæd the whore at a tavern and a nun, Hild. They steal away in the night and wander about a devastated Wessex for a few weeks until stumbling upon the remnants of Alfred’s court, deep in hiding in the Swamps of Athelney, a shattered remain of the last great kingdom of the Saxons.

For nearly a year Alfred hid in the swamps, protected by the many confusing estuaries and lagoons of the swamp. Uhtred becomes his bodyguard, effectively his leading warrior, charged to protect the king but also to do the best he can in hurting the marauding Danes. He destroys a small fleet and drowns several hundred warriors in a daring attack against the tide. Uhtred amuses himself with small raids and fights, but life in the huts in the swamp is miserable for him. Alfred’s wife, Ælswith, hates Uhtred and his pagan ways, and she makes life difficult for them so he tries to spend as little time with the royal family as possible. Alfred, meanwhile, has been hard at work trying to raise the fyrd, the peasant army of his shattered kingdom. Slowly, though, the great lords of Wessex come back to Alfred’s banner and his once great army comes back together. Despite being cautious, Alfred decides to fight back – the Battle of Edington is on.

In the most decisive battle of Alfred’s war against the Danes, Uhtred somewhat reluctantly fights to save his kingdom. If he loses, Wessex would completely fall and Alfred and his family would be forced into exile in Frankia, meaning the Danes would rule all of England. Uhtred is actually not that bothered with the idea of an Alfred-less England for he had been annoyed beyond belief of spending a year with him and his piety, and would find a Danish ruled England more to his liking, for all Uhtred really wanted was to return to Northumbria and claim his birth-rate. So, Uhtred fights the bloodiest battle of his life, and the Saxons overwhelm the Danes on the hill at Edington, forcing Guthrum to flee. Wessex is saved and the Danes are forced to retreat to their kingdoms in East Anglia and Mercia, their first thrust into Wessex defeated, leaving Uhtred with unfinished business in Northumbria.

I think for a lot of fans and reviewers, The Pale Horseman is the weakest in the as yet incomplete Saxon Stories series. While the story of Uhtred’s escapades off Cornwall and Wales, his trial in front of the Witan, the surprise attack by Guthrum and the Battle of Edington were up to the usual Cornwell standards in being well told in an action-packed rollercoaster way. But the middle of the novel is just … the word I want to use is boring, but I feel plodding is more appropriate. The middle, with Alfred kicking about in the swamp, could have taken far less space in the novel. I realise Cornwell had an entire year to deal with, but a lot of it could have been cut out. It just felt like I wanted to say “come on!” and wanted it to get to the good stuff at the end, the Cornwell trademark of the big bloody battle.

As it is, The Pale Horseman is a good enough read. It tells a good enough story and I did enjoy it for the most part. It is a typical Bernard Cornwell read and as always, you know what you’re going to get. I feel, much as he did in the first novel, Cornwell displayed Alfred’s ability as a king in a very subtle way. The limitations of first person narrative mean that he can only show as much as Uhtred may have seen, but he worked around it and slowly through the 200+ pages of the year in the swamp, you see Alfred putting his kingdom back together. Another thing that I did enjoy is the way Uhtred becomes fully attached to Alfred, despite his misgivings and irritation of being around such a religious man. It is obvious that the hero grows to respect his overlord a great deal by the end of this novel.

For fans of Bernard Cornwell, or indeed the early Middle Ages, and those who enjoyed the first novel, by all means read it. I think in that respect it can only work in the scope of the series – if you don’t want to read the first novel and the rest, it’s probably a better idea to find something else to read instead as I don’t think this works as a stand-alone read.



6 Responses to ““The Pale Horseman,” by Bernard Cornwell”

  1. stevent October 31, 2008 at 6:16 am #

    I agree with your assessment of this novel. I haven’t read the final two in the series, but it’s much weaker than the Last Kingdom. The Battle of Edington is told well, and there are a few other points of interest, but for the most part, the middle of the book drags. Uhtred’s character is also far less likeable in this novel, but in a sense, I kind of like that because it shows Cornwell can write well-rounded characters. Near the end, Uhtred starts to come around.

    Also, one thing about this series (especially The Pale Horseman) that bothers me is Cornwell’s portrayal of King Alfred. I just don’t see the leadership qualities in his character that would make me want to fight for him, so it’s hard to see (given this portrayal of Alfred) how he kept England together. I would think the real King Alfred would have had a much stronger personality.

    What do you think of his portrayal of Alfred?

  2. Rhys October 31, 2008 at 4:48 pm #

    I think it’s important to remember you’re seeing Alfred through the eyes of someone (Uhtred, that is) who doesn’t like him. Uhtred is an uber-male warrior who despises weakness and thinks very lowly of Christianity – in his eyes Alfred isn’t what a king is meant to be like, so naturally in his narrative Alfred doesn’t come off as well as someone else (like his daughter) might. He respects him, though, and that starts coming to the fore in books 3 and 4 as Uhtred grows up. That’s another thing to remember – he’s still only young in this one and is barely 20.

    Also, as I said in one of the reviews, the limitations of first person narrative means you’re going to miss things that Uhtred would never see so perhaps a little too much of Alfred’s kingship isn’t there. But I think it’s very subtle and very discreet, but reading this one you work it out for yourself that whatever Alfred is doing while Uhtred is off killing Danes, it’s working.

  3. stevent November 1, 2008 at 2:20 am #

    That’s a very good point. Looking at it from Uhtred’s perspective, I can see how Alfred comes across as somewhat weak. You’re right in that Uhtred sees a leader as a warrior ,someone who fights and leads men in battle (like the Danish leaders), but Alfred is a different kind of leader, but nonetheless, successful in how he leads and unites a kingdom. I’m really interested to see how Uhtred’s perspective evolves over books 3 and 4. Is book 4 the last book, or is there a planned book after Sword Song?

  4. Rhys November 1, 2008 at 3:07 am #

    Cornwell is writing #5 now, it’ll be out in almost exactly a year. There is no word on the title or the basic plot yet though. On his questions page he’s said he thinks the Uhtred books will probably be minimum eight but likely more, possibly as many as eleven.

    Alfred dies in 899 but Uhtred says in the narrative he lives until at least eighty, so given that he was born around 857 that must mean he lives to at least 937. That takes it right through Aethelflaed’s reign and Edward the Elder’s reign, and he may out live even Athelstan the Glorious. He may still be around long enough to see Edmund the Magnificent become King of England. Who knows? 🙂

  5. stevent November 14, 2008 at 2:58 am #

    That’s good news. Glad he will continue to write the series. I know there are few series he has started and not finished. How long is the Sharpe series? If the Saxon Chronicles goes to 11 books, would that be his longest series?

  6. Rhys November 14, 2008 at 4:28 pm #

    Sharpe is 21 books (Tiger, Triumph, Fortress, Trafalgar, Prey, Rifles, Havoc, Eagle, Gold, Escape, Fury, Battle, Company, Sword, Enemy, Honour, Regiment, Siege, Revenge, Waterloo, Devil). I have reviews up to Fury on here.

    Sharpe is the longest but none of his other ones will nearly be as long as the Saxon series. Grail Quest and Arthur are three each. Starbuck goes to four, which is his unfinished one, and I dare say he’ll never finish it. It just aint as interesting as the others!

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