#7 – The Pale Horseman, by Bernard Cornwell

Cornwell was already a veteran when he wrote The Last Kingdom, so there was no real danger of The Pale Horseman displaying any trace of a freshman slump. I’m pleased to say that he did not disappoint. Uhtred is again the narrator, but instead of focusing on his life with the Danes, The Pale Horseman shifts back to England and introduces Alfred and his political maneuverings in a more serious way. (Also his stomach problems, most likely colitis, a condition that I’m well aware is difficult to cope with nowadays, never mind in the ninth century.) It’s often easy to fall into the trap of thinking that people in the distant past, due to their lack of technological advancement or their ideas about the natural and social orders, were somehow less intelligent, less sophisticated than we are today. This idea is sadly reinforced by a lot of popular media, particularly in films of the Conan variety (though less so in literature; Howard’s barbarian was actually quite shrewd). The gift of hindsight allows us to imagine ourselves better than we are. Reading Old English (or West Anglo-Saxon) poetry, one finds that it’s actually incredibly sophisticated, in some ways far more so than the vast majority of the contemporary poetry that I’ve read. Ninth century minds did not lack for intellect. Cornwell doesn’t fall into that trap, and never lets his readers fall into it either. While it’s true that there are characters in The Saxon Stories that are less than bright, they appear in no greater proportion than what you would find stepping out onto the streets of any modern community.

Cornwell’s no slouch when it comes to excitement, either. The Pale Horseman opens with Uhtred charging into Alfred’s church on his horse, drawing his sword (a practice that had been recently made illegal, no doubt letting those charged with protecting the king sleep a bit easier at night) and loudly accusing another lord of being a liar, of taking credit for Uhtred’s deeds. It seems a bit melodramatic, clichéd even, but Uhtred is narrating from decades after the fact, and his voice is wry and more than a little self-conscious. Whenever Cornwell does something that could be considered going a bit overboard on the melodrama, he hangs a lantern on it, as movie people would say. He winks at the reader, lets us know that he’s aware he’s gone a bit overboard, and then we can all share in the fun.

These comments are a bit slack, I’m aware, but I’ve read five and a half books since The Pale Horseman, and I consumed these Saxon Stories like so many Skittles™ (which was all I wanted from them). Next is my third Bernard Cornwell novel, The Lords of the North.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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