Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here is my dazzling reposte to my friend and fantasy co-writer, David Pilling’s blog post entitled ‘Uhtred Shmutred’, which is of course, utter swill. His post lays out his criticisms of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles, which tell the story of Uhtred of Bebbenburg, a ninth-century Saxon raised by Vikings as a pagan warrior.
The difference between me and David, at least in terms of this particular little set to, is quite simple:
David has the benefit of having studied history at university and of being a very studious, intellectual man of some moral fibre, who has a disturbing fixation with the facts. He writes historical fiction for a living. He’s good at it. He spends a considerable amount of time researching these ‘facts’ of his to make sure he gets this ‘history’ of his correct. He’s a clever lad, but then, my dad’s a member of Mensa with an IQ higher than I can count, and he didn’t understand that a vacuum cleaner needs to be emptied.
I, on the other hand, have a grade F in GCSE history from one of the worst performing schools in the country (at the time, it’s a bloody academy now and the kids get ipads. Unbelievable.). This is what gives me the advantage! I can look at Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles with the eyes of a reader who wants to be told a story, not a scholar or a writer of historical fiction. I can take the story on its own merits, and here’s why.
The Vikings. Pagans, warriors, fearless adventurers. They make for a good bit of story telling, don’t they? They were good story tellers too. In fact, I think Norse mythology is the most fascinating and imaginative body of fantastic tales history has to offer (although I haven’t heard all the stories ever told in the world). J R R Tolkein thought so too, much of his inspiration came from Norse Mythology, and this is clear in his creation of Arda and Middle-Earth. Consequently, you’ll see its influence in a lot of high fantasy.
As Mr. Pilling points out, Cornwell presents a vivid, visceral world. He also creates many diverse, interesting and colourful characters. Some of those characters existed in reality, and Cornwell may well use a bit of poetic licence to make them fit his own story, but he explains why he does this in his notes at the end. Where he is ‘unfair’ to someone, he openly admits it. His books are essentially good stories, and the writer never once pretends these are totally accurate depictions of historical events.
As for his portrayal of a pious Alfred and his ‘poison dripping priests’, I think my esteemed friend has been too quick to simply judge this as ludicrous and biased. This is a realistic portrayal of what people will do in the name of religion – history is full of tragic and barbaric acts committed by supposedly holy people. Look at the Catholic Church, or Muslim Extremists, or those nutters at The Westboro Baptist Church who turn up at soldiers’ funerals shouting about how god hates fags (they couldn’t find Nimoy’s, you’d have thought god would have told them where it was if he hated ‘fags’ so much). Cornwell has done nothing but write a realistic portrayal of priests in a time when organised religion was even more extreme and insane than it is now. To say this is bias, or that somehow Cornwell is trying to say paganism is ‘better’ by portraying Uhtred as a pagan warrior hero who loves to kill priests is a bit of an over reaction.
This brings me to ‘singing witches’ and ‘magic tunnels’. I didn’t feel that Cornwell was ‘pushing an agenda’ with this. I think Mr. Pilling’s sense of personal outrage has sent him over the edge, now he’s joined the paranoid legions of conspiracy theorists. Next thing he’ll be saying J K Rowling is hypnotising children and commanding them to enslave the elderly. No, as he does so well in the Warlord Chronicles (the Arthur books), he uses paganism as a fantasy element, and it is done more subtly than my good friend gives him credit for. He creates situations where pagan ‘magic’ is used, but it is never confirmed whether this magic actually worked or if it was just coincidence. Merlin, for example, claims to to be casting some spell or other when Derfel and his boys are trapped by the Irish, only for a mist to blow in and mask their escape. It is left up to the reader; did Merlin do it or did some mist just naturally occur? This is often how people started believing in magic. I mean, I could do a rain dance and then claim the credit when it pissed down, but in England that won’t hold much water (snigger).
In the Harlequin series, this fantasy element is replaced by a supernatural or celestial aspect, where the main character, Thomas of Hookton, hears the voice of an angel urging him on to good deeds. What’s this, Pilling? The hero of a Cornwell novel, in league with an angel? Aren’t angels generally Christians? Hang on a minute, Thomas of Hookton actually finds the holy grail, doesn’t he? The point is, Cornwell loves to play with this fantasy or supernatural element, and it does give his stories a magical quality, but it doesn’t go so far as to make them far fetched. He very much concentrates on the characters and what drives them, keeping the story real and grounded.
Anyway, on to the main to the main focus of the Saxon Chronicles, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. He’s lovely, isn’t he? Well, no, he sacrificed his dog to Odin. That’s profoundly mental. It would be all over Facebook if someone did that now, we’d be signing petitions and all sorts. But I get David’s point; Uhtred wins every fight, shags all the women and has dazzling wit as well. He’s a bit like me between three and six pints. You might say this isn’t realistic, well maybe not, but on the other hand, somebody had to be like that, didn’t they? Somebody won all the fights. And it is those people all the stories are written about. I don’t want to read a story about a man who is half decent in a fight, is occasionally mildly amusing and hasn’t been laid for a year. If I want that I’ll stick my Al Murray DVD on. No, it’s a story about a Viking warrior, so he’s got to be the hardest, cleverest, most promiscuous bastard the world has ever seen, otherwise I’ll want my money back.
Just one more point on the subject of Uhtred’s invincibility. If a ninth-century Viking warrior loses a fight, he’s generally brown bread, right? The Saxon Chronicles are written from the first person perspective, so it’s sort of a necessity to keep the main character alive. If Uhtred had died in his first fight, the series would have been a lot shorter. I suppose you would be happy then, wouldn’t you, Pilling?
The only reason I ever read historical fiction is because I was recommended Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles as a teenager. It was a brilliant interpretation of who the true Arthur might have been. It brought the myth into reality by putting Arthur in the shoes of a real man. Not a king but a ‘Warlord’ striving to halt the Saxon invasion. Cornwell makes historical fiction accessible. Of course we should be wary of inaccurate history lessons (don’t get me started on the national curriculum) and not be swayed by hidden agendas that may lie behind an author’s words. But any author who opens up a genre to readers who might normally shy away, and does it with such aplomb, should be applauded. Let’s face it, we’ll never completely agree on history, that’s what makes it so interesting.