The Pagan Lord
© 2014 Bernard Cornwell
Uhtred of Bebbanberg is having a bad week. First his hall was burned by an old rival-enemy, Cnut Ranulfson, in retaliation for Uhtred kidnapping his children, which Uhtred did not do. Uhtred of Bebbanberg is many things, but he doesn’t kidnap kids. After clearing that little mess up at Cnut’s place, he returns home to find the rest of his estate burned down by the church in retaliation for his accidentally killing a priest who attacked him when he attempted to prevent his eldest son Uhtred from becoming a “Christian wizard”. Uhtred didn’t mean to kill the priest; he just has that effect on them, like carbon monoxide. Driven from Christendom by an excommunicated mob and hated by the Danes, there’s really no place to go but up — up into Dane-held Britain, to the fortress Bebbanburg, his ancestral home stolen long ago by a treacherous uncle. It could be all so simple: take the fortress with a little derring-do and turtle up, allowing his enemies to cut one another to pieces. Alas, Cnut Ranulfson has complicated schemes afoot, and to get out it and lead the Saxons to triumph will involve a ship, borrowed children, and a dead priest on a stick. That’s life in Anglo-Saxon Britain, and the tale of The Pagan Lord.
Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series, featuring a warlord of divided loyalties — a Saxon raised by Danes who served the Saxon king Alfred in his quest to defend Britain against Danish invasion – has so far consisted of superb odd-number books bridged by good even-numbered books. Pagan Lord is a bridge despite its odd-numbered status, but as solid as the Roman span Uhtred uses here while being pursued by an army five times his size. Pagan Lord is battle- and politics heavy, and consists largely of travel: Uhtred’s first response is to buy a boat and go ‘viking’, but as he begins to put together the pieces of whatever diabolical scheme his Norse rivals are up to. In younger years Uhtred might have abandoned the Christian Saxons altogether and taken his home fortress with Danish help, but his lingering attachment to his ‘own’ people is magnified by his love for a Christian woman who stands to be treated badly if the Danes win. So once again he kills men he admires and aides men who despise him, because of a woman; Cornwell’s heroes tend to have that honorable flaw. The Pagan Lord wasn’t quite the novel I expected: happily, it’s not the conclusion of the Saxon stories, even though Uhtred advances into the gates of his ancestral home. The novel seems to move toward its conclusion in the middle before Uhtred’s plan goes awry, and he has to retreat into the mouth of Chaos, where he and all of Saxon Britain engage in war against the schemes and horde-strong armies of the Danes. The Pagan Lord is on the short side, but’s a fine tale of adventure set during the Viking age.