Saturday, July 01, 2006

Cornwell: The Last Kingdom

How did I not know that Bernard Cornwell was writing a series set in Anglo-Saxon England? I'm a biblomaniac and an Anglo-Saxonist, for pity's sake! I happened across the first book in the series, The Last Kingdom, in a bookstore and it was already out in paperback. It's set in Britain during the beginning of the Danes' (aka the Vikings') invasion, told by the first-person narrator Uhtred of Bebbanburg. The Danes sweep through England, capturing the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia, and only Wessex remains under control of an Anglo-Saxon king, the man history now calls Alfred the Great.

I've heard of Cornwell's novels before, and one of my officemates had enthusiastically recommended the Sharpe series to me although I haven't gotten to reading them. The Last Kingdom lived up to what I'd heard of Cornwell. Most Americans don't know about King Alfred, and don't know what happened in England in the ninth century, so for many readers this can be read like any other novel, with the same suspense. I know the history already, though, so for me the pleasure of this novel was in the artistry and the choices Cornwell made as an author. It's a little like seeing a familiar play--Hamlet, say--you know what's going to happen, and you're watching to see how it's brought about on the stage. What will they do with the ghost? How will they stage the play-within-a-play?

Cornwell's largest problem may have been trying to write a sympathetic first-person narrator from the time period. Unless you want your book's audience to be limited to devout Catholics, it's difficult to have a historically credible narrator whose belief in the miraculous and reliance on the Church won't turn off the readership. Modern sensibilities don't mix well with ninth-century religion, for the most part. Cornwell manages this by having his fictional narrator be taken in by Danes at the age of 11 and converting to paganism. When the narrator ends up in Wessex, this give him the outsider's perspective on the religious environment that the modern reader shares. Such a tactic isn't new--Michael Crighton made his main character in Eaters of the Dead an Arab--but it works well. In fact, the narrator's disdain for the religious devotion was almost anachronistic and over-critical, but the character is still young and I'm looking for him to develop some idea of the value of literate and monastic culture.

The Danish background also keeps the novel from being oversimplified. The reader likes the Danes at times, although perhaps not enough to be cheering for them. I was curious about how Cornwell would handle some of the well-known incidents from these invasions, such as the interaction between the Danish leaders and King Edmund, and each time he deftly keeps the Danes from becoming unsympathetic. I have a few quibbles with his portrayal of Anglo-Saxon culture--for instance, he has a Danish character state that the Anglo-Saxons believe in father-to-son succession, which doesn't match what I've read about the politics of the day--but on the whole I'm quite pleased with this book and will read the next one soon. Relatively soon, anyway, since we're moving in a few weeks.

As it happens, I was reading from King Alfred's Old English translation of St. Gregory the Great's (Latin) Cura Pastoralis, and I came across the following command:

"Habba├░ ge sealt on ieow, ond sibbe habba├░ betweoh iow" 'Have salt within you, and peace among you'

Folks, if that isn't an injunction to drink margaritas, I don't know what is.

Margaritas:
1 slice of lime
margarita salt
1 shot tequila
1 shot triple sec
1/3 cup sweet-and-sour mix
1/2 shot lime juice.

Cut a notch in the lime and insert in on the rim of the glass. Run the lime around the rim so the rim has juice on it. Take the lime off and roll the rim in the salt. Add ice to the glass, the add the rest of the ingredients and stir. Peace be among you.