The Pale Horseman (Reviews)

Barbarians at the Gate by Bill Sheehan
Sun 22 Jan 2006
The Washington Post

Cornwell’s latest, a multi-volume work-in-progress set in the 9th century in the embattled England of Alfred the Great, began in rousing fashion with The Last Kingdom (2005) and continues in this equally compelling sequel, The Pale Horseman. Together, these novels showcase Cornwell’s substantial gifts as historian and storyteller, recreating, with great immediacy, one of the defining periods of English history.

Alfred (849-899) was the only British monarch to be designated as “the Great.” His first major achievement lay in protecting his kingdom (Wessex) from falling to the hordes of Danish Vikings that dominated the surrounding kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia. At the same time, he began the complex process of uniting these fractious, independent realms into the single nation ultimately known as England. This is the overarching story that Cornwell addresses in these novels, and he presents it through the conflicted perspective of a Northumbrian nobleman (and natural-born warrior) named Uhtred.

As a child, Uhtred watches while his father is killed by a party of Viking raiders. Afterward he is captured and raised by a Danish warlord named Ragnar, a surrogate father who instills in Uhtred a fierce affection for the freebooting life of the warrior and an abiding belief in the pagan mysteries that suffuse the Viking universe. These acquired loyalties are constantly at odds with the deeper ties of blood and history that bind him to his Saxon heritage. His unique experiences enable Uhtred to describe both sides of this protracted conflict with absolute authority, while his divided loyalties lend the narrative an effective dramatic tension.

By the time The Pale Horseman opens, Uhtred has distanced himself from his Danish cohorts, played a crucial role in the pivotal battle of Cynuit Hill (in which British troops successfully repelled a major Danish incursion) and offered both his services and sacred oath to Alfred. From this point on, Uhtred’s personal story, which encompasses marriage, fatherhood, bitter personal rivalries and the ongoing quest to recover his family’s stolen fiefdom, proceeds in parallel with the larger story of Alfred’s defense of Wessex. Through Uhtred’s sometimes acerbic viewpoint, we witness some of the emblematic moments of a historic struggle, including the Danish King Guthrum’s violation of a formal — if uneasy — truce and his subsequent attack on the unprepared Saxons, Alfred’s retreat to the swamps of southern England, where he rebuilds his army and prepares for war, and the climactic battle at Ethandun, where Alfred’s soldiers once again defeat a numerically superior army of trained Danish warriors. (Uhtred also recounts the famous — and probably apocryphal — story in which Alfred, on the run and in disguise, is slapped in the face by a peasant woman for allowing her oat cakes to burn.)

The result is a superior entertainment that is both engaging and enlightening. Once again, Cornwell manages a delicate balancing act, investing each scene and set piece with a wealth of supporting detail while keeping the narrative moving at a formidable clip. It’s been said before but bears repeating here: Cornwell’s battle scenes (particularly those set in the bloody front line known as the Shield Wall) are superb. Among contemporary historical novelists, only Steven Pressfield (Gates of Fire) provides comparably vivid descriptions of the absolute chaos of hand-to-hand combat among great masses of men.

Like its predecessor, The Pale Horseman offers an unvarnished portrait of a world in transition, moving from the endemic savagery of the Dark Ages toward the more cohesive — and civilized — society that Alfred and his descendants will gradually create. Thus far, Cornwell’s narrative has covered only a small part of this vast historical enterprise, so Uhtred’s memoirs are likely to continue for quite some time. (A third volume, tentatively titled The Lords of the North Country, has already been announced.) Given the quality of the opening installments, this is a welcome prospect indeed. Historical adventures as smart and vigorous as Cornwell’s are in short supply. It’s good to know that more are on the way.