“The Pagan Lord” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2014)

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Medieval historical fiction extraordinaire, Bernard Cornwell, is back with the next installment of the Saxon Tales. The Pagan Lord is the seventh in the series, with King Alfred gone and the land is on the eve of war between the Saxons ruled by Alfred’s son, Edward and Wessex; while in the north, the Danes led by the Viking Cnut Longsword looks to take more land.

Our hero, Uhtred, has had his ups and downs in the series, but now wishes to bring what men he can together and take back his inheritance in the distant north land of Bebbanburg, but he will have to fight his uncle and progeny to do that. The Christian faith is also growing in this place that will one day be called “Angeland,” and when Uhtred kills an important bishop, he finds those of the faith also warring against him.

The Pagan Lord pushes Uhtred to the very edge and beyond, bringing the reader along with him. It shows Cornwell doing what he does best, moving his characters around and pitting them against each other in magnificent battle scenes. No one Cornwell book is like the other, which is what makes him such a great writer.

Originally written on January 27, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

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“Death of Kings” by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins, 2012)

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In the sixth book of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, he makes it clear with the title that this is the most important book of the series, as it’s the one where Alfred the Great finally passes from this world, leaving this torn country with an uncertain future, and it will be up to his successor to decide what to do.

King Alfred dreamed of a united England, but now as he lies on his death bed, time is running out and this reality seems like it won’t be happening anytime soon.  The Danes to the north are still not giving up, controlling a considerable proportion of the country and hungry for more.  It comes down to who has the more soldiers and the stronger alliances.  Also, even though Alfred’s son Edward is the heir apparent, there are some other Saxons who have aims of taking the throne.  The Saxon-born, Viking-raised Uhtred who still believes strongly in the Norse gods will be the leader to once again make things happen; he has already sacrificed much for Alfred, and now finally receives a just reward, but he will have to fight to keep it from the attacking Danes, as well as swear fealty to the new king, Edward.

Fans will quickly gobble up Death of Kings, as they pay witness to the passing of an important character that was inevitably going to happen, but the good news is that Cornwell makes it clear in his afterword that while Alfred’s part in this story may now be over, there is still more to tell, and Uhtred still has an important part to play.

Originally written on February 6, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Death of Kings from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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The Burning Land    Agincourt    Sword Song    Lords of the North

“Beowulf: A New Verse Translation” by Seamus Heaney (Norton, 2000)

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Earlier this year a new version of Beowulf was published, translated by the Irish Nobel Prize Winner (for 1995) Seamus Heaney. Heaney has spent many years trying to get this translation just right, and I believe he hit the nail on the head in this case. This book presents a different insight into reading Beowulf, adopting a more archaic viewpoint in both language and imagery. Heaney does not bother much with fancy words to make the poem seem more fantastic, but sticks to the original terms, translating them as closely as he possibly can. The book is set up so that on the left is the poem in its original Anglo-Saxon or Old English text and on the right is Heaney’s translation.

For this translation, Heaney had to return to his long misused Irish tongue of Gaelic. He had learned the language when he was a boy, but has since spent more time using English. His main source was his grandmother, who is still fluent in the archaic language. In talking to her, he would hear strange words and terms that simply do not exist in modern English. Heaney would then turn to the original text of Beowulf. There he would notice similarities between these strange expressions uttered by his grandmother and the poem. In one case he found an exact match with the word “Þolian” which means to suffer and his grandmother’s expression, “They’ll just have to learn to thole”; here the thorn symbol, Þ, is pronounced with a “th” sound. Heaney considered these unique insights “loopholes” through which he was able to translate this magnificent piece of literature.

It remains unknown as to when Beowulf was written and by whom. Quite likely a monk wrote it, since monks were really the only people of the time who were able to write; also the poem was written by a Christian, since there are numerous points throughout the codex where the “Almighty” and “God” are thanked and respected.

The poem was composed first orally some time during the middle of the seventh century, and then written down in the eleventh century. It is a tale about a great hero of the Geats know as Beowulf, who travels to Denmark, where the king, Hrothgar, is being attacked by a monster in the night known as Grendel. Beowulf fights with the beat and rips off its arm, whereupon the creature flees into the darkness from whence it came. The next night, Grendel’s mother comes to avenge her son; she takes a life and flees back to her lair beneath the mere (a lake). Beowulf pursues, tracks her down and with a magic sword decapitates her.

After being greatly rewarded by Hrothgar, Beowulf and his army return to their homeland in the south of Sweden. There, after years of attacks by enemies, he inherits the throne and rules for fifty years. In his fiftieth year, a dragon is disturbed from its lair, where it has been guarding a mound of ancient treasure, left by a long-dead warrior. Beowulf confronts the dragon but is gravely injured. Wiglaf, one of his soldiers, comes to his rescue and stabs the dragon in the stomach, killing its ability to make fire. Beowulf draws his dagger and stabs the dragon a lethal blow. But Beowulf has been poisoned by the dragon’s bite and dies shortly after.

A great funeral pyre is built and set ablaze, while his many followers watch. His cremated remains are added to a special mound that is created on a hilltop overlooking the sea, where any ship passing will see the mound and know that Beowulf lies beneath. Thus, the poem ends with the forever-lasting memory of a great hero.

Heaney’s new twist on this translation of Beowulf is through using the most exact word possible; the result are terms like “ring-hoard,” “lake-birth,” “shield-clash,” and “sky-roamer.” What makes this so magical is how the words fit so well, and flow like the soft voice that once spoke them. These specific terms help to create an image in the reader’s mind of just what the original composer was intending: a story of gallantry, gold, fighting, Christianity, and the triumph of good over evil. As one begins reading, one can not help but get caught up in the thrashing current that pulls you along with the weight of the past, taking you step-by-step along Beowulf’s paths, his victories, and his eventual loss. And at the poem’s climax and conclusion one is left with a deep-set feeling of remorse for this mighty warrior, Beowulf, who most likely never existed, or at least has not lived for over a thousand years.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally published on November 6 2000 ©Alex C. Telander.

Originally published in the Long Beach Union.

“Lords of the North” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2007)

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In Lords of the North (coming January 23rd), the wonderful writer of great historical periods and characters brings us the third in his increasingly popular Saxon Chronicles series, as he tells the story of King Alfred the Great’s life and his work in unifying the many kingdoms into the country we know today as England.

We continue with our hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who has just helped Alfred save and maintain control over the land of Wessex, therefore preventing the complete invasion by the Danes.  Angered with Alfred’s piousness and making every decision according to God, Uhtred flees north to Northumbria, still hoping one day to defeat his uncle and take back his beloved Bebbanburg.  It is here that he meets old Danish friends and before he realizes what’s going on, a deal has been brokered to maintain peace in Northumbria in return for Uhtred’s enslavement.  Without his blood-stained blade – Serpent-Breath – the many lords of the region are happy to get rid of this formidable warrior.

Uhtred, stripped of his title and power, then spends most of the book suffering abuse and torture as a slave on a trading vessel traveling along the Flemish coast, and back and forth between Britain and the mainland.  On a number of occasions they face off again this “red ship” that is a trader like them.  Upon returning to the original place where Uhtred was sold – so that more slaves can be bought – the red ship appears out of nowhere and beaches the shore.  Foreign Danes stream out and Uhtred soon finds himself face to face with an even older friend who raised him.

Eventually he discovers that it is thanks to Alfred’s help that he has received his emancipation.  With his title, weapons, and armor restored, along with more allies from the south forming a considerable army, they set out to defeat these lesser heathen lords and regain control of the kingdom of Northumbria.  The book ends with the reader contemplating what is next for Uhtred in the further Saxon Chronicles: Will he regain control of his land?  Will he remain a lone pagan among the many determined Christians?  Sadly, we will have to wait another whole year before we can read more about Uhtred of Bebbanburg, slayer of the great Ubba Lothbrokson, and his adventures with the pious Alfred the Great.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on December 9th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.