Sword Song

Bernard Cornwell

Edition reviewed: Harper, 2008. ISBN 978-0-00-721973-5. 360 pages.

Fourth in Bernard Cornwell's Uhtred series, Sword Song is set in 885. Alfred of Wessex (later known as Alfred the Great), Aethelred of Mercia, Alfred's daughter Aethelflaed and the Danish leader Haesten are based on historical figures. All the main characters are fictional.

Uhtred of Bebbanburg is now 28, married to his beloved Gisela, sister of the Danish king of Northumbria (told in Book 3, The Lords of the North). Still reluctantly oath-bound to serve King Alfred of Wessex, he is lord of the burh of Coccham (modern Cookham) on Wessex's eastern border. Alfred and the Danes have signed a treaty, ceding north and east England to Danish rule (the Danelaw), and the land is more or less at peace. When a new group of Norse adventurers come to Lundene (modern London) bent on conquering Wessex, they offer to recognise Uhtred as King of Mercia if he will join them. Uhtred has to choose between allying with the Danes, whom he likes but does not entirely trust, and remaining loyal to Alfred, whom he neither likes nor trusts but to whom he is bound by a sworn oath. When Aethelflaed, Alfred's lovely and spirited daughter, enters the frame, Uhtred's uncertain loyalties shape the fate of kingdoms.

Years ago, I once persuaded a gentleman in my local bookstore who said he loved the Sharpe series but had got fed up with Bernard Cornwell's medieval novels to try The Last Kingdom, on the grounds that it was essentially Sharpe with Vikings and battleaxes instead of rifles and Frenchmen. Well, it seems that early assessment was not too far off the mark. The Uhtred series seems to get more like Sharpe with each succeeding book. Sword Song has all the trademark ingredients: the detailed blood-splattered battle scenes; the resentful hero from the wrong side of the tracks with an unrivalled talent for violence and war; the incompetent/vicious/deceitful/hypocritical enemies in high places on his own side; a plot constructed around one or two set-piece battles. In Finan, the capable Irish warrior introduced in Book 3 (Lords of the North) and now Uhtred's loyal friend and comrade-in-arms, there may even be an echo of Sergeant Harper. Sword Song is located firmly in the south along the River Thames, so Ragnar and the likeable Guthred of Northumbria (introduced in Lord of the North) don't make an appearance, but Finan and the ebullient Welsh warrior-turned priest Father Pyrlig inject a cheerful note into the proceedings.

All the usual features of the Uhtred series are present too: Vikings are cool; whenever Uhtred kills someone he quite likes he makes sure to put a weapon in the man's hand so they can drink together in the corpse-hall after death; Christianity is "…a religion that sucks joy from this world like dusk swallowing daylight…" and its senior clergy are cruel woman-oppressing hypocrites; Uhtred miraculously overcomes impossible odds. Fans of the series so far will know pretty much what to expect.

Sword Song is a quick, easy and undemanding read. The plot is somewhat slight, and in places it feels almost as if it has been padded out to fill in the space between the battles (e.g. a dozen pages devoted to an obscure Old Testament ceremony with no evidence of it ever having been used by the relevant characters). As one would expect, the set-piece battle scenes are suitably bloodstained, brutal and graphic. For me the highlight was the assault on Lundene in the middle of the book, with its attack and counter-attack and its bitter fighting among the gates and ramparts of the old Roman fortifications.

Poor Aethelred of Mercia gets a very unflattering portrayal. Not that much is known about Aethelred, and he may well not have been the greatest ruler ever, but there's no evidence that he was a stupid wife-beating snake. It's his misfortune to be in the right historical place at the right time to be cast as a fictional hero's antagonist, and I suspect he also has to be cast as a loathsome creep so that the reader won't mind when Aethelflaed cuckolds him. Bernard Cornwell, to his credit, acknowledges in his Historical Note that he has probably been extremely unfair to the real Aethelred.

The Historical Note also acknowledges that there is more fiction in Sword Song than in the previous Uhtred novels. In particular, the major plot strand involving Aethelflaed is completely fictional, as acknowledged in the Note. I can see its attraction; it has the same obvious dramatic appeal as a meeting between Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I. I can't help wishing, however, that something more interesting had been made of it. The historical Aethelflaed was a remarkable woman, a highly effective ruler of Mercia whose death was respectfully noted in the Annals of Ulster ("U918.5. Ethelfled, a very famous queen of the Saxons, dies") and Annales Cambriae ("917. Queen Aethelflaed died"). In Sword Song, however, she is merely beautiful and haughty and spends most of the novel being taken here and taken there, willingly or otherwise, by the various men in her life. Perhaps this is because she is still only about fourteen or fifteen, and maybe she will come into her own in the later novels in the series. I hope so. I really hope that she is not going to be relegated to being a decorative foil for the fictional Uhtred.

Entertaining adventure yarn with Cornwell's trademark battle scenes carrying a rather slight plot.