Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell

When I was little, my stepfather delivered carpet from a warehouse to stores and sometimes brought samples and such home. One of my favorites was from Viking Floors, which had a dragon headed ship as a logo. It was much cooler than the ships I saw on nearby Lake Erie. When I was older and reading a lot about Irish history, I learned what a huge influence they’d been on Northern Europe, even as they terrified those areas. I am relieved to live in the present day, when the only Vikings I see are sports’ team logos.(A thousand years from now, will there be sports teams named for Al-Queda or the PLO?) That’s what makes my reading of Cornwell’s Saxon Tales so puzzling.
Cornwell is most famous for his Sharpe novels, about the rifleman in the Napoleonic Wars, but he has other series, as well as stand alone books. The Saxon Tales begin in the 880’s, when the Vikings were trying wrest what would become England from King Alfred the Great. They are all told in the first person, by an old man, Uhtred, looking back on his life. The first book,The Last Kingdom, takes us through Uhtred’s childhood, where he was kidnapped after his immediate family was killed in a Viking raid. He soon grows up and becomes a Viking warrior himself, but always has somewhat divided loyalties, as he vows to take back his family’s lands in Bebbanburg from an evil uncle. The series which has a large cast, including some who are little known, but actual historical characters, follows his adventures and entanglements, both personal and politically.
The Vikings were the original “bad boys”, ferocious, fit and trained for war with weapons requiring brute strength. They are restless when not fighting and disdain reading and writing. The times were full of moral contests between the old Norse religion and Christianity, which was thought to be for weaklings. Some of the superstitions are intriguing, such as the belief that men must die with a sword in their hand to ensure they go to Odin’s feasting hall of dead warriors.
Women don’t fare well in this era, often meeting horrific fates, considered plunder after battle and those that survived were usually sold into prostitution and slavery, sometimes shipped to other lands for the purpose. Even rich women were considered “peace cows” used as bargaining chips for alliances.
Though the battles are spaced through the books, they are so realistic that I usually have to skip those passages. Some books have more fighting than others, but it isn’t nonstop, it’s not an action movie, and there is character development. I’m not sure if Uhtred is a likable character, but he is honorable and has a rough sort of justice. And the world described is so very different than ours, sparse, unfamiliar and terribly dangerous.
The Saxon Tales has six books thus far and I’ve read four of them, mostly on my Nook ereader. The irony doesn’t escape me, reading books set over a thousand years ago on an extremely modern device. But however you read them, this series will appeal to those looking for adventure stories or historical fiction that’s so vivid, you are thankful to look up and see electrical lights and strong bolted doors.

HarperCollins 2004-2011 each is usually between 250-300 pp. Available in ebook and traditional formats

The audio book of Cornwell’s “Lords of the North” was reviewed by Hilary earlier on VL. You can read her review here .
On a related subject, Moira’s VL review of “Why Alfred Burnt the Cakes” by David Horspool, a nonfiction history of Alfred The Great, can be read here .

5 comments on “The Saxon Tales by Bernard Cornwell

  1. annebrooke
    August 20, 2012

    Sounds fascinating, Jackie – I will have to look these ones up, especially bearing in mind the Viking surname of my mother! 🙂


  2. Ms Alex
    August 20, 2012

    I can’t remember ever reading any historic fiction set in the Viking period before so I admit I am definitely intrigued by this series, especially if it includes the politics as well as the personal.

  3. Kate
    August 20, 2012

    I’ve been putting Cornwell back on the shelf in bookshops for years: I don’t know what it is about him that doesn’t make me just buy the book. Something a little samey? Maybe it’s the aggression you describe, maybe I was never that much into the Vikings. Recently I read Robin Fleming’s fab history, Britain After Rome, which gives a very up-to-date and nuanced picture of how English society changed after Romans turned the light out at Dover on their way back to the Med, and now I’m wondering, if the details were less black and white, less waves of invaders and more discreet flurries of intermarrying economic migrants, would we notice it in fiction about the period written more than ten years ago? Possibly it matters not a jot, and ought not to, if the fiction is good enough. I’m still not sure: is Cornwell good enough?

  4. Jackie
    August 20, 2012

    Cornwell writes about other periods as well. His Sharpe series is about a rifleman in the Napoleonic War, there’s a Medieval series, and another set in the American Civil War. He’s also written some stand alone books of various eras, so there’s lots to choose from, even if you don’t like the ones about Vikings.

  5. Linda B
    August 20, 2012

    Bernard Cornwell is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read many of his books including the Saxon series. I understand your statement that Uhtred is perhaps not all that likeable, but I love him nonetheless. Like you said, he is honorable and has a rough sort of justice.
    Cornwell’s series on Arthur is good; the Archer series is great, but Uhtred is my favorite. In fact myself, my daughter, and my grown granddaughter all have and wear Thor’s Hammer amulets. Thanks for the interesting post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s



Editorial Policy

The views expressed in the articles and reviews on Vulpes Libris are those of the authors, and not of Vulpes Libris itself.

Quoting from Vulpes Libris

You are very welcome to quote up to 100 words from any article posted on Vulpes Libris - as long as you quote accurately, give us due credit and link back to the original post. If you would like to quote MORE than 100 words, please ask us first via the email address in the Contact details.


  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
  • %d bloggers like this: