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Originally published Sunday, January 26, 2014 at 3:01 AM

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Cornwell’s ‘The Pagan Lord’: a bloody battle for England

Bernard Cornwell’s latest installment of his Saxon Tales, “The Pagan Lord,” is a first-rate fictional account of a crucial battle between the Saxons and the terrifying Viking hordes.


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“The Pagan Lord”

by Bernard Cornwell

Harper, 299 pp., $27.99

“The Pagan Lord” is the seventh installment of the Saxon Tales, Bernard Cornwell’s ongoing account of the creation of the country that would one day be known as England. Like its predecessors, the book is a violent, absorbing historical saga, deeply researched and thoroughly imagined.

Up to this point, the narratives have taken place during the reign of Alfred, who ruled the independent kingdom of Wessex from 871 to 899. Alfred was a visionary driven by three ambitions: codifying a formal set of laws, promoting the spread of Christianity and uniting Wessex with the neighboring kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria. He pursued this agenda while fending off a series of incursions by Viking marauders from the north.

In the previous volume, the aptly titled “Death of Kings,” Alfred died and passed his unfinished legacy to his oldest legitimate son, Edward. As “The Pagan Lord” opens, the various kingdoms have passed through a decade of uneasy peace. That peace is about to end: The Danes are massing under the formidable leadership of the Viking warlord Cnut Ranulfson. In the face of this latest threat, the defense of the Saxon world falls, as always, to the “sword of the Saxons,” Uhtred of Bebbanburg.

Uhtred, the hero and narrator of this series, is a fascinating mixture of divided loyalties and internal contradictions. Born a Saxon, he was raised by Danes and has the temperament of a genuine Viking.

He disdains the “nailed god” of the Christians and favors older gods, such as Thor. Uhtred’s one overriding ambition is to recover the Northumbrian fortress of Bebbanburg, which was stolen from him years before.

That ambition is once again frustrated when Cnut’s plans force him to take up arms against the invading Danish hordes. An escalating series of skir­mishes leads to a climactic though largely forgotten battle in a place called Teotanheale.

That battle was a crucial event in “the slow process that created England,” and Cornwell invests it with a wealth of convincing — and grisly — detail. “The Pagan Lord” is both excellent history and first-rate popular fiction.



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