Monday, February 22, 2010

Bernard Cornwell - The Alfred Series

I've fairly recently got into reading historical fiction, and Bernard Cornwell is generally very good at writing it. Most successful writers seem to settle into one genre that they do very well, and Bernard Cornwell's is historical battles from a soldier's eye view.

He also tends to write series of books about specific conflicts. So the Sharpe series, probably his most famous, is set in the Napoleonic Wars. The Alfred series is set around how King Alfred went from being disputed ruler of Wessex to King of England at a time of massive Viking invasions and so on. So far, there are five books in it - The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, The Lords of the North, Sword Song and the Burning Land.

It's worth saying that I'm only writing this after reading four of those books, and chatting it through with a friend of mine who knows the history pretty well.

Of course, they're written well, and they give a good insight into especially Viking culture. But what surprised me most is that these are the most blatantly anti-Christian fiction books I've read since either Dan Brown or Philip Pullman, whichever I read most recently.

Generally in the books, there are three races - Saxon, Viking and Briton. The Saxons are mostly Christians, the Vikings are mostly pagans, and the Britons are a mix. I assume the final book in the series will end with the final triumph of Alfred, the Christian king of the Saxons, because that is how the first book started and that is what happened. But the narrator, Uhtred, is a fictional pagan Saxon who was raised by Vikings, but who fights for Alfred, and ends up being the key strategist and soldier behind all of Alfred's victories. Interestingly, he's also meant to be one of Bernard Cornwell's ancestors, as he's traced his ancestry back as far as some Uhtreds who were from the same place but a few hundred years later. Uhtred comes out with some very modernist sceptical comments about Christians, saints, miracles, etc. A few quick examples:

  • Several times in the series, there are minor characters (usually Christian priests) who are cowards of varying degrees of wickedness, and who are killed. Sometimes afterwards, Uhtred comments that their stories have been dramatically changed to look amazing, and they have since become saints.
  • Alfred, and all the Christians, are consistently incredibly gullible when it comes to relics and their authenticity. Possibly the most extreme example I can remember was someone claiming to have a leaf from the fig tree in the garden of Eden, and they were believed immediately.
  • At one point in Sword Song, a woman is suspected (wrongly) of adultery. Her husband goes through the ceremony described in Numbers 5 (which Cornwell himself describes as "ancient and malicious sorcery" in the historical note at the end). Except that Cornwell changes the ceremony. In that ceremony as described in the Bible, the woman drinks some bitter water, and if it makes her abdomen swell and her thighs waste away, then she's deemed guilty, and if it doesn't, she's deemed innocent. The priests in Sword Song test this by trying to expose her naked before a large group of people, which goes dramatically against all the OT rules about exposing nakedness and so on. The same priests also explicitly condone wife-beating, whereas the pagan Uhtred condemns it (as, of course, does the Bible).

Now I don't doubt that it may well be possible to find a handful of cases where that sort of thing did go on. But nor do I doubt that it's much easier to find cases where Christians stood up for the accused, condemned adultery and violence against women, etc. But Cornwell presents those cases above as normal and without any real counter-examples.

I'm fine with books which mix fact and fiction - after all, I'm a fan of both science fiction and historical fiction. But when the fictional elements are heavily anti-Christian and presented as fact (as here, as in Dan Brown), it really annoys me.

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