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Historical Fiction on Alfred the Great

15 July 2008 — fuzzyhistory

Updated 30 August 2008. The reading list below comes out of a discussion in the Historical Fiction forum at PaperBackSwap.com. Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom was book of the month in July. While discussing it, a question about the historical accuracy of the characterization of King Alfred came up. Members also wanted to know about other historical fiction that deals with Alfred.

As Cornwell explains in the historical note, his characterization follows that of Alfred’s contemporary biographer, Bishop Asser. (For the full text of Asser’s biography, see Online Medieval and Classical Library.) 

The British Monarchy site states: “[A]t the age of 21, Alfred (reigned 871-99) was a strongminded but highly strung battle veteran….” Quoting Asser, the essay continues, ”‘Alfred attacked the whole pagan army fighting ferociously in dense order, and by divine will eventually won the victory, made great slaughter among them, and pursued them….’” Toward the end, it describes Alfred as a “religiously devout and pragmatic man” – all of which jibes with Cornwell’s portrayal.

In a review of The Last Kingdom entitled “Hits and Myths,” Bristol University research fellow Joanne Parker confirms the author’s reliance on Asser. ”Cornwell’s portrait of a sickly and sinful young Alfred is faithful to The Life of King Alfred, a history believed to have been written in or shortly after his reign, by a Welsh bishop called Asser.”

But the title of the review implies there is perhaps too much reliance on myth. Indeed, Parker wonders if Cornwell at times confused Alfred with Arthur. “Alfred’s name mysteriously mutates to ‘Arthur’ – the king who, throughout the 20th century, has so effectively supplanted the Saxon as the nation’s favourite medieval monarch.” (See pages 207 and 327 of the hardcover edition.)

There is an interesting discussion taking place on Historical Fiction Online regarding Cornwell’s characterization of Alfred.

Regarding additional historical novels that depict Alfred the Great, see the reading list below. Use the resources available in Find Books to locate copies of the novels below. Green titles comprise those I really enjoyed (Excellent to Very Good rating). If there is no comment following the title, I haven’t read the book.

The Dragon and the Raven: The Days of King Alfred by G. A. Henty. Juvenile fiction about a young Alfred. No reading level provided.

The Edge of Light by Joan Wolf. Biographical fiction on Alfred flavored with romance. This is the last book in a trilogy on early British history. It includes The Road to Avalon (#1) and Born of the Sun (#2).

The Edge on the Sword by Rebecca Tingle. Juvenile biographical fiction (Gr. 5 – 8) on Aethelflaed, the teenaged daughter of King Alfred.

Escape to King Alfred by Geoffrey Trease. Juvenile adventure story (Gr. 5 – 8) surrounding Danish invasions during King Alfred’s reign.

The Flame in the Dark by Basil Bonallack. On the first years of Alfred’s reign.

King Alfred’s Viking by Charles W. Whistler. Subtitled A Story of the First English Fleet, the book description states it involves “Alfred’s rise to the throne as seen through the eyes of an outsider, Ranald the Viking.”

The King Liveth by Jeffery Farnol. Carries the subtitle, A Romance of Alfred the Great Based on the Old Chronicles.

The King of Athelney by Alfred Duggan. Alternate title is The Right Line of Cerdic. Biographical novel on Alfred. It’s also a sequel to Conscience of the King, which is on the life of Cerdic Elesing, King of Wessex.

The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell. This is the first book in the Saxon Chronicles. Alfred is a young man – in his late teens or about 20. To date, subsequent titles are The Pale Horseman, The Lords of the North and Sword Song. Read my review of The Last Kingdom.

The Price of Blood by Doris Sutcliffe Adams. “A historical novel of the England during the reign of King Alfred, at the time of Viking invasions in the 9th century. A Christian Dane named Niall, who is taken prisoner after having been shipwrecked on the coast of Devon, is torn between loyalty to his fellow Danes and the people of Christian faith.” (BookSplendour Catalog at Biblio.com)

Raven’s Wind by Victor Canning. A boy serves Alfred before he becomes king. Possibly young adult fiction.

Wulnoth the Wanderer by Herbert Inman. Cited in Historical Fiction And Other Reading References For Classes In Junior And Senior High Schools by Hannah Logasa, this is probably young adult fiction. It carries the subtitle, A Story of King Alfred of England

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The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell

8 July 2008 — fuzzyhistory

The first book in The Saxon Chronicles introduces the fictional Uhtred, a 10-year-old boy whose family holds Bebbanburg (now Bamburgh Castle) in Northumbria. The year is 866 and the Danes have begun to invade the northern regions of what is now England. When they strike Bebbanburg, a Dane named Ragnar captures Uhtred, and then raises him as a son.

Through the eyes of a boy who longs to be a warrior, Cornwell presents the Danish side of the story. The Danes believe the English kings are weak. Indeed, they raid Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia with relative ease, destroying monasteries, churches, nunneries and the English way of life.

A gifted storyteller, Cornwell makes you feel a part of these violent times. He describes not only the raids and the killings in graphic detail, but the mindset. “Start your killers young, before their consciences are grown. Start them young and they will be lethal.”

To break up the intensity of the slaughter, Cornwell interjects humor. It is, however, a humor even more irreverent than what appears in the Sharpe series.

“Your gods are false gods,” King Edmund of East Anglia tells the Danes.

“Prove it,” they respond, which leads to a discussion of how the Christian god influences events through His will.

A Dane asks, “So would your god protect you from my arrows?” Edmund responds that He would if it were His will.

“We shall shoot arrows at you….” Unable to back down from his stance about God’s will, Edmund stands before the archers, who, of course, kill him. “Nowadays, of course, [remarks Uhtred] that story is never told; instead children learn how brave Saint Edmund stood up to the Danes, demanded their conversion, and was murdered. So now he is a martyr and a saint, warbling happily in heaven, but the truth is that he was a fool and talked himself into martyrdom.”

Regarding King Alfred of Wessex (Alfred the Great), he portrays a man who is pious and sick, though intelligent and wise in the ways of warfare. He cunningly tricks Uhtred – after Ragnar’s death – into fighting for him. Alfred and the region of Cornwalum are the final holdouts by the end of the first book.

Since this is my second reading of The Last Kingdom, which I perhaps enjoyed more than the first reading, I can rate it none other than excellent. The Pale Horseman is the next book in the series, followed by Lords of the North and Sword Song. (Click the image above to purchase the novel from Amazon. Fuzzy History receives a small commission for the referral).

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