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War of the Wolf


War of the Wolf

There is a very odd series of passages towards the end of WAR OF THE WOLF, the 11th entry in Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales. The great warrior Uhtred pauses in his recollection of the mighty battle he fought against a nefarious Norse intruder to correct the bard who is writing a song about it. So what you have is a fictional character, telling the story of what is essentially a fictional battle, being interrupted by another fictional character, telling the story of the same battle. But it’s a different story, and the two stories disagree with each other.

In WAR OF THE WOLF, it’s explained away as poetic license on behalf of the bard, and that’s not unreasonable, but it’s a moment that shines a light on a key question: Just how reliable a narrator is Uhtred? After all, we only have his say-so, and we know that (from the start of the books) he’s old, and looking back over a long and eventful life. Should we believe the narrative?

"Uhtred is back where he belongs, in the shield-wall, and telling the story of fame and heartbreak, blood and tears, sword against sword. Whether you believe it all or not is up to you; the good news is that Cornwell, once again, makes it easy to do so."

Generally speaking, one easy way to tell if your narrator is more-or-less reliable is if he or she puts himself or herself in the best possible light throughout. Uhtred, I think, has taken pains to point out his mistakes over time, and he does so here, so that’s a point in his favor. He goes out of his way to debunk the heroic tales that the bards sing about him, and that’s another reason to take him seriously. But I think the best reason to believe in Uhtred’s reliability is that the things he remembers, particularly the battles he fights, are just so vividly rendered that it is difficult to believe that what happens in the books is anything other than true.

And paradoxically, of course, it’s not true --- it’s all fiction --- and it’s to Cornwell’s credit that readers believe Uhtred, at least while they are reading the book. Cornwell is universally regarded as the best current writer in English of battle scenes --- whether it’s Napoleonic-War rifle companies or Saxon shield-walls. Battle scenes are great things to have in novels because they have stakes --- there’s a winner and a loser, and you don’t need a crew of zebra-striped NFL referees huddled around a monitor to tell you which is which. There are real consequences to a battle won, and even more final consequences for a battle lost.

The difficulty with any long series is keeping things interesting, which means battle after battle from Uhtred, and some are naturally more consequential than others. WAR OF THE WOLF takes place well after the crowning moment of Uhtred’s career, when he retakes the stout fortress at Bebbanburg. As the story opens, he’s on an errand of relative mercy to relieve a Saxon fort against a Welsh incursion, only to find that he’s been tricked --- a wily Danish interloper has sent him south to keep him from coming to the aid of the people of York, the seat of the King of Northumbria --- who just happens to be Uhtred’s son-in-law. Uhtred’s daughter dies repelling the invaders, and what follows is more of an old-fashioned revenge drama than anything else.

Outside of the inconsequential scuffle at the start of the book, and the large set-piece battle at its end, there isn’t a great deal of martial action in WAR OF THE WOLF. What there is, unfortunately, is a good deal of palace intrigue. The good news here is that Uhtred has (seemingly) learned his lesson about making oaths to Saxon kings, but this doesn’t keep him out of politics. The unification of the English crown, over the long term, is going to require the conquest of Northumbria and the end of the uneasy accommodations that Christians and pagans have made in that community. Uhtred, as a thoroughgoing pagan, can only look at the rise of Christian England with disgust --- and has to endure the spectacle of his pagan son-in-law undergoing baptism to placate the Saxons.

Politics has always played an outsized part in the Saxon Tales; early episodes focused on King Alfred’s attempt to unify the monarchy, while later books have followed his various descendants. In WAR OF THE WOLF, Uhtred is essentially playing diplomat, trying to give Northumbria the breathing space it needs to fight off the aggressive Danish immigrants. But once the time for diplomacy ends, and the time for revenge arrives, Uhtred is back where he belongs, in the shield-wall, and telling the story of fame and heartbreak, blood and tears, sword against sword. Whether you believe it all or not is up to you; the good news is that Cornwell, once again, makes it easy to do so.

Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds on October 19, 2018

War of the Wolf
by Bernard Cornwell

  • Publication Date: October 1, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062563181
  • ISBN-13: 9780062563187