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King Alfred according to Bernard Cornwell

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Eyza
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Postby Eyza » Wed September 3rd, 2008, 4:23 am

Carla:I have.* I've been following the series with some interest, though I have a number of problems with Cornwell's portrayal of King Alfred.Anne G


"Carla" wrote:Anyone else here read Bernard Cornwell's Uhtred series, set at the time of King Alfred's war against the Danes (Vikings) - The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, Lords of the North, Sword Song?

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Postby Carla » Wed September 3rd, 2008, 10:43 am

Ash, Annis - The Uhtred/King Alfred series is set in the late ninth century AD. The Battle of Edington (Ethandun) in the second book (The Pale Horseman) happened in 878 AD. I don't think Bernard Cornwell's Uhtred is anything to do with Uther Pendragon from the Arthur legends.

The Arthur legends are usually placed at the end of the fifth century AD or the beginning of the sixth century AD (say, somewhere between about 460 and about 530 AD). Nobody really knows when, or even if, they really happened, or whether there really was a 'King Arthur', but the gap in recorded history into which a King Arthur figure fits most readily is about then. So Cornwell's Uhtred/King Alfred series is roughly three hundred years later than his Arthurian Warlord series.

Annis - yes, absolutely! I think the historical King Alfred is a most impressive figure. Admittedly the major source for his reign is Asser's Life of Alfred, which he may have helped to write and certainly had copy-approval of, so it's possible to play devil's advocate and argue that we think King Alfred was a great king because he tells us he was. But if he was all spin and no substance, his kingdom would have fallen apart after his death (if not before) and it demonstrably didn't.

Eyza - hi - were you Eln on the old forum? I thought I recognised your avatar. Are your concens over Alfred's portrayal similar to mine?
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Postby annis » Thu September 4th, 2008, 6:03 pm

That's an interesting point, Carla. Kings and chiefs always did have their own personal spin-doctors in the bardic tradition, but with Asser's written biography King Alfred went one better- we can still read it. One thing I love about the internet is that we can just nip over to the Medieval Sourcebook to do that- makes life so much easier.

I wonder if part of Bernard Cornwell's motivation in portraying King Alfred as he does is to get us past the hagiography and remind us that to achieve what he did the king would have had to be pretty ruthless and not worried about treading on a few toes in the process. It's often been pointed out that some of the great saints were very irritating to those who actually dealt with them- they didn't get things done by being complaisant.

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Margaret
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Postby Margaret » Thu September 4th, 2008, 7:09 pm

I can still remember the story I read as a child about King Alfred getting scolded for letting the old woman's cakes burn when his war was going badly and he was hiding out incognito in the marshlands. Also the instructive one about him watching the spider trying, over and over, to jump to the right spot to get its web properly built and finally succeeding. They may be apocryphal, but they're great stories, and we don't know that they didn't happen, either.

There's a lot of nineteenth century romantic fiction about Alfred (not all listed at http://www.HistoricalNovels.info yet - I'm working on a major reorganization of the overly long medieval page, and they will go up when I get that finished), but there doesn't seem to be much by modern authors other than Cornwell's Uhtred series, which as people point out, involves an unreliable - or at least prejudiced - narrator. Has anyone read a realistic novel that centers on Alfred as the main point-of-view character?
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Postby Grasshopper » Thu September 4th, 2008, 10:39 pm

"annis" wrote:That's an interesting point, Carla. Kings and chiefs always did have their own personal spin-doctors in the bardic tradition, but with Asser's written biography King Alfred went one better- we can still read it.


I've always wondered about this assertion.

My opinion is that, while there were very likely scalawags of falsehood in most cultures and areas, I think that for the most part, those who wrote history (i.e. Asser re: Alfred) wrote accurately and without significant embellishment or change.

I may be just naive, but to me, logically, if, during the Early Middle Ages for example, all writers of events embellished more than they wrote accurately, how could we have anything from these time periods at all that didn't contradict other writings?

Again, maybe I'm way off base...I don't really have any proof...just conjecture.

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Postby annis » Fri September 5th, 2008, 8:14 am

It's human nature to embellish a bit, Grasshopper, and talking up your exploits was part of the Saxon culture- it was a way of encouraging people to take even better and bolder action and a competitive game of sorts, especially when a few ales had been taken.

I'm sure that Asser's commentary was basically accurate, but those early medieval historian monks did often add their own brand of Christian spin to events, and as they were the only ones who could write there was no-one to contradict them. I can think of one particular incident where Attila the Hun was reported as having met with the Pope Leo and been persuaded by the Pope not to attack Rome. This was quoted as fact for so long that it became accepted as the truth, but according to John Man in his book "Attila the Hun" that meeting never took place. So, the monks weren't above a bit of aggrandizement either- all in the name of the Faith, of course!

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Postby annis » Fri September 5th, 2008, 8:37 am

Margaret, Alfred Duggan did write a book about King Alfred in 1961 called "The King of Athelney" which is probably a pretty straightforward biographical novel, though I haven't read it myself. It's apparently a sequel to "The Conscience of the King" about Cerdic, the founder of the House of Wessex, one of my favorite Duggan novels - Cerdic is just so bad!

There's Joan Wolf's "Edge of the Light", which is a kinder portrayal of KA, but it's more focused on his relationship with his wife.

I came across this one a while ago which I'd like to read. It intrigued me because the basic storyline seemed rather similar to Bernard Cornwell's. It's an old one which has recently been reprinted, but is available on Project Gutenberg.
"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.”

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Postby Grasshopper » Fri September 5th, 2008, 11:12 am

"annis" wrote:It's human nature to embellish a bit, Grasshopper, and talking up your exploits was part of the Saxon culture- it was a way of encouraging people to take even better and bolder action and a competitive game of sorts, especially when a few ales had been taken.

I'm sure that Asser's commentary was basically accurate, but those early medieval historian monks did often add their own brand of Christian spin to events, and as they were the only ones who could write there was no-one to contradict them. I can think of one particular incident where Attila the Hun was reported as having met with the Pope Leo and been persuaded by the Pope not to attack Rome. This was quoted as fact for so long that it became accepted as the truth, but according to John Man in his book "Attila the Hun" that meeting never took place. So, the monks weren't above a bit of aggrandizement either- all in the name of the Faith, of course!


I see your point...

I dunno, at my job, if I alter someone's prescription, I could hurt them. I try to do my job as accurately as possible, for the sake of the public. Same goes for a cop or teacher or construction worker or artist. Mistakes happen, yes...but to have a culture that purposely does this as a rule...they are who ruin a good thing, like Christianity in your example.

Thanks for the example.

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Postby annis » Fri September 5th, 2008, 9:46 pm

I guess when it comes to political expediency, idealism tends to take back stage, Grasshopper- it sounds cynical, but it's always been the case and not much has changed, as we can see in the current rounds of electioneering taking place in various countries around the world.

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Margaret
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Postby Margaret » Sat September 6th, 2008, 12:57 am

not much has changed, as we can see in the current rounds of electioneering


So true, so true. When people want something as badly as they can want a throne or one of our modern political positions, "spin" just happens - if not from the candidates themselves, then from their supporters. I'm inclined to think that medieval herbalists were as careful, in their own way, as modern pharmacists. Politicians have a lot to gain by twisting the truth, whereas healers have a lot to lose. I have a modern edition of an old Welsh herbal that gives advice on how to tell whether someone is going to live or die, so you can refuse to treat them if they're going to die no matter what.

I had forgotten about The King of Athelney. Duggan is pretty reliable with his historical research. Cerdic in The Conscience of the King is certainly no romatic hero!
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