Welcome to the Historical Fiction Online forums: a friendly place to discuss, review and discover historical fiction.
If this is your first visit, please be sure to check out the FAQ by clicking the link above.
You will have to register before you can post: click the register link above to proceed.
To start viewing posts, select the forum that you want to visit from the selection below.

The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

Post Reply
User avatar
Avid Reader
Posts: 428
Joined: September 2008
Location: Adelaide, Australia.

The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell

Post by Alaric » Mon October 27th, 2008, 11:56 am

“The Pale Horseman,” by Bernard Cornwell (409p)

In the sequel to Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories, depicting to the 9th century war between Saxon and Dane over the land that would become England, is The Pale Horseman. The sequel takes place immediately after The Last Kingdom, beginning in 876 and ending two years later in 878, and is set against Alfred the Great’s darkest hours in the Swamps of Athelney and the Battle of Edington.

Uhtred, the displaced Earldorman of Bebbanburg, is bored with the peace agreed between the Danes and Wessex. He frees himself from the insufferable piety and laws of Alfred’s realm and his wife’s household and commandeers a boat, deciding to go raiding off the Cornish coast. He gets into a scrape with a Welsh king named Peredur and carries off with his wife, Iseult but an acidic monk named Asser escapes to Wales, he would come back to haunt Uhtred. On his return he faces attack from Norse raiders and decides to ally himself with a Dane, Svein the White Horse to beat off the Norse. After they part their ways Uhtred returns to the Welsh coast and conducts another raid, capturing a huge hoard of treasure that he uses to pay off his wife’s debts. He also rescues a young Dane, Haesten, from being killed.

On his return Uhtred is charged by the Witan, which is more or less an early form of parliament, for using a royal vessel to incite war from the Welsh, who Wessex is at peace with. Uhtred is determined to prove his innocence, however, and challenges the strongest warrior in the employ of the Earldorman of Wessex, Steapa. But as they duel all of Cippanhamm (modern Chippenham) is caught unawares, for Danish lord Guthrum had broken the peace and attacked. The city scatters and Uhtred, together with his friend Leofric and Iseult, hide in a field until returning in the night to rescue Eanflæd the whore at a tavern and a nun, Hild. They steal away in the night and wander about a devastated Wessex for a few weeks until stumbling upon the remnants of Alfred’s court, deep in hiding in the Swamps of Athelney, a shattered remain of the last great kingdom of the Saxons.

For nearly a year Alfred hid in the swamps, protected by the many confusing estuaries and lagoons of the swamp. Uhtred becomes his bodyguard, effectively his leading warrior, charged to protect the king but also to do the best he can in hurting the marauding Danes. He destroys a small fleet and drowns several hundred warriors in a daring attack against the tide. Uhtred amuses himself with small raids and fights, but life in the huts in the swamp is miserable for him. Alfred’s wife, Ælswith, hates Uhtred and his pagan ways, and she makes life difficult for them so he tries to spend as little time with the royal family as possible. Alfred, meanwhile, has been hard at work trying to raise the fyrd, the peasant army of his shattered kingdom. Slowly, though, the great lords of Wessex come back to Alfred’s banner and his once great army comes back together. Despite being cautious, Alfred decides to fight back – the Battle of Edington is on.

In the most decisive battle of Alfred’s war against the Danes, Uhtred somewhat reluctantly fights to save his kingdom. If he loses, Wessex would completely fall and Alfred and his family would be forced into exile in Frankia, meaning the Danes would rule all of England. Uhtred is actually not that bothered with the idea of an Alfred-less England for he had been annoyed beyond belief of spending a year with him and his piety, and would find a Danish ruled England more to his liking, for all Uhtred really wanted was to return to Northumbria and claim his birth-rate. So, Uhtred fights the bloodiest battle of his life, and the Saxons overwhelm the Danes on the hill at Edington, forcing Guthrum to flee. Wessex is saved and the Danes are forced to retreat to their kingdoms in East Anglia and Mercia, their first thrust into Wessex defeated, leaving Uhtred with unfinished business in Northumbria.

I think for a lot of fans and reviewers, The Pale Horseman is the weakest in the as yet incomplete Saxon Stories series. While the story of Uhtred’s escapades off Cornwall and Wales, his trial in front of the Witan, the surprise attack by Guthrum and the Battle of Edington were up to the usual Cornwell standards in being well told in an action-packed rollercoaster way. But the middle of the novel is just … the word I want to use is boring, but I feel plodding is more appropriate. The middle, with Alfred kicking about in the swamp, could have taken far less space in the novel. I realise Cornwell had an entire year to deal with, but a lot of it could have been cut out. It just felt like I wanted to say “come on!” and wanted it to get to the good stuff at the end, the Cornwell trademark of the big bloody battle.

As it is, The Pale Horseman is a good enough read. It tells a good enough story and I did enjoy it for the most part. It is a typical Bernard Cornwell read and as always, you know what you’re going to get. I feel, much as he did in the first novel, Cornwell displayed Alfred’s ability as a king in a very subtle way. The limitations of first person narrative mean that he can only show as much as Uhtred may have seen, but he worked around it and slowly through the 200+ pages of the year in the swamp, you see Alfred putting his kingdom back together. Another thing that I did enjoy is the way Uhtred becomes fully attached to Alfred, despite his misgivings and irritation of being around such a religious man. It is obvious that the hero grows to respect his overlord a great deal by the end of this novel.

For fans of Bernard Cornwell, or indeed the early Middle Ages, and those who enjoyed the first novel, by all means read it. I think in that respect it can only work in the scope of the series – if you don’t want to read the first novel and the rest, it’s probably a better idea to find something else to read instead as I don’t think this works as a stand-alone read.

Recommendation: Good. ***1/2 or 7/10.

Post Reply

Return to “By Author's Last Name A-F”