The Pale Horseman by Bernard Cornwell continues the story of Uhtred Ragnarson. He first appeared in Book One of the Saxon Tales, The Last Kingdom (see my previous blog post dated Dec 7, 2018.)
The story picks up ten years later. The year is 877 A.D. and the Saxons have ruled the lands that one day will become Britain since the fifth century, but now the kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia have all fallen to the Danes. Only the kingdom of Wessex, under the rule of King Alfred (later known to history as Alfred the Great), continues to hold out against the Danish onslaught. However, Alfred is a sickly ruler who has been forced into hiding in the swamps after his defeat at the Battle of Cippinham. Surrounded on all sides, his only hope of beating back the Vikings now rests with Uhtred of Bebbanburg.
Uhtred is only twenty years old with torn allegiances. He was born Saxon but raised by the Viking Ragnar. That upbringing has left him a pagan at heart. He worships the old gods and has contempt for both Alfred and Christianity; both are weak in his estimation. However, to reclaim his birthright and repossess his lands in Northumbria he must pledge his allegiance and his sword to Alfred and the Saxon cause.
Much of the book looks at the relationship between Alfred and Uhtred. Alfred is devout in his faith and abhors Uhtred’s pagan beliefs… his worship of Odin and Thor and his love of the Viking warrior lifestyle. Uhtred disdains weakness and cannot fathom a religion that preaches love of your enemies, a god that would willingly die on the cross, priests that would martyr themselves to spread his message, or a king determined to protect the faith. Yet, both men see something in the other and forge an alliance. The dynamics of that union play out in their efforts to defeat the Viking Guthrum.
The Pale Horseman doesn’t spare the reader from Britain’s violent past. Bernard Cornwell’s descriptions of battle are graphic yet necessary in capturing the reality of the times. He is a gifted writer of historical fiction and this second entry into the series takes us up to the Battle of Ethandum in 878 where Alfred met and defeated Guthrum’s Danes in spite of overwhelming odds.
The title of the book comes from The Book of Revelation 6:7-8.
I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat upon it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.
It is an apt metaphor for the Viking raids that threatened Britain in the ninth century.