The Lords of the North is book three of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, continuing the story of Uhtred Ragnarson and the founding of a United Britain under Alfred the Great. For the background on the first two entries in the series see my previous reviews for The Last Kingdom (Dec 7, 2018) and The Pale Horseman (Jul 5, 2019.)
The year is 878 A.D., and Alfred has just defeated the Viking Guthrum at the Battle of Ethandun with Uhtred’s assistance, thus allowing him to consolidate power in the Kingdom of Wessex. However, Alfred is a sickly king and has yet to strengthen sufficiently to take on the Danes in the northeastern half of England where three lords, all sworn enemies of Uhtred, rule:
In Northumbria there is Ivarr Ivarson, whose brother Ubba was slain at the hand of Uhtred. In the Valley of the River Wiire there is Kjartan the Cruel and his son Sven the One-Eyed. Kjartan is responsible for the murder of Uhtred’s adopted father Ragnar, and has imprisoned his stepsister Thyra in the formidable fortress at Dunholm and given her over to Sven to sexually abuse. And at Bebbanburg, Uhtred’s birthright, his uncle AElfric has usurped his heritage and seeks Uhtred’s death to ensure that he can hold onto his lands and title.
Released from his pledge to Alfred, Uhtred sets out to confront his enemies and reclaim his heritage setting in motion a series of adventures that include betrayal, slavery, political intrigue, and monumental battles… all of which make for a thrilling and entertaining read. Bernard Cornwell is at his best in this third installment, writing vivid descriptions of life and death in ninth century England and the collision of two worlds and cultures – Saxon Christianity against Pagan beliefs and mythology.
This confrontation occurs not just on the battlefield. The internal struggle for men’s souls is a continuing theme in all the books, juxtaposing faith in God the Father and his only begotten Son Jesus and the concepts of sin and redemption, heaven and hell with the belief in multiple Norse gods, Valhalla, mythical beings and superstition. One the one hand there is Alfred the Great, a devout Christian and the pious ruler of what will become Great Britain, and on the other Uhtred, a Viking warrior who totally believes in fate and destiny. Their ongoing relationship and need for one another will play out as Bernard Cornwell continues his history of England in his next entry in the series, Sword Song.
Lest anyone think otherwise, however, each of these books can be read by itself as a stand-alone fantasy adventure that mixes sword and sorcery with accurate depictions of this historical period. The continuity lies in Uhtred. The point of view is his and the first person narrative is that of an old man looking back on his life, retelling his tale with both humor and heartbreaking honesty. The dialogue can be crude, the descriptions of battle graphic, but the story is one that draws you in… you actually care about the characters, particularly Uhtred, and you want to know what happens next.
It is also a tale which immerses readers in Norse mythology where the three spinners weave tapestries of everyone’s life before they are even born, predetermining their destiny and even the timing and place of their death. “It is the three spinners who make our lives. They sit at the foot of Yggdrasil [the tree of life] and there they have their jests… because fate cannot be cheated, it governs us, and we are all its slaves.”
Uhtred’s fate is tied to the conquest and unification of England, while mine is linked to finishing this engrossing, educational, and highly satisfying saga by Bernard Cornwell.