When I am reading fiction – any kind of fiction – I have to identify. Preferably with the main character, the protagonist and/or narrator. Now you wouldn’t think it would be easy for me to identify with Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and you would be right. Uhtred is the ultimate alpha male, with flawed superhero traits thrown in.
All right, when in the mood, I do find an authentic alpha male appealing, I admit that, so – again, when in the right mood – I do enjoy these books. And of course I identify with the women in his life. Imagine myself in their place. Nice. Where was I? Oh, yes.
Years passed between my reading of the first four books in this series, up to and including Sword Song, and my being asked to write something about the last two books in the Uhtred saga for MedievalMysteries.com (now sadly defunct). It took me a moment to remember who Uhtred was. Ah, yes. Last heard of married to the gorgeous pagan, Gisela.
Uhtred, too, is a pagan, a worshipper of Thor/Thunor. Which does not endear him to the Church Militant – and it was very militant in that day and age, but only in persecuting pagans and heretics. People like Uhtred and his wife. When it comes to defending Wessex and Mercia from the invading Danes, the Church (and their puppet King Alfred) is worse than useless. And Alfred, who is not a total puppet, always ends up sending for Uhtred. But not till the last moment, when all that his pious advisors have told him has proved wrong. A bit like putting off going to an alternative practitioner until you are on your deathbed.
Naturally, Uhtred saves the day, and Wessex, and England – and the Church, for these Danes are pagans! But does anyone ever show any understanding or gratitude?
No. With one exception. Aethelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, unhappily married to the wimp ruler of Mercia (giving Alfred control of Mercia), is a fervent admirer and supporter. And lover.
So now we have two I identify with, Gisela and Aethelflaed. Up all night reading.
And at three in the morning (my time) another woman enters the picture. A tall, lithe, feral, sorceress named Skade. You can read about her, and Uhtred’s dealings with her, and hers with him, and how he defends Wessex from Earl Haesten “the earsling” and Harold Bloodhair (totally disgusting) in The Burning Land.
Then comes Death of Kings. Alfred the Great is dying and the situation is this: Alfred wants his eighteen-year-old son Edward to succeed him. But Alfred has a nephew, Aethelwold, the son of his elder brother, the previous king, who believes – with some justification – that he should inherit the throne. Alfred cannot insist that Edward is heir by right, because that would mean that Alfred should never have been King, that the nephew should have been King all along. In order to succeed his father, Edward will need the support of the thanes and especially of a war-lord like Uhtred. But does Uhtred really believe that Edward will make a good king?
And then there is Aethelred, Aethelflaed’s husband, the Lord of Mercia, who has given Alfred his word that he will support Edward yet has no intention of doing so, but rather, as Uhtred and Aethelflaed know, of declaring himself King of an independent Mercia. Naturally, the dying Alfred will not believe them. They are sinners.
All Uhtred wants is to be shot of the lot of them – he is from Northumbria and a pagan and the squabbles of the Christian contenders for the thrones of Wessex and Mercia are no concern of his. As he puts it himself, “Fate is strange. I had rejected Christianity. preferring the gods of the Danes, but I loved Aethelflaed, Alfred’s daughter, and she was a Christian and that meant I carried my sword on the side of the cross.“
And even that is not simple. You remember the feral sorceress Skade, in the other book? Here we have a seeress called Erce:
From a deeper cave, from a passage that led into the netherworld, Erce came. She was a girl of such beauty that the breath stopped in my lungs. The dark-haired girl who had ridden me in the night, the long-haired girl, slender and pale, so beautiful and calm and as naked as the blade in my hand and all I could do was stare at her …
Uhtred falls under her spell, which almost brings him – and Wessex – and the England we know and love crashing down like a pack of cards.
She was as beautiful as the summer dawn and as silent as the winter night [...] I could not take my eyes from her. I would have looked on her for all the rest of my life.” But “it was the goddess who turned and vanished into the underworld.
If she had not, we would all be living in Daneland now.