Bernard Cornwell is the best-selling British author of a large number of historical novels such as the Sharpe series, and a non-fiction history of the Battle of Waterloo. His latest book, Sword of Kings, is the twelfth in the The Saxon Stories (aka the Last Kingdom series; you may recognise that name from the TV show that so far has three seasons to its name, with Netflix recently renewing it for a fourth).
Sword of Kings picks up the story with our hero Uhtred, a 9th century Northumbrian warrior who was raised by Danes, and finds himself embroiled in the story of England, or how the country came to be created from the fragmented kingdoms he was born into. Uhtred is by now an older man who would really rather be in his castle in Northumbria, but finds himself drawn once again into the shenanigans going on in the southern kingdoms.
Cultured Vultures was very pleased to get some time with Uhtred’s creator, to talk about what might be next for our favourite grizzled warrior, how he’s similar to other Cornwell creations, and how writing is just another job (and chartered accountancy is not another option).
I’m a big fan of your work – in fact I’m looking at nine books of yours on my shelf as I speak to you. Poor you! That’s very kind of you to say, thank you.
This book [Sword of Kings] is the 12th in the Saxon Chronicles series. I know that you wrote a lot of Sharpe books but they weren’t written chronologically, so how have you found sustaining such a long and linear narrative? It is a bit like having a rep company, with all these characters that you can go back to and wheel on if you need to. It’s quite easy, I don’t need to make up any new characters at all!
In the author’s note for Sword of Kings, you say that Uhtred will live to see the birth of England. He’s getting on a bit, I’ve lost track of how old he is… I hope you have, don’t ask me because I don’t want you to realise how old he is!
So are the books going to catch up to Uhtred being an old man and telling his story? The birth of England – the joining of the four kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex, East Anglia and Northumbria – came about after the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 between Æthelstan and an alliance of Vikings and the Welsh and lots of people. We will make it there with Uhtred. Brunanburh was very important – it was called the Great Battle for a long time after but then it was forgotten and it is only in the last year that a group of historians have found where it took place.
There’s a poem about it, in Old English? Yes, from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.
You use another line from an Old English poem as a kind of motto for the series that translates as ‘fate is exorable’. Has fate changed anything in terms of how you pictured Uhtred’s journey? Have you found yourself drawn in different, unexpected directions? I am Uhtred’s fate and he ought to worship me, but he doesn’t! I can’t change the big story, obviously, but Uhtred is fictional and in every book something happens I wasn’t expecting. Characters take on a life of their own and sometimes it’s easy to take it and run with it, and sometimes you have to go back ten chapters and make it work. Sometimes you do want to tell them [the characters] to piss off but if they insist on doing it, it’s best to let them do it!
Uhtred is similar to Derval, the hero of your other series The Warlord Chronicles… Yes, they’re both thugs! I’m allowed to be rude about them, as they’re mine.
Of course! The Warlord Chronicles are about King Arthur – my favourites of your work, by the way– I’m glad you said that, they’re my favourites too.
What was the appeal of King Arthur and his mythology? Mythology lies at the tap root of Britain, as far as British history goes Arthur is right there. It struck me that were so many brilliant books about Arthur but none that put him into a believable fifth or six century setting. I didn’t want any of that nonsense about magic in there but of course it did creep in. And I wanted to leave out all the stuff from Chrétien de Troyes but if you don’t have Guinevere and Lancelot you lose so much. Trust a Frenchman to put a love affair in an English story.
You say you didn’t want the magic in Arthur’s story but have you ever been tempted by the fantasy genre? There’s a lot of potential for high fantasy elements with King Arthur. No, it isn’t really my thing. I have nothing against it, it isn’t a bad thing, but we write what we want to read and we should do that, because at least then there’s some enthusiasm!
Were you ever tempted to write them from a name that we know or was it always Derval? No, it was always Derval. Always someone different to what we knew. The thing about Arthur is he’s become this Christian English hero, but in the earliest sources he’s a Welsh warlord who achieved something magnificent. He’s a murderer and a thief, and a pagan which is why those early saint’s lives [some of the earliest written sources] make him a villain. He doesn’t really make sense as a Christian king, because the Christians didn’t like him.
Your passion is history then, but is there a period of history you like to read about but wouldn’t write? Oh, the Romans. I like to read about them but I’ve never been tempted to write them and I never will.
I read somewhere that you aren’t a fan of the Victorians? God no, they’re so boring. Britain became very uptight. Before the Victorians came along the British were corsairs and then suddenly we became very respectable.
What does a typical writing day look like for you? I hate to be dull about it, but it is a regular job.
That’s okay, we’re interested anyway! I usually start by 6, take the dog out, have some breakfast, work, lunch, dog again. I don’t know any other way of doing it! I have a large screen, 42 inches so I can have two pages open at once. Sometimes you do find yourself googling chartered accountancy as a career option, but I love it! Writing, not accountancy.
What was the most influential book you read as a child? One that resonates with you even now? Hmm. I suppose – yes, I’m looking for it now. Hornblower, for sure. I don’t know which one, but that still resonates.
Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. Before you go, can you recommend one book you’ve read this year and tell us why in three words. Dominion, by Tom Holland. Passionate history. That’s only two words, I’ve shortchanged you!