On January 17, Death of Kings, the sixth book in Bernard Cornwell’s The Saxon Stories, will be published in the U.S. (published in the U.K. last September). About seven years ago, I interviewed Mr. Cornwell shortly after the release of the first book in that series, The Last Kingdom, and I thought it would be fun to share that interview here as we fans wait to get our hands on the new installment.
For historical fiction enthusiasts, Bernard Cornwell needs no introduction, but for those who have yet to experience his work, he is the bestselling author of the Richard Sharpe series (set during the Napoleonic Wars), the Grail Quest series (the Hundred Years’ War), the Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles (U.S. Civil War), the Warlord Trilogy (Arthurian England), and the novels The Fort (American Revolutionary War), Agincourt (the eponymous battle in 1415), Gallows Thief (Regency London), and Stonehenge (2000 BC), among others. He has also written a handful of contemporary thrillers, including the novel Scoundrel. In this interview, in addition to discussing The Saxon Stories (which tells the tale of Alfred the Great and his descendants), Mr. Cornwell shares some thoughts on reading and writing historical fiction, the relationship between history and myth, and the transforming human quest for answers throughout history and into modern times…
I’ve read that you were drawn to reading historical novels as a teenager. What were some of the first books you read, and which works or authors have influenced you most as a writer of historical fiction?
The Hornblower books had the greatest impact. I devoured them when I was eleven or twelve years old. I also read Alfred Duggan and Rafael Sabatini, all good stuff. Hornblower obviously influenced my choice of period–Forester introduced me to the Napoleonic era, and I’ve never abandoned it. Probably the book which has had the most influence on me as a writer of historical fiction is John Keegan’s The Face of Battle.
When writing your novel, Stonehenge, did you approach the task differently than with your other historical novels given the scarcity of hard data about the time period and the lack of any written records?
I wasn’t aware of approaching it any differently, but I’m not particularly introspective, so perhaps I did and just didn’t notice. I do remember being surprised by the amount of data that was available, obviously mostly from the archaeological record. We know a lot about the building of the temple, hardly anything at all about the reasons for building it. The hardest thing was constructing a believable theology, but I had a great deal of help from the works of Aubrey Burl and John North.
In Stonehenge, a primary motivation for many of the characters involved with the building of the monument is a belief that its influence would bring an end to winter, to death, to sickness and suffering, and would even raise the dead back to life. Similar beliefs are at work among many of those seeking the Grail in your Grail Quest series. Do you think these sorts of longings are basic to humanity regardless of the time period?
Mankind has always sought an explanation and, through the explanation, a means of controlling the causes of natural phenomena–sickness, failed harvests, floods, weather, etc. etc. Religion has traditionally been the route for that quest, but religion, I suspect, is a busted flush these days because of Darwin and his fellow scientists. I doubt the world can ever return to a pre-technological answer to the abiding questions.
What do you see as today’s “Grail”?
The grail now? It probably lies in some unimaginable medical advance that will come out of gene-coding.
The early years of the Hundred Years’ War and the arrival of the Black Death provide both the backdrop and many of the primary plot elements of the Grail Quest series. Was Thomas of Hookton’s quest for the relic your primary focus from the outset such that the choice of time period was secondary, or did you set out to write about 14th-century France and England and develop the quest as a way to do so? Or did the series evolve in a different way?
I think the grail was there from the beginning. I wanted to tell the historical story and needed another element, and the grail provided it.
Is this typical of your approach to writing historical fiction generally?
I suppose so. I don’t think much about it, to be honest. I sit down, put the characters in a dilemma, and see what happens.
Why do you think King Arthur and the stories surrounding him have remained so popular for so many centuries?
My own explanation is that Arthur typifies the myth of the Golden Age. Real historians won’t commit themselves to whether Arthur even existed, but if he did (and I believe he did) then he can plausibly be identified with the British war-leader who defeated the invading Saxons at Mount Badon at the beginning of the 6th Century. The historian Gildas, who wrote very near the time, said “this was the last time we defeated the wretches,” and a consequence of the British victory was a period of time, probably about one generation, in which British rule over much of what was to become England persisted.
Then they lost the land (the Welsh call England Lloegyr, which means “the lost land”), but they remembered it as a time of self-rule, when they were the top dog, when the Saxons were humbled, and it became a golden age in their myth. It was a myth which spread to the English (probably forced into Saxon households), and so Arthur lost his British roots and became the perfect king, which he wasn’t, any more than golden ages are golden.
When writing your Warlord trilogy, what did you seek to accomplish through re-telling the Arthur legend?
All I really wanted to do, apart from telling a rattling good tale, was to restore Arthur to a realistic 6th-century setting. No stone castles, no plate armor, alas, but a grim world of religious and civil warfare and a time in which we can see the germs of the legend, if not the full blown legend itself.
In contrast to your stand-alone novels and trilogies, your adventures of Richard Sharpe span twenty books (so far), and you’ve also expressed an interest in returning to your four-book Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles. Do you find that it becomes easier or more difficult with each successive book to sustain a longer series? What special challenged does the serial format present?
I don’t think long series present any special challenges. In fact the books become easier the more you do, maybe because I know the characters so well and have a whole “rep company” of characters to call on.
I know you’ve written a handful of short stories in your Sharpe series. Have you written any other short works?
No other short stories. Don’t enjoy writing them.
You’re not the first novelist to tell me that. What is it about writing short fiction that turns you off?
I could give you a pompous answer: that the skills required for short story writing are different to those needed for the making of novels, which is true. It’s also true that we all write what we want to read, and I don’t like reading short stories. But if you turn the question round and ask why do I write novels instead of short stories, then you’ll get Willie Sutton’s response to why he robbed banks: because that’s where the money is.
In The Last Kingdom, we see the seed of Alfred the Great’s plan for a unified England planted and allowed to grow as a result of the “viking” raids by the Danes, who conquered most of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and threatened Alfred’s own Wessex. Do you suppose Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria, and Wessex were headed toward unification under one crown even without the impetus of the Northmen, or, left undisturbed, might they have endured as essentially separate political entities for many more decades or even centuries?
I’m sure there was a move toward unification–it had caused frequent wars between the four kingdoms or, farther back, the seven kingdoms. Offa of Mercia (late 8th Century) probably wanted to unite what is now England, and from the beginning the Anglo-Saxon kings had the idea of the “Bretwalda,” the supreme king. What the Danish invasion did was to so weaken the three northern kingdoms that they were easy prey for a resurgent West Saxon monarchy–and so the Wessex dynasty became the first kings of a properly united England. And if the Danes had not invaded, then one of the four would, in the end, have dominated the other three. There are few naturally defensive boundaries in England, so multi-kingdoms were inherently unstable. The Scots, Welsh and Cornish were protected by terrain–the Mercians, East Anglians, Northumbrians and West Saxons were not.
You very effectively employ a first-person narrator in the form of Uhtred in The Last Kingdom, whereas most of your previous novels are in the third person. What led you to make this stylistic choice for this particular series?
I wish I knew. I used first person for the three Arthur novels, and it seemed to work, and also for the contemporary thrillers. What you gain in immediacy you lose in plotting choices, because you can’t go to a different point of view. But I didn’t think much about it–right from the start it seemed to be a first-person tale.
The Last Kingdom was only recently released in the U.K. and will be released in the U.S. later this winter. What else can we look forward to from you on the horizon?
More of the same I suppose. I’m finishing off the follow-up to The Last Kingdom, which is tentatively called The Shadow Queen.* Next, I think, it’s back to Sharpe (hurrah), then another in the Alfred series (i.e. after The Shadow Queen). After that? Don’t know yet.
* The book appeared in 2005 as The Pale Horseman.
For more about Bernard Cornwell, please visit his website.
This interview first appeared in Paradox: The Magazine of Historical and Speculative Fiction, Issue 6 (Winter 2004-2005). Copyright © 2004 by Christopher M. Cevasco and Paradox Publications. Reproduction in any form is prohibited without prior permission.