Guest Post by Lewis Pulsipher: A Historian’s Defense of The Last Kingdom

Wednesday , 19, July 2017 54 Comments

I rarely read historical novels, though I was educated as an historian. Britannia-playing friends introduced me to Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon novels, about a part of the era my game Britannia covers. They were so good that I have tried some of his other medieval novels, though never his Sharp’s Rifles novels (Napoleonic Era) that have been his most well-known work owing to 16 TV movies starring Sean Bean.

Formerly “The Warrior Chronicles/Saxon Stories,” these 10 books (more coming) have been renamed “The Last Kingdom” to mesh with the BBC TV series. The story arc begins during the gradual occupation of some of England by Vikings (“the Danelaw”), and will ultimately reach the Battle of Brunanburh many decades later.

The protagonist is an heir to what is now known as Bamburg Castle, disinherited and brought up by Vikings. Uhtred of Bebbanburg is very much a man’s man, sometimes Conan-esque (R.E.Howard style). There is a lot of fighting, down-in-the-dirt nasty-grim fighting, something like the real thing. George RR Martin has said Cornwell writes the best battle scenes he’s ever read, and not a book goes by without several battles. And there are a lot of strategems: Uhtred, like any good leader, would rather massacre the enemy (if they won’t surrender) than engage in a fair fight (that’s for suckers). I’m not a critical reader, more a “what happens next” type, and I certainly don’t see many of these strategems coming before they’re sprung.

Yet there’s no sameness about the books, the plot changes because history changes, and characters such as the historical Lady of Mercia come and go as we move through the resistance to the invasions of the “Great Heathen Army” and then the gradual reconquest of England, which has not been completed as of the latest (10th) novel. The books are “ordinary” size, not like so many fantasy novels these days, so there’s not time for their welcome to wear out.

We know so little about Dark Ages Britain – that’s why it’s called Dark Ages, the lack of information – that we’re not certain exactly where the Battle of Hastings occurred, and for the second greatest Dark Age battle in Britain, Brunanburh, we only have guesses that are scattered over hundreds of miles. We’re not even certain of the year of Brunanburh!

Cornwell is thoroughly conscientious about his history. Sometimes part of the art of an historical novelist is to invent a character who can be closely involved in the great events of the day, and in this case be a great influencer of those events, while still sticking to what actually happened. In this case we have little information about what actually happened so the author has more wiggle room than he would have in a more recent era. He can invent an entire battle and not contradict the historical record. (If he does so, he lets you know in his historical notes appendix.)

Authors sometimes write to project beliefs that they themselves do not believe, so I can’t say whether Cornwell is a Christian, but he certainly has no use for Christianity in the Saxon era, nor for any other religion. Uhtred has a Viking point of view (expressed in the first person) and consistently finds the Christian church opposing him because he’s pagan, even as he plays a great part in saving the Saxon world from the Vikings.

I’ve seen people suggest that “Christian values” are part of the “pulp revolution”, though I don’t know what those values are supposed to be, especially since Christianity suffers from bipolarism between New Testament values and Old Testament values, as though there are two separate religions. In these books we get what might be called “Viking values” and a Viking point of view, as in Uhtred’s belief that a Viking can’t go to Valhalla unless he is holding a sword when he dies. And a belief in sorcery and foretelling.

Cornwell has written dozens of novels, and I don’t know whether it’s me or whether there is really a difference, but I find the ones written in first person to be consistently better than the ones written in third person, such as the Holy Grail novels and Agincourt.

His King Arthur trilogy is outstanding, and while written in the first person, the writer/ protagonist is not one of the characters we may have heard of from Arthurian stories, rather another character made up to fit within the story. There’s no contemporary-with-Arthur historical evidence for Arthur, so Cornwell can make up what he wishes within the context of the little that we know.

One reason why I’ve enjoyed Uhtred’s tales is because they remind me of some forms of science fiction or fantasy, even though in the Saxon tales Cornwell is quite scrupulous about following history. There is no actual magic here, though many in this era believed in magic (both Christians and Vikings), and change their behavior in the stories because of that belief. In his Arthurian tales and the Holy Grail tales he allows a hint of “real” magic.

BBC TV Series “The Last Kingdom” (Netflix)

Any TV or film adaptation of Cornwell’s Saxon novels must be “R” rated to retain the flavor and character of the very dominant personality. I wrote the first part of this review, above, after reading Jeffro’s trashing (and later second trashing) of the TV series, which I had not yet watched.

Now that I have watched five episodes, I don’t see evidence that it has been “sanitized” (or castrated?). The TV series covers the first few books, as far as I’ve watched it, books that I read more than five years ago, so I don’t recall many details, nor is Uhtred quite the dominant force he should be until the fifth episode.

It’s a good production. There are apparently real Viking ships (many replicas have been built in the past 50 years), and evocative, exotic music. Yes, they gloss over the language differences, which are prominent in the books, just as nearly all TV and movie productions gloss over language difficulties. Of course, it’s compressed. Perhaps Uhtred is too mild-mannered to begin with (following the portrayal of Ragnar in “Vikings”?). The actor playing Alfred the Great does an outstanding job. Yet Alfred may be portrayed as less clever than he is in the books. It’s not perfect, but it’s quite good.

I am not an expert in Dark Age English history, though I did read a lot for my game Britannia, and I do have a Ph.D. in history. I don’t see any problem with Cornwell’s (and The Last Kingdom’s) depiction of Christianity historically, especially for a story told from a Viking/pagan point of view. Cornwell’s books, and the TV series, aren’t about religion, they’re about history and outstanding adventure. They deliver. May he write many more. Grade: A.

Dr. Lewis Pulsipher has tackled the topic of viking invaders not only in the classic board game Britannia, but again more recently with Sea Kings from Worthington Games. He has written countless articles about Dungeons & Dragons, game design, and more.

54 Comments
  • Brian Renninger says:

    As a bit of trivia, Cornwall has quite openly stated that he based his writing style on that of C.S. Forester — down to analyzing the statistics of sentence length, word choices, etc.

    • John E. Boyle says:

      Thanks for that bit of trivia, Mr. Renninger. I have not read any of Cornwall’s work, but C.S. Forester novels are first rate. It is encouraging to hear that he is putting that kind of effort into his books.

  • Charlie Baud says:

    “I’ve seen people suggest that “Christian values” are part of the “pulp revolution”, though I don’t know what those values are supposed to be, especially since Christianity suffers from bipolarism between New Testament values and Old Testament values, as though there are two separate religions. In these books we get what might be called “Viking values” and a Viking point of view, as in Uhtred’s belief that a Viking can’t go to Valhalla unless he is holding a sword when he dies. And a belief in sorcery and foretelling.”

    Ignoring that “bipolarism” isn’t a word, Pulsipher, the historian, seems unfamiliar with how the supposed rift between Old and New Testament values is a recent rhetorical trick. He seems to have fallen prey to the same modern, ant-Christian bias that plagues much of academia.

    The New Testament condones Just War Theory and Self-defense, and there are countless examples of divine mercy in the Old Testament.

    http://www.comereason.org/character-of-god.asp

    Furthermore, Christian values have been well-defined for the past two thousand years. A decent historian should be able to pick up on them.

    And it’s diffucult to trust the judgement of anyone who still uses the term “dark age”. If they were dark, they were so because of the Paganism that Christianity rescued Europe from.

    https://www.traditionalright.com/the-northmens-war-against-civilization/

    Pulsipher isn’t a deep thinker, just another middlebrow defending his bread and circuses.

  • A. Nonymous says:

    “Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject.”

    – George Horne on criticism of the Bible

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “I’ve seen people suggest that “Christian values” are part of the “pulp revolution”, though I don’t know what those values are supposed to be, especially since Christianity suffers from bipolarism between New Testament values and Old Testament values, as though there are two separate religions”

    Pulp can’t have Christian values cuz Christians have no values….

    Well ain’t that something.

    “There is no actual magic here”

    Oh nevermind. Hard to trust an unstudied opinion about Testaments when the holder of it can’t get the facts straight about books he has read.

    “Uhtred has a Viking point of view (expressed in the first person) and consistently finds the Christian church opposing him because he’s pagan”

    Then again maybe you didn’t read the books.

    ….

    And for some cake:

    “In these books we get what might be called “Viking values””

    Cuz sure…values of a current unpracticed religion and culture with near zero literary tradition that was passed along orally and its primary sources come from a different nation separated by centuries would not suffer from inconsistency or anything like that.

    Of course none of that really matters as Utred displays only secular values through out the books. The only time he gets religious or cultural is when he admires the prophesies and spells of his Celt Witch girl friend.

    Everything else is cold mostly military analysis between the two cultures. “Viking fight a lot so they are better fighters” Of course the actual story conflicts with this. Wessex is in Boarder skirmishes with the Welsh and Cornish and where Utred is from his own Father lord of North Umberia or whatever is in conflict with the Scots. Oh yeah and the vikings lose nearly every army vs army battle they are in with the English!

  • Jim says:

    This article isn’t worthy of this site.

  • Charlie Baud says:

    “I’ve seen people suggest that “Christian values” are part of the “pulp revolution”, though I don’t know what those values are supposed to be, especially since Christianity suffers from bipolarism between New Testament values and Old Testament values, as though there are two separate religions. In these books we get what might be called “Viking values” and a Viking point of view, as in Uhtred’s belief that a Viking can’t go to Valhalla unless he is holding a sword when he dies. And a belief in sorcery and foretelling.”

    Ignoring that “bipolarism” isn’t a word, Pulsipher, the historian, seems unfamiliar with how the supposed rift between Old and New Testament values is a recent rhetorical trick. He seems to have fallen prey to the same modern, ant-Christian bias that plagues much of academia.

    The New Testament condones Just War Theory and Self-defense, and there are countless examples of divine mercy in the Old Testament.

    http://www.comereason.org/character-of-god.asp

    Furthermore, Christian values have been well-defined for the past two thousand years. A decent historian should be able to pick up on them.

    And it’s diffucult to trust the judgement of anyone who still uses the term “dark age”. If they were dark, they were so because of the Paganism that Christianity rescued Europe from.

    https://www.traditionalright.com/the-northmens-war-against-civilization/

    Pulsipher isn’t a deep thinker, just another middlebrow defending his bread and circuses.

  • Anthony says:

    I’ve seen people suggest that “Christian values” are part of the “pulp revolution”, though I don’t know what those values are supposed to be, especially since Christianity suffers from bipolarism between New Testament values and Old Testament values, as though there are two separate religions.

    …I don’t even know how to respond to this. You are seriously a person living in western civilization – a historian, no less! – who doesn’t know what we all mean here when we use the phrase “Christian values”?

    I don’t buy it. You’re playing dumb. Stop. It makes you look petty.

    • Xavier Basora says:

      Also it’s news to Christians throughout the ages that Christianity suffers from bipolarism. Really that’s a surprise to all the theologians who saw the coming of Jesus through Isiah and other passages in the Old Testament or that the 10 Commandants were repudiated in the New Testament.

      Also if Cromwell has no use for Christianity; fine but he needs to explain in his novels how Christianity supplanted the Viking religions. I have no objections if Uthread laments the passing but there has to be some acknowledgement of how it how it happened and the character’s speculations
      xavier

  • Jill says:

    A very odd defense. Of course, it’s casual rather than scholarly, but still, the historian’s inability to detect patterns in Christianity doesn’t bolster his air of authority.

  • PC Bushi says:

    Nice review, Lewis. For some reason this particular series has attracted a great deal of attention and butt-hurt from both its fans and detractors, so try not to pay too much mind to the cavalcade of criticism that’s sure to come your way for this piece.

  • H.P. says:

    I think that “Christian values” are less a part of the pulp tradition from a theological perspective than from a social perspective. 65 years ago almost 80% of Americans identified as religious, today that number is south of 70% and dropping rapidly.

    The change is much more significant in the circles that make up the publishing industry. 70% overall is still a pretty big number. Hence a market opportunity for the pulp revolution.

    As a lifelong Christian, the tension between Old and New Testament is not just apparent, but obvious. But maybe I have a leg up as a hellfire and brimstone Southern Baptist.

    Great post.

    • Anthony says:

      The word tension was not used. What Pulpisher actually said is that he found it nearly impossible to tell what we meant by Christian values, because the Old and New Testament values contradicted each other.

      How anyone, let alone a historian, can’t work out what we’re talking about on that score, given the fact that, you know, he lives in the west and we’ve given frequent examples, is ridiculous.

      • H.P. says:

        Tension is a fairer characterization of what he wrote than your own.

        • Anthony says:

          I really don’t see how. He actually, *explicitly said* that he doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we say Christian values. What can this mean except that he thinks the Old and New Testament have never been synthesized into Christian values? How else can I interpret that, except through his own words?

    • cirsova says:

      Is it really? Because rather than really addressing anything brought up in the previous posts about the show, it spends a lot of time talking about the books and then concluding with “I just don’t see it”.

      There’s not really any substance to this in WHY Jeffro was wrong.

      • PC Bushi says:

        Does it have to show why Jeffro was wrong? Maybe Jeffro wasn’t. This is simply Lewis’ take on the story.

        I did a post on the show before Jeffro and I didn’t see anything he wrote that invalidated the points I made or why I found it enjoyable. As always it comes down to personal taste.

        • Alex says:

          Lew’s post is framed as a defense of the show and, in context of linking them, a rebuttal. But there’s not really much substance in the take on the show; he teases at a few things, but doesn’t go more than a sentence into it. Also, I haven’t seen your post yet, so I’ll go check it out.

  • D.M. Ritzlin says:

    I’m not sure what you guys mean by Christian values either. When I hear the term “Christian values” I think of things Jesus taught, like forgiving your enemies or not fighting back against those who would harm you. That stuff has nothing to do with any pulp story I’ve ever read. When Jeffro insists that Christian values are inherently a part of pulp fantasy, I assume he’s talking about simply behaving honorably, but that isn’t something exclusive to Christianity.

    • Anthony says:

      Jeffro, this deserves a post…!

      In the meantime read “Iron Chamber of Memory”.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      “but that isn’t something exclusive to Christianity.”

      It is exclusive within Christendom.

      Honor in Pulp comes from the literary canon and culture of Christianity and not from some other literary canon or culture.

      This stuff is not from Indonesia.

      Another big one you missed is love romance and family.

      Thing is we live in an age where all those are considered social constructs.

      I don’t believe that for a second (Sexual reproduction can’t be anything but biological) none the less the west and Christendom have their particular flavor and tradition and canon surrounding them. And just like honor is exclusive within Christendom.

      • TPC says:

        Perennialism and theosophy and other influences from Eastern religions made it into mainstream fiction of the first half of the 20th century, no reason that stuff couldn’t have influenced pulp.

        • D.M. Ritzlin says:

          Talbot Mundy was a member of the Theosophical Society.

        • Hooc Ott says:

          “no reason that stuff couldn’t have influenced pulp.”

          Sure sure.
          And as we know, proven in fact by a credentialed historian and encyclopedia Britannica, that Christianity has a culture destroying conflict between the Testaments. Obviously Christianity doesn’t even really exist.
          It is a null culture in fact with no values and just being touched ever so slightly by the distinct and identifiable, with god like coherence and consistency, eastern religions how could Pulp writers not take from them rather than from the incoherent western canon and culture they grew up in are familiar with and their audience is familiar with, their editors are familiar with, that critics have specifiably identified and they the writers themselves literally reference in writings letters and interviews about their own work.

          • TPC says:

            Christianity can be a major or primary influence without being the only one. We didn’t get New Wave in a vacuum, after all. There were strong non-Christian or Christian-heretical influences on literature, including the speculative kind we’re all here for in the 20th century and that’s just basic historical fact.

        • Blume says:

          Theosophy was also christian theosophy and originated in the west not the east.

          https://infogalactic.com/info/Theosophy

          The same is true of perrenialism.

          https://infogalactic.com/info/Perennial_philosophy

    • anonymous coward says:

      things Jesus taught, like forgiving your enemies or not fighting back against those who would harm you

      Christ never taught these things. Here’s what he actually taught:

      That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.

      For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this?

      And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this?

      Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.

      Christ taught about strength in perfection, not a limp-wristed pacifism.

  • David says:

    I’ve seen people suggest that “Christian values” are part of the “pulp revolution”, though I don’t know what those values are supposed to be, especially since Christianity suffers from bipolarism between New Testament values and Old Testament values, as though there are two separate religions

    They are not two separate religions. The New Testament and Old Testament share the same values…if you seek forgiveness God will forgive you and show mercy, and if you don’t God will make sure you get the vicious horrible beatdown, death and eternal hell you so richly deserve.

    Nothing bipolar about that.

  • Charlie Baud says:

    I’ve seen people suggest that “Christian values” are part of the “pulp revolution”, though I don’t know what those values are supposed to be, especially since Christianity suffers from bipolarism between New Testament values and Old Testament values, as though there are two separate religions

    It’s simple, really. There is no conflict between Old and New Testament values. Mercy, forgiveness, and divine judgment are found in both. The New Testament is deliberately mis-characterized as a pacifist text by dishonest atheists. Jesus told his followers to buy swords, even.

    From there, these scriptures were used to adapt doctrines such as the Just War Theory, and heroic traditions such as Chivalry, which are unique to Christian civilization.

    You’d think a historian would know that.

  • Charlie Baud says:

    And it’s diffucult to trust the judgement of anyone who still uses the term “dark age”. If they were dark, they were so because of the Paganism that Christianity rescued Europe from.

    https://www.traditionalright.com/the-northmens-war-against-civilization/

    Pulsipher isn’t a deep thinker, just another middlebrow defending his bread and circuses.

  • The review was written to set the record straight about Cornwell (not Cornwall or Cromwell!). Not to directly rebut Jeffro.

    Not surprising to see the ad hominem logical fallacies expressed above.

    Old and New Testament are rife with contradictions, one to the other. I have read enough of both (though long ago) to know that. Moreover, the Old Testament is the Hebrew bible; isn’t that a different religion than Christianity (though Christianity was originally thought of by contemporaries as a sect of Judaism)? Britannica: “Hebrew Bible, also called Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament, or Tanakh, collection of writings that was first compiled and preserved as the sacred books of the Jewish people. It constitutes a large portion of the Christian Bible.”

    I suspect many things that insular Christians think of as Christian values, are actually values of many religions. The Golden Rule is present in many religious, and even in secular philosophy (e.g. Kant). With that and the bipolarism, historians have a hard time saying what “Christian values” are.

    • Hooc Ott says:

      The Golden Rule is present in many religious

      And not one Christian in 10th century England knew or even heard of any of them.

      Their golden rule could have come from only one place.

      Furthermore the pulps were not borrowing from the Buddhist monk tradition of hospitality. The values found in pulp could only come from one place.

      In order for your anti-Christian dung pile to even remotely work rationally you have to bend both time and space.

      “historians have a hard time saying what “Christian values” are.”

      Well one self proclaimed one at least.

    • Charlie Baud says:

      Old and New Testament are rife with contradictions, one to the other.

      Name them.

    • Blume says:

      What Testament did St. Paul teach out of? I’ll give you a hint, he was a pharisee. The Catholic Church founded by him is the one the Wessex Kingdom follows. Do you really think they thought of it as the holy book of another religion?

  • Btw, Dark Ages to historians because there’s so little information; maybe to some Christians they’re something else.

    Christianity dominated much of Europe well before the Dark Ages began.

    I cannot accept a site called traditionalright (or left) as a reliable source about anything, in and of itself. That particular article is rife with ignorance of history.

    • Charlie Baud says:

      That particular article is rife with ignorance of history.

      Such as?

      The good doctor seems heavy on accusations but light on specifics.

    • Blume says:

      Actually Historians no longer refer to it as the dark ages. It is now just referred to as the middle ages between the classical and the modern. For instance we have an official biography of Alfred the Great written with in 4 years of his death. Which is more than can be said for a great many periods before this.

      • roo_ster says:

        Meh, those times in & about what came to be Europe/Christendom _earned_ the name “Dark Ages” at least thrice over:
        1. Very few written records relative to before & after.
        2. Great loss of literacy relative to Roman Empire in the West.
        3. Great loss of material wealth, technology, trade, etc. relative to before the fall of Rome in the West.

        The revision of the Dark Ages into “Late Antiquity” or “Early Middle Ages” was done at the behest of progressive historians of the sort who say risible things like, “The peoples who peaceably immigrated and integrated with those already in Romanized Europe just were not culturally inclined to build out of stone or use fired clay roof tiles, as did the Romans and their Romanized populations.” Like living in rotting daub and wattle with turf roofs up to their hips in manure is something any would choose over stone built structures and fired clay tiles.

        • Blume says:

          Literacy amongest the general population was lower than Roman times but scarcity of documentation compared to early times is clearly false. What documents do we have on the Gauls before Ceasar? Heck what do we really have after? And what little we do have is thanks to those middle ages Monastaries the vikings went around burning. Alfred in fact is famous for translating and preserving many of those things himself. And while it may be true that historic revionist started the transformation from the renaissance and enlightenment era proganda name of the dark ages, it is also true that they are the ones who teach history now and raise up the new generation of historians. Therefore it is incorrect to say historians call it the dark ages because they no longer do.

          • Hooc Ott says:

            I just want to point out Lewis Pulsipher’s “Dark Ages is a red haring.

            As you stated we have plenty of text from original sources. Alfred himself even.

            In fact in the article he makes a faint towards “We didn’t know where are when battle X occurred” of course in the afterword of the actual novels Cornwell admits to moving around battle that ARE documented from their time and place in order to fit the narrative of Utred’s adventures.

            The novels do not take liberties because of unknowns as is Pulsipher’s contention and historicalogicalnesseyness defense of Cornwell’s work but in fact it takes liberties with knowns to fit the fiction.

        • Charlie Baud says:

          What are you talking about?

          The term “dark ages” was an invention of revisionist Enlightenment historians who wanted to discredit the Catholic Church.

    • Xavier Basora says:

      not all religions have the Golden rule: Islam is one of the more well known. I suspect that Hinduism is similar

      As for the Dark ages:we all seem to have a blind spot with Byzantine. The eastern Empire still produced material culture and undoubtedly kept records of the goings on in the western parts. Also the Moslems also have records as well.

      Everyone tends to forget that the pincer movements between Vikings and others in the north and the Moslems in the south didn’t give much time for writing.

  • viktor says:

    Shows like this are best viewed as alternative-history science fiction. That’s how I view “House of Cards” for example.

  • Anthony says:

    Of course, the whole supposed conflict between the Old and New Testaments is a total red herring anyway.

    The real question is this: When all of Europe essentially was completely united under the Christian religion, did they have a values system underlying it? Forget where it came from or how it was formed or what it did or didn’t contradict.

    If they didn’t, then what the hell were they preaching?

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