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The ‘pale Galilean’ trope in the Viking fiction of Bernard Cornwell

02 October 2015


From the Revd Andrew Symes

Sir, — I’m grateful to Canon Angela Tilby (Comment, 25 September) for alerting us to the forthcoming BBC dramatisation of Bernard Cornwell’s series of books on the Saxon-Viking conflict. Like her, I’m a fan, and I also agree that one of the themes in this action-packed saga is the conflict between the Norse gods (exciting but chaotic) and the Christian God (orderly but boring).

In her thoughtful and provocative piece, however, she wonders whether “something was lost with the death of the old gods: a joyous relishing of life, death, and the natural world,” and talks of the seemingly “bloodless virtues” of Christianity. Should we support Canon Tilby’s romanticising of ninth-century paganism in this way?

Cornwell’s portrayal tells us as much about him as about the history he describes. In a recent interview, he described his upbringing as an adopted child of strict Brethren parents. This made him rebellious against a certain caricature of Christian faith while retaining a grudging respect for its adherents. In the books, the key Christian character, King Alfred, is portrayed with this in mind: as a colourless intellectual with an expression of permanent indigestion.

But Alfred’s insistence on Christian worship and teaching at the heart of his fragile Kingdom, and his support of mission to the Vikings, while annoying Uhtred the hero, appears to be one of the key successes of the emergence of the new nation. Uhtred cannot understand why clergy are focused on a “nailed God”, but he respects their courage on the battlefield and in the face of Viking brutality.

Our Christianity today may at times be feeble and insipid, but I think there is a danger of anachronism in reading this back into Alfred’s time. Christianity won out over paganism in an amazing turnaround, because violent men and feisty women were converted to a red-blooded faith in Christ worth defending with one’s life (rather than turning into wet blankets or sophisticated metropolitans); and many who did not find personal faith saw the benefits of Christianity in the heart of the public square, as it brought social order, peace, learning, compassion for the weak, equality for all under law, and planning for the future.

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