*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Hypocrisies of humility exposed

25 September 2015

I WAS delighted to hear that the BBC is about to launch an eight-part drama series on BBC America based on Bernard Cornwell’s Warrior Chronicles. The series will eventually be shown on BBC2. The subject is the long struggle of ninth-century Saxon England against the invading Danes. The hero, Uhtred, is a Saxon who is captured and brought up by the Danes, and who returns to fight for Alfred of Wessex and his dream of a united Christian kingdom.

They are wonderful swaggering novels, designed more for young adult males than for late-middle-aged female clergy, but I have to confess to having read them with relish, and not only on holiday. They are just the ticket after a long PCC meeting, or to switch off after hours of emails.

This is the world of terrifying raids launched from dragon-prowed longships, of the ruthless shield wall — a machine of men created for death or defence — of a cheerful, almost innocent brutality that mirrors the insecurity of everyday Dark Age life.

What most intrigues me about Uhtred, however, is his attitude to Christianity. Uhtred simply despises Christians. He finds the “nailed god” pitiable. He loathes, distrusts, and mercilessly teases most of the clergy. He finds Alfred cold, a prey to all sorts of illnesses, and a sexual hypocrite. Yet he fights for Alfred, defends him, protects his family, and, to some extent, shares his vision for a realm that he half-realises will eventually be dominated by the Christian faith.

His own faith is in the Norse gods. He intends to die in the violence of battle with a sword in his hand, and so to enter Valhalla. Honour, courage, and ruthlessness are the values he lives by. I can’t help liking Uhtred, not least because he exposes Christian hypocrisies that are perhaps inevitable when sinful humans adopt a faith that is based on kindness, mercy, and humility.

The Christian virtues can seem bloodless, even today. Uhtred’s dismissive take on Christianity echoes that of the poet Swinburne in his lament for the goddess Proserpine: “Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from Thy breath.”

Cornwell’s novels make me wonder whether something was lost with the death of the old gods: a joyous relishing of life, death, and the natural world. Christianity brought a different kind of civilisation, and in the end was able to unify our ancestors in a way that still affects our culture and traditions. I would not want it to have been different, but the Warrior Chronicles remind us that the best comes at a price.

 

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events

Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards

 

Festival of Preaching

15-17 September 2024

The festival moves to Cambridge along with a sparkling selection of expert speakers

tickets available

 

SAVE THE DATE

Festival of Faith and Literature

28 February - 2 March 2025

The festival programme is soon to be announced sign up to our newsletter to stay informed about all festival news.

Festival website

 

ViSIt our Events page for upcoming and past events 

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

 

To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)