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.