"But I am Uhtred, son of Uhtred, and this is the tale of a bloodfeud. It is the tale of how I will take from my enemy what the law says is mine. And it is the tale of a woman and of her father, a king.
He was my king and all that I have I owe to him. The food that I eat, the hall where I live and the swords of my men, all came from from Alfred, my king, who hated me."
—From the prologue of The Last Kingdom (2004)
The Saxon Stories is a series of Historical Fiction novels by Bernard Cornwell, set during the reign of King Alfred The Great, who is fighting to keep England from being overrun by the Danes. The stories follow Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who is captured by the Danes during a raid and adopted by the warlord Ragnar the Fearless. Uhtred lives among the Danes until Ragnar is slain by one of his shipmasters, Kjartan. Uhtred ends up serving King Alfred, ruler of Wessex, who controls the only English kingdom yet to be conquered by the Danes. Much of the story revolves around Uhtred's conflicting loyalties to the Danes and King Alfred, as well as his personal desire to reclaim Bebbanburg from his uncle, who claimed it after Uhtred was taken captive.As of now, there are seven books in the series, with an eighth forthcoming:
The Last Kingdom (2004)
The Pale Horseman (2005)
The Lords of the North (2006)
Sword Song (2007)
The Burning Land (2009)
Death of Kings (2011)
The Pagan Lord (2013)
The Empty Throne (2014)
Originally, Cornwell intended The Saxon Stories to be a trilogy, yet decided to keep writing after The Lords of the North. He has stated that there may be seven or eight stories in the series eventually.The Last Kingdom, a BBC television series based on the books, is currently in development.
This series of books provides examples of:
Adaptational Wimp: Not an extreme example, but Alfred the Great is portrayed as more or less dependent on Uhtred in military matters throughout the middle portion of the series. A good deal of his strategies involve blackmailing a renegade Uhtred into returning to Wessex, who then does the actual legwork of defending the kingdom.
A Day in the Limelight: While Ragnar the Younger is Uhtred's adoptive brother and close friend, he's normally a periphery character. However, Lords of the North focuses on his efforts take revenge on Kjartan the Cruel, who had murdered his father in the first book.
Aerith and Bob: Because some Norse and Old English names have remained popular to the present day, and others have not, you have characters with familiar names like Edward, Erik, and Harald alongside characters named Uhtred, Ravn, Leofric, Ubba, and Æthelred.
Ambition Is Evil: Averted. Alfred is easily one of the most ambitious characters in the series, and also one of the most indisputably Lawful Good.
Erik Thurgilsson, Jarl Sigefrid's much less brutal younger brother who falls for Aethelflaed.
The Danes as a whole tend to come off this way. While there's no question that they are brutal conquerors bent on rape, pillage, and slaughter, Uhtred frequently points out that they have a more free and tolerant society than the Saxons.
Uhtred goes up against a lot of enemies, but both Haesten and Ælfric could probably be considered this.
Kjartan the Cruel is this for Ragnar the Younger.
Arranged Marriage: Uhtred finds himself in one. Not only does his bride have a substantial debt to her name, she's also a pious Christian while he's a staunch pagan. They get along about as well as you'd expect.
The nickname of Ivar "the Boneless" is rather lamely explained as a joke about his thin build, whereas most historians infer from details in accounts that it referred to his deformed legs, possibly due to a congenital disorder.
Author On Board: Uhtred loathes the Church, and is more than happy to tell the reader how he feels about it. Likewise, most of the openly Christian characters are shown to be zealous and dogmatic to the point of stupidity (Aethelflaed being the main exception that is not a Bad Ass preacher). His hatred of Christianity seems to become even more bitter and extreme as he ages, and realizes that the old pagan ways are slowly but surely dying out. This mirrors Cornwell's own dislike of institutional religion, which stems from his being raised in a very devout, repressive, and tiny Christian sect called the Peculiar People, and his dislike of authoritarianism.
Ragnar's sister Thyra becomes this at the end of the third book.
Brida showed some signs of this in her childhood.
Skade in the fifth book, full stop. Her preferred method of intimidation is skinning people alive, and she enjoys it!
Any of the more bloodthirsty Danish or Norse warlords, such as Ubba Lothbroksson, Sigifrid Thurgilsson, and Harald Bloodhair.
Arguably, Uhtred himself. Count the times he's suggested to Alfred that Murder Is the Best Solution. However, Uhtred generally tends to suggest this in instances when murdering somebody would actually solve a lot of problems. These instances just happen to come about fairly often.
Steapa. In preparation for their fight Uhtred spends all his time practicing and thinking of ways to defeat him. When it comes down to it, even using his trick Uhtred realises he is never going to be beat the giant Saxon.
Ragnar. It's pretty much the reason why Kjartan planned a hallburning instead of taking him on in single combat. He knew he'd lose, and badly at that.
Badass Boast: Finan, even when a slave on Skerri's ship Trader, makes a fantastic one, which doubles as a promise:
Finan: Finan the Agile, they called me, because I would dance around my enemies. I would dance and kill. Dance and kill. There was a time when I owned five spears, six horses, two swords, a coat of bright mail and a helmet that shone like fire. I had a woman with hair that fell to her waist and a smile that could dim the noonday sun. Now, I gut herrings. But one day I shall come back here, and I shall kill Sverri, hump his woman, strangle his bastard children and steal his money.
Badass Bureaucrat: Alfred may not be a warlike man, but his political genius in many ways ensures the long-term survival of Wessex. While Uhtred leads the field armies, Alfred runs the kingdom, making and maintaining vital alliances, implementing new defensive strategies, and basically laying the groundwork for the unification of England. While their vastly differing worldviews prevent them from ever actually liking each other on a personal level, Uhtred and Alfred eventually come to respect one another.
The Lothbroks. Uhtred is frightened of all of them.
the Uhtredsons are no slouches either. Uhtred's father, Uthred himself and his son Uhtred are all badasses.
Ragnar's family too - lets just say in a time when you either spend your time fighting vikings or being one yourself this trope seems fairly common.
The House of Wessex, or at least Alfred's branch of it. Alfred, Aethelflaed, Edward, and Osferth are all highly competent, clever, and courageous.
Badass Gay: In The Pagan Lord, it is all but stated that Kettil and Eldgrim, two of Uhtred's warriors, are in a relationship. While they had received some mockery for this from the other men, nobody dared to challenge them in a fight.
Badass Grandpa: By the time of The Pagan Lord, Uhtred is over 50 years old in an age where most men die at around 40.
Barrier Maiden: After Alfred's reputation as a formidable opponent has been firmly cemented, the Danes decide to marshal their forces and simply wait until he dies. Essentially, throughout the last half of The Burning Land and the first half of Death of Kings, Alfred was keeping the Danes at bay just by being alive. After his death, of course, they attack with redoubled strength and ferocity.
Been There, Shaped History: Much like Richard Sharpe, Uhtred plays a vital role in many of the key events and battles of his time period. Without him, this version of King Alfred would have almost certainly failed and England would not have existed.
Berserk Button: Given the amount of importance that Uhtred attaches to oath-keeping, he naturally has a special hatred for oath-breakers. The main reason for Uhtred's fierce enmity for Haesten is that the latter had broken an oath to serve him.
The Berserker: Uhtred isn't a textbook example, but he completely embraces "the battle-joy" during combat, and describes how it makes him feel like a god on the battlefield.
Big Bad Wannabe: Aethelwold attempts to usurp the throne of Wessex after the death of Alfred, but it's clear that Cnut Longsword is the real power behind his rise.
Big Good: Alfred plays this role, especially later on in the series. After Alfred's death, his son Edward assumes this role.
Big "NO!": Uhtred when he hears that Gisela has died in childbirth, along with the child.
Blood Knight: The Danes, most prominently. Uhtred himself is rather psychotically valorous too. His battle with the Welshmen in Last Kingdom, the very first real fight he gets into, pretty much reads like an extra bloody Conan story.
Brave Scot: The Scots are noted to be psychotically courageous, cruel, fond of the Full-Frontal Assault, and almost impossible to deal with. Indeed, they are one of the few groups of people that terrify Uhtred.
The Casanova: Alfred was this before he had a religious awakening. Uhtred probably counts as well, at least when he's not married.
Character Filibuster: Through the first-person narration, Uhtred is prone to go on brief inner monologues about various topics.
Christianity is Catholic: Due to the setting. However, it's mentioned that some of the churches in Celtic lands have different practices than the Roman church.
Crapsack World: Life in Anglo-Saxon England is a harsh existence, and the brutal Viking invasions have largely thrown the kingdoms into disarray. Alfred tries his hardest to impose order over the chaos, but Uhtred thinks it's futile.
Corrupt Church: To an even greater degree than in most Cornwell works, partially because the story is told from the POV of the very pagan Uhtred.
Deadpan Snarker: Uhtred. And Pyrlig, and Finan, and Ragnar the Younger, and Ragnar the Elder, and...pretty much every warrior in the book except for Steapa.
Death by Childbirth: Uhtred's wife Gisela in the fifth book. Justified in that it was far more common in the period in which the story takes place.
Just at the beginning we are told that both Uhtred's and his older brother's mothers both died in childbirth, too. Gytha was Uhtred's father's third wife, and died shortly after the birth of a healthy baby, too after being married to Uhtred's uncle.
Uhtred: *in response to a request to name himself and his companions* I'm Matthew, he's Mark, he's John and the other fellow couldn't make it.
Death of the Old Gods: As the series progresses, Uhtred begins to realize that this is happening. One of his primary hangups about fighting for Wessex is that a Saxon triumph would greatly strengthen the Church's hand.
Death Seeker: Downplayed. While Uhtred doesn't go out of his way to try to get himself killed, he frequently mentions his desire to die with a sword in his hand, and thus ascend to Valhalla.
Dirty Coward: Haesten again. Though he actually can fight when he has to.
Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Uhtred frequently remarks before he tells how he did something awesome that it was actually really stupid and risky and it only worked because of luck/fate.
Easily Forgiven: Guthred for his part in making Uhtred a slave. Mainly because Uhtred likes him so much and because he'd been advising Guthred to be more brutal.
Enemy Mine: As brutal as the Danish invasions are, a common enemy was ultimately what the Saxons needed to begin building a unified kingdom.
Evil Uncle: Uhtred's uncle Ælfric takes Bebbanburg for himself, even though Uhtred is the rightful heir.
Uhtred more or less admits that if Ælfric weren't his uncle he would probably admire him as he's more or less doing in the North what Uhtred is doing in the South, holding off the Danes from conquering England by beating them at their own game. Given how often Uhtred proposes the Murder Is the Best Solution, it's highly doubtful he would have done anything different from Ælfric.
Famed in Story / The Dreaded: Uhtred becomes both of these quite quickly. Killing a dangerous Viking warlord in single combat will do that. He becomes more and more famous as time goes on.
Family Theme Naming: Uhtred's father, son, older brother and one cousin (and presumably most of his paternal ancestors) are all named Uhtred. As of Pagan Lord both of Uhtreds sons have been named Uhtred. Has One Steve Limit ever been more heavily averted?
The Fatalist: One of the core elements of Uhtred's character is his firm belief that fate is inexorable, and that the future has already been woven by the Norns. He also points to Rome's lost glory, and civilization's subsequent decline, as evidence that the world is steadily and inevitably sliding toward complete chaos, and ultimately Ragnarök.
Fate Worse than Death: For the Norsemen, being killed without a weapon in their hand, because it means they won't reach Valhalla and thus won't be able to feast in Odin's hall with their old enemies. Uhtred, for this reason, usually gives Danes the opportunity to put their hands on their weapons before he kills them. Notably, the only Danes he lets die without a weapon are those he truly loathes, such as his old enemies Sven One-Eye and Kjartan the Cruel and Sigefrid, who murders his brother. He has no compunction about killing Christians without weapons, however.
Uthred: After I die, your brother and I will drink mead in Odin's hall, and neither of us wishes your company.
Fragile Speedster: Finan dislikes shieldwalls, saying he is too light to go up against some big Dane in a shoving match. However his nickname is 'The Agile' and in one on one fights or the fighting after a shieldwall breaks he utterly dominates.
Friendly Enemy: Haesten and Uhtred despise each other, though it can be tough to tell with all the seemingly good-natured snarking they slip in between the death threats.
The Friend Nobody Likes: Both played straight and averted with Uhtred. His staunch paganism and Heel-Face Revolving Door tendencies make him widely disliked and mistrusted in Wessex, but the Danes (many of whom he grew up with) seem to respect him as a warrior and would genuinely welcome him if he decided to join them.
Guthrum the Unlucky in the first book, also.
Uhtred: (in reference to the nickname) With that many rings?
Ravn: You could give Earl Guthrum the world, and he'd somehow think you cheated him.
Glory Seeker: Uhtred, as well as most of the major Viking warriors. Their religious beliefs basically require them to be this, and Uhtred occasionally monologues about how reputation is the only thing that survives of a man after his death.
Gone Horribly Right: For the first part of the third book, Uhtred acts as The Spock for the naïve young ruler Guthred, counseling him to take more ruthless and pragmatic courses of action in order to seize the throne of Northumbria. This ends up backfiring when Guthred sells him into slavery, in exchange for Ælfric's support.
Good Shepherd: Most of the Christian priests in the series are portrayed as either corrupt or fanatical. Pyrlig and Beocca are two notable exceptions, as they are genuinely committed to the principles of their faith without being overly judgmental.
Heel-Face Revolving Door: While Uhtred is oath-bound to defend Wessex, he still greatly prefers the Danish way of life,and feels a much stronger connection to them. More than once throughout the series, these conflicting loyalties have caused him to defect to the Danes, though he never stays among them for long. His indecision is finally put to rest in Death of Kings, when he firmly resolves to become "the sword of the Saxons" despite his various misgivings about Wessex.
Heroic Bastard: Osferth is the bastard son of King Alfred. Although Uhtred initially has doubts about his usefulness, he proves to be a stalwart ally and friend.
Heroic Comedic Sociopath: Uhtred sometimes displays shades of this. When he appears to be very cheerful whilst with Alfred in the swamp, Alfred has this to say.
Alfred: Does that mean you've just killed somebody?
Hidden Depths: Uhtred loves architecture and building, though he's not particularly skilled at it. He also tends to get philosophical whenever he thinks about how much better the Romans were at everything.
Historical Villain Upgrade: Æthelred of Mercia. In the historical notes of the fifth book, Cornwell admits there is no evidence that he ever displayed the bastardry he does in the novels.
Subverted with Bishop Asser. He always acts like a total dick to Uhtred, but the narration frequently points out that he has an excellent reason for doing so.
Honor Before Reason: Alfred tends to show clemency to his defeated enemies, even when his kingdom would probably be safer if he just had them killed.
Hypocrite: Uhtred often mocks and criticizes Christians for their willingness to believe in miracles and the power of dead saints, but on several occasions he proves to be every bit as superstitious in matters regarding his own beliefs. See Not So Different below.
The Idealist: Alfred is this, though he's completely aware that the ultimate realization of his vision will probably not occur in his lifetime.
Identical Grandson: Ivarr the Boneless' relatives. Also a fan theory as to a possible connection between Derfel and Uhtred. It helps both are big, blonde and clever warriors who love their adopted people and dislike bards intensely. Occasionally extended to Sharpe, since Sean Bean plays him as a big, blonde...yeah a familiar pattern emerges.
Interfaith Smoothie: Uhtred's younger son describes himself as "half a pagan, or maybe less than half". He seems to be predominantly Christian, but occasionally prays to Woden.
Ironic Nickname: Steapa is nicknamed "Snotor" which means "clever" in Old English. Ironic because Steapa is anything but. On the other hand he shows glimmers of not being as stupid as he first appears.
Jerk Ass: Uhtred is arrogant, rude, and not above killing people who piss him off. Somewhat justified by the time period, as kindness and mercy were not considered good traits for Anglo-Saxon warriors. He does show signs of Jerk with a Heart of Gold, as he is disgusted with those who mistreat women and children and will generally give people chances to prove themselves. However, The Pagan Lord sees him move more toward being a straight jerkass, as he beats, demeans, and disowns his eldest son for becoming a priest.
Jock Dad, Nerd Son: Uhtred is a courageous, ruthless, and fiercely pagan warrior, while his eldest son quiet, milquetoast, and eventually becomes a Christian priest. Uhtred hates him for that, renaming him Judas, but Father Judas doesn't return the disdain.
King Incognito: The Pale Horseman recreates one of the most famous episodes from Alfred-related folklore, with the king disguising himself as a bard to infiltrate the Danish base and gather intelligence. His bard impression ends up being so bad that Uhtred has to bail him out.
Long Bus Trip: Uhtred's first wife Mildrith, who joins a nunnery and is never mentioned again.
Loophole Abuse: Because Uhtred is far too old to die in battle by the time he relates the events of the series, he intends to have a sword in his hand when he finally passes away, in hopes that this will ensure his passage into Valhalla.
Made a Slave: Uthred, in The Lords of the North, in exchange for his uncle's supporting Guhtred's claim to be King of Northumbria. He can't really get angry at Guhtred's betrayal, considering he urged Guhtred to be ruthless in upholding his claim, and Aelfric's support was worth more than his own.
Mama's Boy: Guthrum, to the point where he wears one of his deceased mother's rib bones in his hair to honor her memory.
First, is birth name was actually Osbert. His father, the elder Uhtred, renamed him after his brother, who was killed fighting the Danes, along with making him the heir to Bebbanburg.
At various points, Uhtred flip-flops behind identifying himself as "Uhtred of Bebbanburg" and "Uhtred Ragnarsson," depending on whether he personally is leaning more towards his kinship with the English and the Danes respectively.
Uhtred pulls this on both his sons
Mighty Glacier: Steapa's fighting style, at least as compared with Uhtred's Lightning Bruiser. It should be noted that Steapa is considered the better fighter, even by Uhtred.
Named Weapons: Uhtred names his sword "Serpent-Breath" and his seax "Wasp-Sting". Justified, as everyone else in the books names their weapons, and it was a common thing in the time period.
Naytheist: Uhtred basically has this attitude toward Christianity. While he's a devout worshiper of the Norse gods, he by no means denies the existence or power of the Christian God. He just doesn't like Him.
Non-Action Guy: While Alfred does fight in some of the battles early on in the series, his establishment as the Big Good and his declining health soon turn him into this.
Not So Different: While Uhtred resents the priesthood's cynical exploitation of faith for wealth and power, antagonists sometimes use his own belief against him, convincing him that his fate is to follow them. Eventually he even fights fire with fire.
Odd Couple: During the first part of Lords of the North, Uhtred has a brief romance with Hild, a disgraced but nevertheless devout nun. After Uhtred is sold into slavery, she eventually manages to convince King Alfred to orchestrate his rescue.
Odd Friendship: Despite Uhtred being an ardent pagan, he tends to get along surprisingly well with some of the less dogmatic Christian priests, even calling Father Beocca "one of the best men I knew".
Old Soldier: Uhtred really begins feeling his age in The Pagan Lord, but that doesn't stop him from leading campaigns and fighting in the shieldwall.
Private Military Contractors: In the first part of The Pale Horseman, Uhtred and his men become these for Peredur, a petty king in Celtic Cornwall who is looking to defeat a rival claimant and defend his land from the Danes. Uhtred, being the viking at heart that he is, makes a deal with the Danes, turns on Peredur, and ransacks his settlement.
Proud Warrior Race: Most of the people groups Uhtred comes into contact with are this, to varying degrees. Special mention goes to the Scots, who take it Up to Eleven. Uhtred also laments the fact that Christianity is causing the Saxons to gradually shed this cultural mindset.
Rape, Pillage, and Burn: Happens all the time. Indeed, the verb for going raping, pillaging, and burning in Danish: viking, as in "I'm just off viking", is where we get the term Vikings.
Reliable Traitor: Uhtred can always be counted on to act in his own self-interest, which is essentially how Alfred keeps him in check — because Alfred has ways of making Uhtred's life very uncomfortable indeed whenever Uhtred tries to go against him.
Uhtred also notes at one point that they could start guessing when the Danes are preparing an invasion just by watching Aethelwold and waiting for him to start acting shifty.
Religion is Magic: The Danes have this attitude, something the Christians consistently fail to grasp. Indeed, when Guhtred and Guthrum "convert" to Christianity, they simply add Iehovah to their current pantheon. Ivarr the Boneless is genuinely curious as to whether the "Christian magic" is stronger than that of the Danish gods after St Edmund boasts of St Sebastian's survival of the Roman arrows...so he decides to conduct a little experiment. With St Edmund as test subject. Reality Ensues, much to the amusement of the Danes.
Remember the New Guy: Constantin, the prince of Alba, has thus far appeared only once in the series, having a brief cameo in book 5. A cryptic remark by Uhtred, who is narrating years later, heavily implies that he will be causing major problems for the Saxons later on.
Royals Who Actually Do Something: Alfred, as well as his son and daughter. They're notably the only Anglo-Saxon house that doesn't get quickly and easily steamrollered by the Vikings.
Uhtred's paganism and Danish upbringing make him this to Wessex.
The Welshmen Pyrlig and Asser as well, the former often coming to the aid of Uhtred and the latter being in the service of King Alfred.
Token Evil Teammate: Uhtred is generally seen by those who dislike him as Alfred's useful dog of war and pet psychopath. They're not entirely wrong either, considering his ideas of dealing with people generally boil down to Murder Is the Best Solution.
Ugly Guy, Hot Wife: Father Beocca, often described by Uhtred is a very unattractive man, ends up like this.
To be fair he also saved his wife from madness, implied to be as a result of capture and possibly demonic possession. As with all his books, Cornwell leaves this one very ambiguous.
It's not that ambiguous; any cases where it might be the gods have fairly obvious modern explanations, or are just luck. Sometimes it's glaringly obvious, like when Uhtred is convinced of everything the witch in Death of Kings tells him, despite her being a huge fraud. This may come under Unreliable Narrator.
Unreliable Narrator: The whole series is narrated by Uhtred many years after the fact, so some of his deeds may be exaggerated. Also a reason why Uhtred doesn't really like bards.
Victory Is Boring: Uhtred had this mentality in his younger days, often going a-viking or hiring himself and his men out as Private Military Contractors during the brief periods of peace between the Saxons and the Danes. As he grows older, however, he seems to be more content to rule over his lands in peace whenever the rare opportunity presents itself.
Villain of the Week: In most of the books, the main events revolve around a large Viking invasion led by an exceptionally powerful warlord or group of warlords. Examples of these include the Lothbroks, Guthrum the Unlucky, Svein of the White Horse, the Thurgilsson brothers, Harald Bloodhair, and Cnut Longsword.
Violent Glaswegian: Guhtred's backstory involves being captured by one, King Eochaid of Strath Clota (now Strathclyde), who made him empty his shit-pail. Indeed, raids from Strath Clota and Glas Cau are a perennial problem for the men of Cumbraland (Cumbria).
Wild Card: Uhtred is ultimately looking out for himself above all, although he does hold both his natural and adoptive fathers in high regard and wants to return to Bebbanburg as its rightful master and avenge the elder Ragnar's death some day.
You Can't Fight Fate: Uhtred believes this to be so, and often quotes wyrd bi∂ ful ārǣd ("fate is inexorable"), a line from the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer.
You Killed My Father: Ragnar the Younger, son of Ragnar the Fearless who adopted Uhtred, slays Kjartan in revenge for his father's death.
Subverted with Uhtred himself, he seems to bear no ill will at all towards the Vikings who killed his father and brother and prefers Ragnar the Elder to his own father.
He did attack Ragnar the Elder head on first time he met him, but he was about 9 and had a crap sword. From Ragnar's point of view, Hilarity Ensues.