Lessons from the Master
There’s a reason why Bernard Cornwell is one of the best writers of historical fiction around. With 37 novels to his credit, including the popular Sharp series, it’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about how to craft a novel. His books are scrupulously accurate and insanely readable. When I pick one up, I make sure my schedule will be pretty light for the next few days, ‘cause I’m not gonna to be able to put it down.
His latest novel, THE LAST KINGDOM, is set in 866 AD England, at the time of the Viking invasions. In the first three paragraphs of his book, he shows why he’s a zen-voodoo master of the craft.
OPENER AND HOOK: “My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred and his father was also called Uhtred. My father’s clerk, a priest called Beocca, spelt it Utred. I do not know if that was how my father would have written it, for he could neither read nor write, but I can do both and sometimes I take the old parchments from their wooden chest and I see the name spelled Uhtred or Utred or Ughtred or Ootred. I look at those parchments, which are deeds saying that Uhtred, son of Uhtred, is the lawful and sole owner of the lands that are carefully marked by stones and by dykes, by oaks and by ash, by marsh and by sea, and I dream of those lands, wave-beaten and wild beneath the wind-driven sky. I dream, and know that one day I will take back the land from those who stole it from me.”
It’s a difficult task to convey the mood of an entire historical era in the succinct pulses demanded by today’s reader, but Cornwell does it in a few deft sentences. We get the sense that we’re in a time where writing is a malleable art mostly in the hands of Christian priests, where codified law and tribal law conflate, and where boundaries are dictated by nature. In the last sentence, he drops in the protagonist’s goal: to take back his stolen land, which, by the way he allows his character to describe it, is deeply loved.
GRAPH #2: “I am an ealdorman, though I call myself Earl Uhtred, which is the same thing, and the fading parchments are proof of what I own. The law says I own that land, and the law, we are told, is what makes us men under God instead of beasts in the ditch. But the law does not help me take back my land. The law wants compromise. The law thinks money will compensate for loss. The law, above all, fears the blood feud. But I am Uhtred, son of Uhtred, and this is the tale of a blood feud. It is a 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.”
In this passage, Cornwell pulls back the curtain on a society in flux, caught between custom and law, religion and brute force. We understand that the protagonist Uhtred is a man of action who will do whatever it takes to achieve his goal, even unleashing a blood feud, which, he acknowledges, “the law fears” and will put him in conflict with society. Stakes are high, always a good thing in fiction.
GRAPH #3: “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 Alfred, my king, who hated me.”
In that final line, Cornwell neatly drops his protagonist in the crucible. Uhtred’s goal of reclaiming his lands put in conflict with his king and himself. The reader gets a foreshadowing of the internal and external conflicts that will drive the plot of the book: Uhtred verses King Alfred, who is possibly his father-in-law. Stakes are at the apex. Blood feuds and plenty of gory action are promised for the reader (and ably delivered).
BTW, the book took me two days to devour. Writers of historical, fiction, war stories, action-adventure should put him on their list of must-read authors.