Let me address the second question first. This is the start of a book review; I will be sharing my thoughts as I venture through Cornwell’s books. He is one of my favorite writers of historical fiction. Today, while listening to the audiobook on my way to a second job, several things struck me about The Pale Horseman.
This matters because Uhtred is a complex protagonist. He has many traits that are common to heroes in other books: strength, bravery, a vicious brand of loyalty, and a sense of justice that should make him easy to appreciate. Yet he is not always likeable. In fact, I would say I dislike him more often than not–and yet I continue to listen to the story.
The Pale Horsemen starts with Uhtred foolishly drawing his sword on his rival, Ealdorman Odda the Younger, during a religious ceremony, thus offending King Alfred and violating the king’s laws. Uhtred is not dumb. He should know better, but his “monstrous pride,” as Cornwell describes it, constantly gets Uhtred in trouble. By the end of chapter one, he has committed an unjustifiable murder (both by modern standards and the laws of the time) and put himself and his household in danger of retribution. Why did he commit such a crime? Because he was pissed of and full of, you guessed it, pride.
This is good for moving the plot and keeping “tension on every page,” as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, advocates. It is not good for my feelings about the protagonist. I’d like for someone to take Uhtred in hand and teach him some humanity. Yes, he is essentially a Viking and their moral code at the time of the story is different than mine. Yes, he is true to his character and possesses many positive traits.
I still struggle with the heartless brutality of Uhtred. It is kind of a love-hate relationship with this character that drives me to read on. So in the grand scheme of things, Bernard Cornwell has again proved himself a master writer.
Please check back for future articles on The Pale Horseman as I strive to improve my writing, and possibly share some useful information on anyone thinking of reading the Saxon series.
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