We’re over twenty books into the series about Richard Sharpe, a British soldier in the Napoleonic Wars. Four books into the adventures of Nathaniel Starbuck, fighting for the South in the American Civil War—along with three books of Warlord Chronicles, set in the years after Rome’s retreat from the British Isles, and four books about a belated Grail Quest, set during the Hundred Years’ War.
Add in five modern sea thrillers, five stand-alone historical novels, a non-fiction account of Waterloo—together with Warriors of the Storm, this winter’s entry in the nine-volume Saxon series, set during the tenth-century Danish invasions of England—and Bernard Cornwell has been about as busy as it is possible for a writer to be, penning over fifty books since 1981.
A handful of contemporary authors are celebrated—rightly or wrongly—for elevating genre fiction up into the airy heights of literature. John le Carré, for example: While serious writers from Joseph Conrad to Graham Greene have played with spy themes, le Carré is often cited as the author who took the spy novel precisely as a popular genre fiction and raised it to literature. Patrick O’Brian is similarly counted by many as the man who showed that the small but steady field of Napoleonic sea stories could be the means for realizing high literary aspirations. George MacDonald Fraser’s twelve Flashman books may have started as comic historical novels—with a protagonist lifted from Tom Brown’s Schooldays—but they developed into a vehicle for a good bit of historical and social commentary.
Bernard Cornwell is rarely cited among these names. And maybe that’s with good reason. He has a serviceable prose, but it’s nothing to write home about. As you would expect for one of the bestselling authors in the genre of historical military fiction, Cornwell shows a talent for describing violence: His fights are always exciting, but he never allows the overall course of a battle to be lost in the details of a single soldier’s actions.
He achieves his clean effects, however, by a stripping down his scenes and skimping on descriptions of incidental settings and the culture that surrounds his characters.
Cornwell prides himself on the historical accuracy of his books, as well he ought. But it is a thin accuracy, limited to the stories’ fast-paced action. He knows exactly how a Baker rifle would work in the hands of a skirmisher during Wellington’s campaign through Portugal and Spain—even while it’s not certain he knows why, exactly, the British were there in Portugal and Spain. For a certain kind of writer, writing fictional stories drawn from actual military history, it’s enough that the grander events of the story did take place. Their only necessary justification is their factual reality, and the fiction weaves its fictional characters like decorative stitches on the fabric of history as it actually happened.
Whether in his Sharpe series of 19th-century battles or his tales of warfare in the Dark Ages, Cornwell uses his descriptions of the mechanics and tools of war to build his historical settings. And that, I think, is something of a departure from the normal course of such soldier novels. If your sense as a reader is that his technique is more typical of naval stories, you would be right. Cornwell once suggested that—with the 1981 Sharpe’s Eagle—he began his stories of a foot soldier in the Napoleonic Wars because there wasn’t anything equivalent to the popular naval fiction set in that era. Although he loved sailing, he thought that the Duke of Wellington, not Admiral Nelson, was the greatest military figure that Britain threw against Napoleon, and he wanted to do for the British soldier in popular fiction what C.S. Forester had done for the British sailor in his Hornblower novels.
Not that fiction hadn’t told the story of soldiers before. The historical novel found its modern form with Walter Scott’s 1814 Waverley, the tale of a British officer fighting with the Scottish armies. In the 1890s, Arthur Conan Doyle published a fine set of stories about Brigadier Gerard, a vain French soldier for Napoleon (and a little-noticed model for the military comedy George MacDonald Fraser’s achieved with Sir Harry Flashman).
Cornwell’s breakthrough, however, was to start telling land-based military stories as though they were sea-based—the soldier tale as though it were a sailor tale. The narrative is both detailed, in the way that Forester would tell how to change sails, and clean, in the way that Forester would convey a battle. Or even better than Forester, first because the details of soldiering are less complex than the details of sailing, and second because Cornwell is simply a better writer than Forester, never tempted by his predecessor’s sentimentality or willingness to let accounts of a character’s quirks masquerade as development of a character’s psychology.
Cornwell tends to thicken his characters by placing them in situations where they have conflicting demands on their honor and their talents. Richard Sharpe, his skirmisher in the fight against Napoleon, is a thug and ruffian from the British rookeries and slums who rises in the service of Wellington—and who is thereby lost in social class, pulled both by his impulse to solve all things with treachery and violence, and by his regulated behavior as an officer and a gentleman. Nathaniel Starbuck, Cornwell’s Civil War soldier, is a Northerner who ends up fighting for the Confederacy. Thomas of Hookton, his English archer, is caught up in a hunt for the Holy Grail, a chivalrous pursuit in the very era that announced the end of the medieval ideal of chivalry.
And in his Saxon chronicles, Cornwell tells the tale of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a child of a Saxon lord in Northumbria who was captured and brought up Danish raiders. Beginning with The Last Kingdom in 2004 and extending to the latest volume with Warriors of the Storm, Cornwell has been using the series to raise awareness of the historical foundation of England, in those moments when Alfred the Great fought off the Danes and established what Cornwell believes is the first unified people that could be called English.
Even more than Cornwell’s other characters, Uhtred is pulled by multiple forces. His battle sense is pure Viking, but his people are the Saxons. His own son converts to the rising religion of Christianity, which he feels a betrayal of the pagan gods he knows.
Set in the years after Alfred’s death, Warriors of the Storm opens with Æthelflaed taking charge of Mercia while her brother Edward extends his own kingdom of Wessex into East Anglia. The Danes have been defeated everywhere except Northumbria, but the Viking raids have not stopped, and the Irish are beginning to eye the piecemeal kingdoms of England. The battles against the Danes may have proved Uhtred as the soul of Mercia, the kingdom’s greatest warrior, but there is no simple answer to the conflict of oaths and loyalties he faces.
The insoluble conflict of rival duties is a constant theme of tragedy, from works as great as Antigone on down. Cornwell tends to use the struggle a little mechanically, as though the very fact of conflicting duties is enough to establish a character as three dimensional and well rounded. But it’s still a richer vein to mine for a story than Forester managed, and if Cornwell’s characters aren’t as thick as Patrick O’Brian’s Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin, well, his stories move at a faster pace. O’Brian once complained that there was "too much plot, not enough lifestyle" in Cornwell’s historical fiction—but that’s the point. In books such as Warriors of the Storm, Bernard Cornwell lets battle do his work for him, his historical settings conveyed through the characters’ internal conflicts as they stride through a landscape of war.
And if the result isn’t high literature, it’s still very good genre work: readable, fast, informative, and fun. A professional fiction, with all that the word professional conveys.