Saturday 13 December 2014

Bernard Cornwall - Saxon Chronicles - Gaming Inspiration

I recently reread the entire series after the recent release of The Empty Throne (book #8), and that is indeed why boxes of Saxon Thegns, Viking Herdman and Dark Ages Peasants are winging their way (free postage, whoopee!) from Warlord UK.

Bernard Cornwall is solely to blame for why I spent $100 on GB Plastics from Warlord. That's the story I told my wife, and I'm sticking to it.

Bernard Cornwall is probably THE premier writer of historical fiction alive,and I doubt there's many guys over a certain age who aren't aware of his Napoleonic Sharpe series.  Though I enjoyed the TV series (Spoiler: Sean Bean is the hero and he DOES NOT die, for once!) I've only read a handful of the two dozen Sharpe books, and (heresy to some) I regard it (along with the ACW Starbuck Chronicles) as his least strong work, with some rather "by the numbers" writing at times.

Not so his Saxon Chronicles series. Beginning with The Last Kingdom they detail the adventures of Uhtred, a dispossessed Saxon, raised by Danes, who ends up fighting for King Alfred the Great.  Uhtred retells the stories in his old age, and his wry awareness of his youthful arrogance, violence and stupidity (mixed with a certain low cunning) make him a surprisingly likeable character.  The stories are interesting, with historic battles woven thoughout Uhtred's life, and the battle scenes are excellent. It seamlessly blends personal narrative with the sweep and scope of major events and battles, and gives a good "feel"for the time.  In an era when writers seem to compete to turn out bloated 800+ page books, the Saxon series are excellent compact storytelling of airport-novel size.  In addition, the small-scale skirmishes and raids that permeate the series make for excellent gaming material, be it for Saga, Pig Wars (which has recently been released on Wargames Vault - I have a review pending), or a LOTR:SBG hybrid.

I find it ironic that it's cheaper for me to buy GB Plastics from Warlord than their own website.
$35 for a 44-man box works out at ~80c for a figure - that's about the same as most 15mm metals.

This series has converted me into a full-blown Cornwall fan and I have since enjoyed the Grail series (100 Years War) and the Warlord (Arthurian) stories - the latter of which I intend to re-read, with an eye to the Two Fat Lardies Dux Brittannium ruleset.

That said, this is all about the Saxon series. If all you know of Cornwall is Sharpe, you're missing out on his best work. Even if you only have a passing interest in Saxons and Vikings, go out and grab these books.  Though they can be read in any order, starting with The Last Kingdom will allow you ot better appreciate the events and characters of later books as friendships, feuds and events can form threads through the series.

If The Last Kingdom TV series can match the Sharpe series it'll be very watchable.

Note: The Last Kingdom has started filming as a 8x60min BBC mini-series, in November.  The guys who do Downton Abbey will be making it, so it should have solid production values.  I just hope they don't skimp on the awesome battles from the books.


  1. These books I need no introduction to, by Thor! Fantastic reads and resulted in a similar spate of Dark Ages gaming for me. I'm very excited about the TV series which Cornwell is also assisting with

    1. Heh, it probably is as bit superfluous, like doing a rules review on 40K or Warhammer FB. Filming has started apparently, and with the Downton Abbey guys doing it it should have good sets etc.

  2. I'm a bit late to this post, but thought someone should point out that the author's name is Cornwell, not Cornwall. It's there on the cover, and may be considered definitive.

    I've only read the first, just a few months ago, and agree with your assessment so far.

    The only other books of Cornwell's I've read are his Arthurian trilogy, which I feel has similar qualities, plus a convincing depiction of magic, or at least the belief in it, which qualifies it as fantasy, particularly as the historical aspects are on much less firm ground than even the Saxon series (which seems to have changed its name, presumably as a result of the TV series.)

    1. I do have a criticism from my last re-read of it: the fact Uthred always fights a heroic last stand battle and is rescued (often literally by the cavalry) at the last minute. It's happened in almost every novel and by book 8 it gets a bit tired...

    2. I thought his one man commando raid on the longships at the end of The Last Kingdom strained credulity a bit. I can't help wondering why it didn't happen more often in reality if it was really militarily feasible. He seems a combination of Harry Potter (minus the wand) and James Bond (minus the Martini) at times.

  3. I'm not sure how accurate it is, but the Anglo Saxon Chronicle apparently records a lone viking holding off half an army at Stamford Bridge; he was shot with an arrow but fought on until someone crawled under the bridge and stabbed him from below. I don't precisely recall the kills but my memorry says ~40? Back in an era where the majority of armies were peasants with farming implements or spears, a good helmet, shield and mail coat may have been a big force multiplier.