The Paganism of Bernard Cornwell

I am a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell, and was thrilled to finally sit down and read his latest: Death of Kings. Part of his Saxon Tales saga, it is a ripping good historical novel set as Alfred the Great is dying. I could wax rhapsodic about how accurate and well-researched his novels are, how well-written they are, and how he makes battle scenes sing. But I want to talk about his portrayal of ancient paganism.

The theme of paganism, particularly in conflict with a growing Christianity, is a recurring theme for Cornwell. His Arthurian trilogy handled the Roman religious remains of ancient England very well. It was easy to see this brotherhood of knights being rooted in leftover Mithraism, and you could imagine the exotic, foreign cult of Isis, which spread as far as Mithraism if not further, being looked at askance. But while his Arthurian Warlord Chronicles dealt with a more or less organized paganism, his Saxon Tales do not.

The protagonist, the marvelous Uhtred of Bebbanburg, is a noble Saxon raised by Danes who worships Thor. He is an individual in every sense, serving Alfred while loving the lifestyle of the Danes, being a Saxon pagan completely surrounded by Christians. Uhtred is a surprising person, and ultimately, Uhtred is alone. Sure, he has his band of men who follow him long as he has gold to give, but these warriors are the only community he truly has. His spiritual and philosophical equals are among the Danes, and he has separated himself from them by choosing to serve Alfred, who does not always treat him well. He has no gothi or gythia. In fact, no pagan priest is mentioned at all in the series, only disreputable oracles.

There are no pagan temples, no pagan religious spaces, only the halls of Danish warlords in which to pass Yule. Even Uhtred’s relationship to the gods is highly personal. His overt practice is private and rare. He believes that if he amuses the gods enough by taking risks and attempting daring feats they will favor him. He does not share his faith with his children, or even seek to pass it on to them in any meaningful way. He doesn’t seek to create meaningful community that celebrates his values.

Uhtred is a good person because of his faith, but he has no language with which to communicate that, nor any desire to communicate it. He is fair, just, reasonable and committed to excellence. He rewards people who serve him well regardless of their faith, and encourages good men to be better. He works with practical truths rather than how he thinks things should be. He engages with the world as it is, and he wins fame and renown for it. He is loyal to his king even when his king isn’t exactly loyal to him. He believes in the England that Alfred is building and admires the order brought to Wessex by him. What he doesn’t like is Christianity.

Uhtred’s reactions to Christianity are hilarious. His conversations with priests are delightful. He is delightfully provocative and belligerent, both with priests he detests and with those he holds in the highest esteem. He mocks their impracticality and the guilelessness. He despises how the church takes precedence over people, over reason, over the nation. Uhtred is the wall against which the empty platitudes of that faith break themselves.

But Uhtred is one man. He is a great man, with a talent for the strategy of war that is unmatched, but he is only one person. Book after book in the series comes out and the progression is obvious. Christianity is building, organizing, building community, growing. Paganism is disorganized, building communities around personalities rather than values, and has no clear hierarchy. Uhtred loves the Danes, and he exploits their weaknesses mercilessly. While they are disorganized and unable to build cohesive communities and leaders that last, Uhtred is the wedge behind which the organized, growing and increasingly cohesive armies of the Saxons wax strong. Uhtred knows that one big defeat is enough to scatter the Danes on the wind. When they reorganize, it will be new Danes following new leaders starting from scratch, while the growing Saxons are building defenses and creating more desirable communities in the sense of safety and common values.

Just as with the history it represents, the writing is on the wall for paganism in ancient England in Cornwell’s tales. Wyrd bið ful aræd. Fate is inexorable. Or is it?

I have always thought Cornwell portrayed ancient paganism in a way that feels very true. It has recently occurred to me that the paganism he presents has some interesting parallels with modern Paganism. We are disorganized, we are not building useful infrastructure, and we are not building community dedicated to a higher purpose than ourselves. Like the ancient Danes, we scatter when presented with any significant problem. There are exceptions to this, but they are unfortunately few.

I keep hearing over and over again in subtle ways that creating community and being of service to each other is something that needs to be a goal of our faiths, and simply isn’t. We are all involved in very personalized, individualistic journeys, which ironically, are often about keeping our egos in check. Yet often it is ego which thwarts us in community building.

Some of the revived Pagan faiths have that sense of higher purpose that compels them to create community. In Hellenism and religio Romana, creating family, and from there creating community, is very important. You see this in some Heathen groups. I personally know Pagans who are called to ministry, who feel called to create temples, who are called to be theologians, journalists, writers, mediators, ritualists, liturgists, but I know precious few who feel called to create lasting, multi-generational community. Maybe we need to make community a prime goal, a mitzvah, an act of spiritual well-being. We need to make putting down roots a virtue.

At any rate, Death of Kings is a fabulous book. I never expect less than magnificent from Cornwell, and he just keeps getting better. I think we have a lot to learn from Uhtred of Bebbanburg. He speaks to us across the centuries and asks us if we have learned to make our faith about creating community, or are we still alone?

About Star Foster

Polytheistic Wiccan initiated into the Ravenwood tradition, she has many opinions. Some of them are actually useful.

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I’d not heard of this book. I will have to get it, being a Wessaxon, myself. (I really dislike Alfred, for political reasons more than religious ones.)

  • Tori

    First of all, thanks for the book suggestion, I’m always looking for good books! Now on to the real topic of your post. I am all for creating community and family, those are two very important things for everyone to have  in their lives. My hesitation occurs when it becomes about creating those things around a religion. I was raised without mention of religion. I couldn’t tell you what my parents believe, and that is okay with me. I came to my own conclusions about religion through studying the different ones out there. Maybe that is my reason for being uncomfortable with the idea you propose. I went to the youth group with my friends at one of the local churches, and it made me feel like I didn’t belong because I couldn’t relate to them when they talked about the Bible and Jesus.  Religion has always been something personal and difficult for me to discuss. I think I understand why Uhtred wouldn’t want to try and share what he believes with his community and family. Does this mean people shouldn’t share their beliefs or talk about religion? No. I am openly Pagan, and when I have children I will discuss many different religions with them openly. I just don’t know if creating a community around religion is the way to go.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

       Try looking at it the other way – create a religion out of community.

  • kenneth

    At the very real risk of harping on a point, I think we’re measuring ourselves against a Christian yardstick. We swear up and down that we repudiate Christianity, yet we seem to want to recreate it in toto just with different deities.

     We’re 50 years into this enterprise. Really 10 or 15 if you consider paganism as a mass movement. We’re declaring ourselves failures for not having all of the trappings of power and infrastructure that Christians have had 2,000 years to build. We assume that the reasons they have these things is that they’re just more community minded or responsible or inherently “together” than we are. There may well be an element of truth to that, but we’re overlooking a lot of deeper factors. As I’ve said, we have to look at organization as a function of culture, which is a function of theology. 

    I will argue that Christianity has a lot of what it has because of its theology. A core part of what they believe is that everyone must believe and worship as they do, and soon. It is a theology of conquest and occupation. Infrastructure and institutions and organizational ability flow from that. They are all about “power over” and so the accumulation and exercise of political, financial, military and demographic power are high priorities. 

    What they have today, especially Catholicism and the old-line Protestant churches, is the fruit of many, many centuries of accumulation of money, all done with the benefit of their unquestioned hegemonic position of power in society. They enjoy the power to accumulate money with zero transparency, zero taxes, virtual immunity to criminal and civil law until quite recently. They’re essentially tax-free Fortune 500 companies, if not mafia organizations. 

    I think pagans are very wisely hesitant about rushing headlong into re-creating this legacy. I think we’re smart enough to realize that we can’t just re-create this dynamic and make everything alright by having good intentions and swearing to ourselves “we just won’t be corrupt like them.”

    I think we will ultimately find our way to some organizational structures that do a better job expressing and serving who WE are as pagans. I also think second and third generations of pagans who don’t have our Christian baggage will be infinitely better positioned to develop these structures. In the meantime, I’m not too worried about the continuation of neo-paganism. There are lots of kids being raised in the faith, and moreover, our religions and ideas will continue to appeal to converts as they did to us, if there is any substance or merit to them. If there is not, it’s just as well that they die out and not perpetuate simply based on the inertia of institutions and familial pressures to keep kids in the family faith. 

    • Star Foster

       So, Christianity took it’s forms, hierarchy and organizational cues from Greek and Roman religions, which were sadly in decline in-step with the fall of the Roman Empire. So I think it’s far more helpful to measure ourselves against that. The Christians didn’t create this organizational structure wholecloth, they took it from pagan religious and governmental models and took them in a new direction. Ancient pagans were too slow to pick up on exactly what the Christians were doing until it was effectively too late.

      • kenneth

        They took very many of their cues from the Roman Imperial political structure, which supplanted real spirituality with enforced, obsequious and often hollow piety as instruments of raw power. The Pope and cardinals are very thinly veiled re-enactments of the emperor and Roman Senate. Being a religion of conquest and power over dynamics, Christians could not have chosen a better business model. I think the concept of religious doctrine as a primary cause of war and conquest was utterly alien to ancient pagans. 

         The various witch wars and other silliness of recent decades is ample evidence that A) some pagans really do want to re-create Christian power-over politics, if they can be pope and B) 99% of us have no interest in going along.  The fact that going solitary en mass was the response to that is very very encouraging to me. That tells me that modern pagans are not willing to re-enact their slavery just to keep up appearances. We’re done with messiah figures and gurus. Now the challenge is to parlay our walking away into walking toward something. There are, of course, the underlying forms and structures of ancient pagan religions which we ought to be looking at. They may or may not serve us well for a variety of cultural and other reasons. Priesthoods or temples or systems of tithe and tribute which may have worked brilliantly for 400 B.C. Hellenics or pre-Christian pagan Romans might not take as grafts now. We aren’t them. Our economy, mindset, everything is radically different, to the point that even the best historians really have trouble getting inside the head of an ancient to understand what really drove them on a daily basis. They are, however, models well worth looking at and may lend themselves to modification or some hybrid we haven’t thought of. I don’t think we’ll be well served by trying to cling to this idea of “pan-pagan” infrastructure. That’s sort of trying to set up a lobbying organization to look after the “interests of Asian-Americans”. I think rather that each tradition will have to develop its own ideas of what community practice and identity means to them, and then craft infrastructure accordingly. 

        • Star Foster

           I think you’d be hard pressed to find a Pagan equivalent of the Crusades.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      “I will argue that Christianity has a lot of what it has because of its
      theology. A core part of what they believe is that everyone must believe
      and worship as they do, and soon. It is a theology of conquest and

      Theology is the heart of any religion. I’m sick of this theological relativism that runs rampant in neo-Paganism. Of course what you believe (concerning the gods) is important, theologically. Far more important than all the typical issues of gender and equality that I see. (In context, I must add.)

      What sets Christianity apart from Paganism is simply. Any denomination of Christian can be defined at the most basic as being a follower of Christ. Pagans, on the other hand… Well, I have even heard of atheistic Pagans.

      My issue with Christianity (note, that is Christianity, and not Christians) is not its dogma – the whole ‘convert-or-die’ line. It is the god it follows. No political angle there. Just theology.

      • kenneth

        I’m not arguing against theology. I think we need more of it, or at least we need to explore and acknowledge it. We need to do that even at an individual level. Theology is nothing more, or less than determining what our religion, our gods, our experience, tell us about the “big questions.” Who and what are humans, what is our purpose, what do the gods and goddesses ask of us, give to us? What is our obligation to our family, our tribe, outsiders? What degree of forbearance, forgiveness or mercy, if any, do we owe to our enemies, and in what circumstances? What do we owe the poor?

         What does being pagan call me to do as distinct from any other putz on the subway? I think we need to open ourselves to callings from our deities that we may not want. THAT is what sets apart a religion of substance from a lifestyle fad. It is what led me to my path and keeps me on it. I didn’t want to be pagan. I didn’t want to hear much of what Goddess told me, and the hideously difficult challenges and lessons She led me toward. I still sometimes don’t have the courage or perseverance to do what I know I’m supposed to be doing, but I’m willing to take the call, even if its contrary. 

        If pagans want to be serious, and taken seriously as religious people,we need to accept that sometimes the randiest of us will be called to celibacy. The richest to poverty, and that some of the laziest free spirits will be called to get a haircut and work in a cubicle. People who open themselves to transformation have an authenticity and a power that no amount of money or lavish cathedrals or titles can buy. People willing to give their lives over to a calling have a power that sets your hair on end when they walk in a room. People like that bring down dictators and even empires without ever picking up a gun. 

         I think we ought to drop all pretense that the term “pagan” can be anywhere as informative as the term “Christian”, which itself denotes only very broad shared concepts. “Paganism” denotes exactly nothing as a descriptor beyond perhaps a shared contempt by (and for) Pat Robertson. So I’m arguing that we need to explore theology first, and perhaps at some length, before we declare ourselves failures by Christian standards or before we’re tempted to rush headlong into replicating their structures, which are admittedly very useful for some things.  I’m arguing that they have much of what they have because of a theology that is very different from our own and in many cases very alien to who we are or what we want to become. I agree that pagans collectively have some growing up to do. But if we take on this hard work of figuring out what our religions actually mean to us, and then build on that vision, we will achieve things that will set this world on end, whether we become great temple builders or nomads. 

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

           “I think we ought to drop all pretense that the term “pagan” can be anywhere as informative as the term “Christian””

          If the word cannot inform, it lacks meaning. Thus we should reject the term as meaningless. I’m okay with that.

          You are talking about changing people, rather than changing society. I think the latter is in the greater need of change.

  • Pythia Theocritos

    Thanks for the book recommendations. I’m a big lover of historical fiction, even moreso when the fiction takes place during “pagan history.” If you’re ever in the mood for another broad-sweeping epic, check out Robert Harris’ Imperium, Conspirata. They’re all set in Rome; full of intrigue, love, politics, religion, and ritual. 

    Setting up community is difficult for a plethora of reasons; especially since paganism is an umbrella and not a set of principles or beliefs. I think the best thing I can compare it to is the black community. I love my people; but some of the stuff we do gets on my nerves. Sometimes I want to disassociate myself because it’d be so much easier to turn a blind eye and keep living on my way. Why shouldn’t I? My life is good, my bills are paid, and my household is happy and secure.

    And, just like the pagan community, there are plenty of people in the black community who don’t want to air the dirty laundry. So the moment you start talking about black women murdered and missing, or Chris Brown beating up a woman but still having a career, or the double life some of us lead, you’re told to hush up. 

    As much BS that comes with “loving your own”, there comes a time when you have to try again any way and that means airing out that dirty laundry, being honest, being willing to get into arguments with the drunk Aunt who always tells the same story every get together, and recognize that there are no saints. That there is no black and white when it comes to dealing with human beings.

    When I started my symposium, the thing that excited me the most was getting to talk to, debate with, and be enlightened by the people who honored me with their presence. It’s the same situation one can get if they think back to those old reunions; there were some cousins you didn’t like, a few family members you didn’t recognize, and most of them you have nothing in common with but that single thread.

    Before we can even begin to build communities that are worth passing on; we have to figure out what we want to pass on in the first place. Passion? Curiosity? Breathless wonder at the universe? And what attributes lead to such attitudes, because so far “the culture of nice” has only allowed narcissists to gain center stage in a sub-culture hell bent on ‘letting everyone have their way” and that, for some reason, worships victimhood.

    So can the string that connect us be that we are all “going somewhere?” Would that make it easier? Would that mean that it’s okay for you to disagree with me and for me to disagree with you and it not be because you’re a big old meanie pants? Would that mean that open dialogue could actually occur without using hurt feelings or wounded pride as an impetus?

    More than likely not, especially since the last sin is one of my own. But I think, if we start from where we are and actually try to pull our collective heads out of the ass of magical thinking and leftist idealism; we MIGHT actually get somewhere.