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?

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