... conversations with People at the Leading Edgesm

Chaos and Order

What do men fight over? Land and resources, says internationally admired historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. And women. That’s the first layer of Mr. Cornwell’s latest series, focused on King Alfred the Great. It starts with The Last Kingdom, in which he tells rousing stories of what he calls men behaving badly. He will take us through three generations. Along the way, he'll revitalize Alfred’s daughter who’s been lost to history even though she was a heroine and led armies against the Danes.

There's a second universal theme Mr. Cornwell has set in motion in this new series. Chaos versus order. Marauding lawless warrior Danes versus pious Saxon king Alfred the law-giver and his conscript farmer-soldiers. The Cavaliers versus the Puritans. Accountants versus NASCAR drivers. It's an ago-old battle, Mr. Cornwell believes. With some apparent sense of resignation, perhaps regret, Mr. Cornwell concludes that in the end, it is the pious bores who win. Always.

But not before a terrific story can be told! That's what Mr. Cornwell says his first duty is as an historical novelist -- to tell a good story. Then he can honor his other commitment -- to be true to the history. At the end of his novels, Mr. Cornwell conscientiously offers readers an accounting of where the latter has had to give way to the former.

The third strand in Mr. Cornwell's elegant braid is that he loves to write, finds in the process the same joy of discovery that he seeks to share with his reader. You’ll hear no whining from this writer. When he fell in love with an American, he took more than a leap of the heart. He left his job in Belfast and his promising career as a BBC television producer, followed her to America where a Green Card was not to be had.
So Bernard Cornwell turned to what he'd always want to do. He started writing in earnest, The result was the first "Richard Sharpe" novel, now a series that has it's own life and following. No, Mr. Cornwell says, he is not yet through with Sharpe, stay tuned.

And finally, a reverence for landscape is embedded in mankind, Mr. Cornwell is certain. Clearly, it matters to Bernard Cornwell. He now lives in Cape Cod but the British Isles have a special place for him, having grown up in England, remnants of the Roman Empire and ghostly Danish lore as close as the corner church yard.

Bernard Cornwell's choice for the tap stone of English history is Stonehenge. Why not the Arthur myth to which others give primacy? Mr. Cornwell's own luminous Arthurian trilogy restores Arthur's Celtic soul and Welsh mythology. But, he concludes, Arthur now belongs neither to the Celts nor the English. Arthur belongs to the ages.


[This Program was recorded February 10, 2005 in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]



Bernard Cornwell

    ... historical fiction writer. Internationally acclaimed for his "Richard Sharpe" series, the Grail Quest series, the Nathaniel Starbuck Chronicles, the Warlord Trilogy and many other novels including Redcoat, Stonehenge, and Gallows Thief, Mr. Cornwell has begun a new series. In The Last Kingdom, he begins the adventures of Saxon/English King Alfred the Great, to whose time Mr. Cornwell trace his own Northumbrian family roots. He and his wife live on Cape Cod, MA.



Conversation 1




Bernard Cornwell places King Alfred, his family, the Saxon English and invading Danes in time, chooses Stonehenge as the tap root of British history and tells us why the Arthurian myth now belongs to the world.

Conversation 2




The King Alfred the Great series he is beginning, says Bernard Cornell, is as a tale of men behaving badly, fighting for what men always fight for -- land, resources and women. He describes the enormous long-term effects of primogeniture in England, citing his family of origin. He distinguishes between his own sense of duty to his stories and to history. Ian Tattersall's work provides a perspective on context.

Conversation 3




When we began to understand natural causes and no longer relied on supernatural explanations, Mr. Cornwell points out that our own context changed entirely. He elaborates, drawing illustrations from the setting in which The Last Kingdom takes place. Describing the active contest for supremacy between Mythraism and Christianity when the Romans left Britain, Mr. Cornwell considers the profound and widespread Roman legacy.

Conversation 4




The Romans made a concerted effort to turn Britain into the model colony after the (failed) Boudicca rebellion, Mr. Cornwell says. He shows the powerful impact this had, over centuries, exemplified by the Danish incursions into Saxon England. A reverence for land is embedded in mankind, Mr. Cornwell believes, even soldiers like “Richard Sharpe” (more novels to come). Ideas anthropologist Melvin Konner has about recklessness are noted.

Conversation 5 




Mr. Cornwell is impatient when writers complain about writing, describes the joy he finds in the work and recalls his own good fortune in becoming a writer and storyteller. What would have happened had the Danes defeated Alfred? All one can say is that things would be different -- not better or worse -- Mr. Cornwell believes. He expands, finding in this story the age-old battle between Puritans and Cavaliers. He describes the reasons he believes the bores always win.

Conversation 6 




The Puritan-Cavalier conflict also fascinated Kevin Phillips. Mr. Cornwell compares people like Alfred who organize and bring order, to chaotic elements like the Danes in this saga, confident of the inevitability of order triumphing over disorder.


Related Links:

The Last Kingdom is published in hardcover by HarperCollins, as an e-book, in a large print edition and as an audiobook. The trade paperback is available from HarperTorch.

Enjoy Bernard Cornwell's own website.

Produced with the BBC, Simon Schama's 15-hour tv series A History of Britain provides another rich and deeply informed view of Britain.

Kevin Phillips tells the ongoing story of battles between the Cavaliers and the Puritans in The Cousins Wars.

Though in very different ways, Donald McCaig, Richard Slotkin and Edward P. Jones also base their fiction on history.

Leonard Shlain looks at the role of women in archaic cultures in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess and Sex, Time and Power.

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


We admire genuine leaps of faith, great stories, compelling writing, an unsentimental view of humanity and the appreciation of work which combines integrity with joy. Mr. Cornwell embodies them all, and is gracious as well. We thank him. And we thank his wife for her pivotal role in his successes.

The legends of Wale’s Lord (later "King") Arthur have long held us in their grip. Mr. Cornwell’s vivid re-telling of this powerful story is world class. It's a worthy and compelling addition to the "Arthurian" myth which, as Mr. Cornwell says, now belongs to all mankind. We look forward to the King Alfred series fulfilling it's promise -- though our hearts will forever belong to the truly "British" Welsh, their splendid leader, Arthur, and his deeply grounded Druids.

In the time since we recorded this program, Mr. Cornwell has added two additional books to the series of which The Last Kingdom is the first installment:  The Saxon Stories.



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