The Burning Land

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The Burning Land
The Burning Land Cover.jpg
The Burning Land 1st UK edition cover
AuthorBernard Cornwell
Original titleThe Burning Land
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish
SeriesThe Saxon Stories
Genrehistorical novel
PublisherHarperCollins
Publication date
2009
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages366 pp (first edition trademark)
ISBNISBN 978-0-00-721975-9 (first edition, hardback)
Preceded bySword Song
Followed byDeath of Kings
 
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The Burning Land
The Burning Land Cover.jpg
The Burning Land 1st UK edition cover
AuthorBernard Cornwell
Original titleThe Burning Land
CountryUnited Kingdom
LanguageEnglish
SeriesThe Saxon Stories
Genrehistorical novel
PublisherHarperCollins
Publication date
2009
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
Pages366 pp (first edition trademark)
ISBNISBN 978-0-00-721975-9 (first edition, hardback)
Preceded bySword Song
Followed byDeath of Kings

The Burning Land is a 2009 historical novel set in the 9th century Anglo-Saxon kingdoms Wessex, Northumbria and Mercia. It is the fifth book in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Tales series, and continues where the preceding Sword Song left off.

The novel follows Uhtred of Bebbanburg, a Saxon raised by Danes who has sworn allegiance to Alfred the Great of Wessex. After winning a victory against Norse raiders for Alfred, Uthred goes into exile from Wessex after killing a Christian priest. Becoming a Viking-like raider, Uthred sets off to regain the family stronghold of Bebbanburg in Northumbria. However, Uthred returns to Mercia to serve Aethelflaed for whom he wins several victories.

Style and format[edit]

The novel is written as a first person narrative told by Uhtred as a reflection. The telling of the story is broken into three books titled "The Warlord", "Viking" and "Battle's Edge". The novel was also published with a family tree of Alfred the Great, a historical note, a list of Anglo-Saxon placenames and their modern day equivalent and a map depicting Anglo-Saxon Britain and the Southern coast of the English Channel and North Sea.

Plot summary[edit]

The year is 892, when the second major campaign of Alfred the Great against the invading Danes began in earnest. The protagonist is Uhtred of Bebbanburg. A Saxon by birth, Uhtred was raised by Danes and finds their ways more congenial than those of his own people. Nevertheless, he has served Alfred loyally (more or less) as soldier, envoy and military governor for more than a decade, and is now the preeminent warlord of Wessex, Alfred's kingdom. Alfred refers to him as "my dux bellorum, my lord of battles." Alfred urges him to swear to serve Alfred's son and presumed heir, Edward, in the same way. "Scour the enemy from England," Alfred says, "and make my son safe on his God-given throne." Uhtred is unwilling to make that commitment, however. He has long wanted to return to his family's stronghold at Bebbanburg in Northumbria and to deal with his uncle, Aelfric, who stole the family properties and titles from him when his father died. He wants his obligation to Alfred and Wessex to end when Alfred, now seriously ill, passes away.

Uhtred is military governor of Lundene (London), sharing power with Bishop Erkenwald, whom he dislikes but respects. At Alfred's behest, Uhtred delivers a message to the Danish Jarl (earl) Haesten, whose fleet threatens Wessex, that Alfred will pay a large ransom for Haesten to leave. Alfred cannot attack Haesten, because another Dane, Jarl Harald Bloodhair, has attacked at Cent (Kent). Haesten and Alfred reach an accord, and Haesten leaves hostages and accepts missionaires. Haesten even undergoes baptism. However, Uhtred knows that the hostages are fake and that if Harald defeats Alfred, Haesten will attack Wessex.

While travelling with a small force to meet Alfred (who is now free to lead an army against Harald), Uhtred captures Skade, Harald's woman. Skade is a formidable fighter in her own right, and leads one of Harald's war parties. She and her party are captured while raiding a Mercian village. However, Harald approaches Uhtred leading a line of Saxon captive women, and threatens to kill all of them if Skade is not returned to him. After he butchers one woman in front of her child, Uhtred releases Skade to him. Skade intones an ominous curse against Uhtred as she and Harald make their escape.

At a meeting with Alfred and his advisors, Uhtred urges the king to adopt a plan to lure Harald to Farnham by sending a modest force there, and then attack Harald from the rear with most of Alfred's troops when he takes the bait. The plan works brilliantly. Uhtred and his men defeat Harald's forces and again take Skade prisoner. Harald is severely wounded, but escapes to Torneie Island (Thorney Island). There, with a few followers, he is able to use the island's natural defences and a palisade he builds to repel later attempts to defeat him. However, he is trapped there.

While celebrating the Mercian/Saxon victory at Farnham, Uhtred is devastated by news that his beloved wife, Gisela, has died in childbirth, along with the child she bore.

When Uhtred and Skade return to Lundene, Alfred's advisor, Bishop Asser (whose dislike of Uhtred long predates this story) uses the mad brother Godwin to denounce Gisela's name, ranting that Gisela was the devil's whore, and has come back from the dead as Skade. Uhtred flies into a rage and kills Godwin, though he says that he only meant to silence him. Uhtred retreats to his house, where Uhtred's old friend and mentor, Father Beocca, tells him that Alfred has ordered Uhtred to pay a huge fine and swear an oath to Alfred's son Edward the Aethling. Alfred holds Uhtred's children as hostage to his terms, and places them in the custody of Aethelflaed, Alfred's daughter and wife of Aethelred, the ealdorman of Mercia. Furious, Uhtred reneges on his oath to Alfred and sails, with Skade, to Dunholm in Northumbria, stronghold of his old friend Ragnar, a Danish leader. Uhtred trusts Aethelflaed to protect his children.

Eager to use his newfound freedom and encouraged by Skade, Uhtred goes Viking. He sails to Frisia to loot, kill and plunder Skirnir, Skade's husband, and on the journey, he and Skade become lovers. After he defeats and kills Skirnir, however, he is disappointed when Skirnir's treasure horde fails to meet his expectations. When Skade demands half of the horde as her share, Uhtred denies it to her. From that point on Skade becomes hostile to Uhtred. Sailing back to Ragnar's fortress, Uhtred winters there.

During that winter, Brida, Uhtred's former lover who is now Ragnar's wife, convinces Ragnar to attack Wessex alongside the other Northumbrian Jarls, Cnut and Sigrid. During the meeting, Haesten arrives and declares that he will attack Mercia. Haesten and Skade become infatuated with each other, and when Haesten leaves, Skade goes with him. Uhtred is caught in a conflict of loyalties, between the Danes with whom he was raised, and his oaths to Alfred and Aethelflaed. He also fears for his children's safety, as they are in Mercia, in Aethelflaed's custody. His indecision is broken when his friend, the Welshman Father Pyrlig arrives. Pyrlig reminds Uhtred that he has given his oath to serve Aethelflaed. (This occurred in Sword Song.) Uhtred is reluctant at first, until Father Pyrlig tells him that 'oaths made in love cannot be broken'.

Uhtred goes to serve Aethelflaed. He first has to rescue her from Lord Aldhem. Aethelred, Aethelflaed's husband, wishes to divorce her, to break free of Alfred's influence over Mercia. He directs Aldhem to have sex with Aethelflaed, either by seduction, or failing that, by force. Either act would make her an adulterer, allowing Aethelred to divorce her. Uhtred kills Aldhem, liberates Aethelflaed, and reunites with his children. He and Aethelflaed then go to Aethelred's council, surprising him before the assembled Mercian lords.

Warning of Jarl Haesten's advance, Aethelflaed tries to win the Mercian lords to her side. She and Uhtred then wait at Lunden for support. However, because Aethelred holds their purse-strings, none of the lords come, except for Lord Elfwold. During this wait, Uhtred and Aethelflaed become lovers. Uhtred also learns that Alfred had advised Aethelflaed to use Uhtred's oath to her to bring him back. Eventually, Edward Aetheling arrives, along with Alfred's retainer and Uhtred's friend Steapa, and an army of twelve hundred of Alfred's best house troops. They also bear a message that Uhtred is to give his oath to Edward. Uhtred promptly refuses.

Thus reinforced, Uhtred marches ahead to Haesten's two forts at Baemfleot (Benfleet), although Haesten is not there. Uhtred encounters and attacks a larger Danish force and is surrounded. He nearly loses the battle and his life, but is saved and the battle won by the timely arrival of Steapa and the rest of Alfred's troops. They proceed to capture the first of the forts. Uhtred makes preparations for the next battle and begins teaching Edward how to lead from the front. Uhtred assaults the fort and scales the ditch, using sails with ropes sown into them to provide sure footing on the slippery ditch. He tries to use ladders to get up the wall, but the first assault fails. His second assault ultimately succeeds after Father Pyrlig throws specially prepared beehives onto the walls. The bees distract the defenders so that Uhtred's force can scale the walls and capture the fort.

In the hall Uhtred finds Skade and a horde of gold. Harald Bloodhair, crippled and vengeful over Skade's betrayal with Haesten, suddenly appears, embraces Skade, and kills her at the same time. He then asks Uhtred to kill him. Uhtred does, then meets with Edward who says that he doesn't need Uhtred's oath as long as his sister has it. Uhtred and Aethelflaed then sail away from Baemfleot on the Thames.

Characters in "The Burning Land"[edit]

Fictional[edit]

  • Uhtred Ragnarson the Protagonist, narrator, dispossessed Ealdorman of Bebbanburg
  • Gisela – Uhtred's wife
  • Stiorra – Uhtred's daughter
  • Uhtred Uhtredson – Uhtred's son
  • Osbert – Uhtred's youngest child
  • Steapa Snotor – A fierce Saxon warrior, captain of Alfred's house troops
  • Father Willibald – a British priest and friend of Uhtred
  • Father Pyrlig – A British priest and warrior who is a close friend of Uhtred
  • Sihtric Kjartanson – Kjartan's illegitimate son, sworn to Uhtred
  • Father Beocca – Uhtred's friend and teacher
  • Osferth – Alfred's illegitimate son, now a member of Uhtred's household troops
  • Ralla – Uthred's shipmaster
  • Finan (the Agile) – Irish ex-slave and captain of Uhtred's household troops
  • Rypere – a Saxon, one of Uhtred's household troops and oath-men
  • Clapa – One of Uhtred's household troops and oath-men
  • Cerdic – One of Uhtred's household troops and oath-men
  • Ragnar Ragnarson – Jarl of Dunholm (Durham), blood-brother to Uhtred
  • Brida – Ragnar's East Anglian wife
  • Rollo – oath-man of Ragnar, fought with Uhtred in Fresia
  • Jarl Harald Bloodhair – Danish earl, initially Skade's lover, enemy of Alfred and Uhtred
  • Skade – Danish woman, wife of Skirnir, at various times Uhtred's lover and enemy
  • Offa – A Saxon, formerly a priest, now ostensibly an entertainer with trained dogs, but in reality a purveyor of information.
  • Aelfric of Bebbanburg – Uhtred's uncle, possessor of Bebbanburg, (Bamburgh Castle) Uhtred's hereditary home.
  • Skirnir – Frisian chieftain and pirate, husband of Skade
  • Brother Godwin – A blind monk, beholden to Bishop Asser. Supposedly able to speak directly with God.
  • Aldhelm – Mercian lord, underling of Aethelred
  • Guthlac – Reeve of Dumnoc (Dunwich, Suffolk)

Historical[edit]

  • King Alfred of Wessex (Alfred the Great) – the King of Wessex
  • Aelswith – a Mercian princess in her own right, wife of King Alfred, mother of Aethelflaed and Edward
  • Bishop Asser – Welsh monk, religious advisor to King Alfred, enemy of Uhtred
  • Aethelflaed – King Alfred's daughter and wife to Athelred
  • Aethelred – Ealdorman of Mercia and Alfred's son in law. Uhtred's cousin
  • Edward Aethling Alfred's son and heir apparent to the throne of Wessex
  • Earl Haesten – A Danish Jarl (earl), who previously broke a life-oath to Uhtred who is now a dangerous enemy, seemingly based on a Viking leader of the same name recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle
  • Erkenwald Alfred's civilian ruler of Lunden; Uhtred rules the garrison. Seemingly based on St. Erkenwald, an Anglo-Saxon bishop of London, who lived two centuries prior to the events of this novel
  • Eohric of East Anglia – Danish king of East Anglia, Alfred's weak ally.
  • Constantin – at the time of this story, Prince of Alba (Scotland) under King Domnal. Later to become King Constantine II of Alba

Lists[edit]

On 31 October 2009, the book was number 5 on the hardback best-seller list of the Evening News (Edinburgh, Scotland)[1]

Reviews[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Books: Top Ten Best Sellers." Evening News [Edinburgh, Scotland] 31 October 2009: 18. Gale Custom Database – Newspapers. Web. 10 January 2010. <http://find.galenet.com/gps/start.do?prodId=IPS&userGroupName= >. Gale Document Number:CJ210973943