Cornwell continues Uhtred’s story in the 2nd of the Saxon stories series and follows the battle of Cynuit. Brave, yet flawed, Uhtred continues to make rash decisions and incites King Alfred’s anger.
The complexity of the psychological development in Cornwell’s novel is startling. Uhtred is at war with himself almost as much as he is at war with Danes.
Uhtred is a stranger in Wessex, a pagan amongst Christians, who knows he will never be fully accepted, “I was an outsider. I spoke a different English. The men of Wessex were tied by family and I came from the strange North.”
Alfred, the only English king that would be known at ‘the great’, also has his own set of flaws. He often makes a hasty peace with the Danes rather than fighting them. He does not know how to rouse his men to battle and risks alienating those who would help him.
Even though he distrusts Uhtred for being a pagan, he realizes his importance and appoints him defender of his family after Cippanhamm falls: “Here and now I appoint you as the defender of my family.”
Against incredible odds, Alfred and the Saxons, who are marooned in a swamp, work together to build a fort and succeed in destroying Svein of the White Horse’s ships. The Danes, however, still control the area and outnumber the Saxon forces. To succeed, the Saxons will have to unite in a way they have never done before.
Iseult, yet another complex and intriguing created by Cornwell, predicts that Alfred will succeed. She claims there will be a “fight by a hill” and that the Saxons will defeat the Danes.
She alludes to the battle of Ethandum where the Saxons face two Danish armies, Svein and Guthrum. In this version of events, the Saxon army becomes dispirited until Uhtred bravely fights Svein outside of the shield wall. His actions turn the tide of the battle, resulting in the recovery of Alfred’s kingdom, Wessex.