Bernard Cornwell, An Appreciation
Bernard Cornwell is one of the foremost historical novelists working today. He is best known for his “Sharpe’s” novels (“Sharpe’s Company”, “Sharpe’s Tiger”, et. al.,) chronicling the military exploits of the fictional Richard Sharpe during (and prior to) the Napoleonic Wars.
“Why then, Ken,” you may ask, “are you writing about Bernard Cornwell in a web log geared more to discussion of speculative fiction?” Or, you may not. Probably not. But let’s pretend you do. And here’s the answer: “The Warlord Chronicles.” Cornwell wrote an excellent Arthurian trilogy. Once you start writing about King Arthur (a ‘historical’ personage notable mostly for his apparent non-existence), no matter how meticulous your historical research, you’ve stuck your foot into the fantasy pool. Often you’ll find “The Warlord Chronicles” shelved in the fantasy section of the bookstore.
Then there is the Sean Bean connection. The BBC produced a series of television dramas based on the “Sharpe’s” novels and starring Sean Bean as the eponymous Sharpe. You get Sean Bean, you get a fantasy connection. No avoiding it.
And Cornwell’s immersive storytelling allows for in-narrative ambiguity about the supernatural. In his current series, telling of the struggles between the Anglo-Saxons and Danes and the creation of the nascent kingdom of England, Cornwell uses prophecies, casting of rune sticks, and his characters believe in magic. While the series is straight historical fiction, it could be read as fantasy. That’s a pattern with Cornwell, with his “Warlord Chronicles”, “The Grail Quest” series, and the current “Saxon” series.
If one wishes to criticize Bernard Corwell, it would be in connection with his use of patterns. Or, rather, formula. His characters are generally of a type. An ‘Englishman’ (Celt, Saxon, etc.) from the lower classes discovers a particular talent for killing and warfare, rises somewhat through the ranks, creates enemies among the powerful, as well as a few friends who appreciate his skill and may even hold a true affection for him. The storylines are similar, beat for beat, leading to a climactic battle. But I don’t criticize Cornwell for this. Because the formula works. I know what I’m going to get when I open a new novel from him and I’m never disappointed. The man delivers the goods.
So three cheers for Bernard Cornwell.