Bernard Cornwell – the master of historical fiction

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Sharpe’s Eagle by Bernard Cornwell. It’s a momentous landmark to reach, not least because alongside all Cornwell’s other outstanding books, Sharpe is still going strong. In the years since his first book was released, Cornwell has ranged far afield – from the American Civil War to the Dark Ages, from Arthurian legend to Regency London. Despite the dramatic changes in scenery and time period, his unerring eye and ability to tell a fantastic story has never flagged. Few writers can ever hope to reach the dizzy heights of Cornwell’s skill or success. I raise my glass to him, the foremost author of historical fiction in the last 30 years. May his forthcoming book, Death of Kings, hit No. 1 in the bestseller charts the day it comes out!

 I cannot remember the exact year that I first picked up a Sharpe novel, but it was definitely no later than 1984. Like most people who enjoy historical fiction, I was hooked from the first page. From then on, I devoured each Sharpe book as it was published. I loved the sense of period, the story told from the point of view of a (relative) low-ranker rather than a general, and the thrill of battle that was never further than a musket ball away. While I haven’t read many of his stand alone stories, I loved his Starbuck Chronicles. His Arthur books were fantastic, and I also greatly enjoyed the Grail Quest trilogy – added to recently of course by the number one bestseller Azincourt. I haven’t yet started on the Saxon Stories; that is mainly down to the fact that I have almost no time to read now that I write for a living. However, I will soon be proud possession of a copy of Death of Kings. Bernard Cornwell will be appearing at History in the Court next week, and I’ll (hopefully) get to meet him. Right. Now off to buy the first five books of the Saxon Stories. Can’t have the last book in a series without having the rest.

Cornwell hasn’t just been an author whose books I loved. He also unknowingly helped to spur me on towards my goal of becoming a writer. In 2001, I had been working as a vet for 9 years. I’d had a bellyful of it too – not least because of the things I had seen while working on the Foot and Mouth Disease outbreak. Naїvely deciding that I would become a bestselling author of Roman military fiction, I marched into the Waterstone’s branch in the centre of Newcastle upon Tyne, where I was working at the time. Along with a large number of texts on Rome and its armies, I bought the first three Sharpe books. These I was to use as inspiration and teaching manuals, and because I wanted to create a ‘Roman Sharpe’. I have no idea if I succeeded in emulating Sharpe in any way, but the note that I found at the beginning of Sharpe’s Eagle was truly inspiring. As far as I remember, it hadn’t been in the copy I’d read in the 1980s.

It wasn’t a long piece. Cornwell described how in the early days of his marriage, he and his wife Judy were living in the USA. He couldn’t get a Green Card to work, and Judy asked him what he was going to do. He announced that he was going to write a book. Some time later, Sharpe’s Eagle was published, and the rest as they say, is history. I stood there in that shop – a vet who didn’t want to be a vet – and thought, ‘I can do that.’ And I did.

So here’s a huge, heartfelt thank you to Bernard Cornwell for being a first-class author, and for helping to light the way!

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  1. TimHodkinson
    Posted 22 September 2011 at 21:42 | Permalink

    I read my first Bernard Cornwell book on honeymoon eight years ago. I bought “The Winter King” in the airport on the way out to Thailand and I remember sitting beside a pool in the baking sun, sweat dripping down my face, sipping a Singha beer, the smell of delicious Tom Kai Gai soup coming from the table beside me, but I was completely lost in Dark Age Britain and Cornwell’s version of Arthur and Merlin. From then on I was hooked and became a huge fan. I read the Sharpe books voraciously, went on to the Starbuck stories and recently waded through the Saxon stories. I was particularly impressed by a passage in “The Pale Horseman” where some Frisians in the marketplace are baiting a Dane and I thought: You know, Cornwell has got it got it spot on. They looked like each other, their language was very similar, their cultural roots were identical, but they regarded each other as “hateful foreigners” (to quote an old English poem). Sounds a bit weird, but to someone like me who grew up in northern ireland, its something I could relate to as its how we get on here.
    The other thing about Bernard Cornwell is that he is very supportive of other writers, no matter how succesful, and is always ready to give advice, whether on “Desert Island discs” or on the “Your questions” part of his website.
    I think “Azincourt” was his best work, and transcends everything else he has done. The event of the battle seems to have waiting for Bernard Cornwell to tell its tale. I certainly enjoyed it more than Shaekspeare’s version anyway. 🙂

  2. Ben Kane
    Posted 22 September 2011 at 21:53 | Permalink

    @Tim: Welcome to my site, and thanks for posting! Great to hear how you got hooked by Bernard Cornwell. I worked in Norn Iron (N. Ireland for those of you who don’t know the expression!) for 2 years, one of which was before the ceasefire in 94, the other after. I totally know what you mean about the similarities and differences between two sides. So odd. So tragic. So human.

  3. word_seeker
    Posted 22 September 2011 at 22:53 | Permalink

    Thank you so much for posting this. I am reading The Pale Horseman and am loving the atmosphere Cornwell has created. The language is very ‘of the period’ ; I’m particularly fond of how the main character likes to ponder over ‘ploughing his Mildreth’. I was drawn to Bernard’s work when trying to find where my own writing fitted into the world of fiction. Thank you Mr Cornwell for your help and inspiration!

  4. Ben Kane
    Posted 23 September 2011 at 07:48 | Permalink

    @word_seeker: no problem!

  5. annis
    Posted 24 September 2011 at 06:40 | Permalink

    Great article, Ben. I’ve been a Bernard Cornwell fan since the ’80s as well, and I’ve read everything he’s written, I think. I would say that his later Sharpe novels are clearly concessions to demand from fans as they are rather cursory. I think he’s probably moved on 🙂

    I really enjoy the “Saxon Chronicles”, and of course the backstory about how BC discovered his true parentage and found that he was a descendant of Uhtred the Bold who held Bebbanburg in the early 11th century is also fascinating. This was his inspiration for starting the series. He also grew up in a village with Viking connections, so there was the double whammy. He says, “I grew up in a little village with a C13th church and a big standing stone in the churchyard which is much older than that. They call it the Devilstone and the village is called Thundersley, which is from Thor, the Norse god. Thundersley was originally Thunresleam (Thor’s Grove). We know that the Vikings were here and certainly the stone goes back to that period, if not older.”

    The strength of the historical adventure market in the UK I would say has to be attributed largely to Bernard Cornwell’s success and promotion of the genre.

  6. John Salter
    Posted 24 September 2011 at 08:50 | Permalink

    A fantastic author indeed, his books have their own few rows on my book shelves. For me Azincourt is a particular favourite, where the reader follows the experiences of a lowly archer barely saved from being lynched and from conspiracies in England to the killing fields of France. Azincourt truly captured a sense of medieval England and France whilst I was reading it and has to be one of my most enjoyable reads.

    Private, Sergeant, Lieutenant, Captain, Major Sharpe and his adventures are up there with the best of them. Pete Postlethwaite’s (R.I.P) performances captured the character of ‘Sharpey’ in a way few actors could.

  7. smbarroso
    Posted 29 September 2011 at 02:19 | Permalink

    Hi Ben, I’m from Mexico and the three books, the forgotten legion, the silver eagle and road to Rome, I really liked them, I hope soon in Spanish your new book. I could not stop reading, long and exciting night reading page to page.

  8. unclearthur
    Posted 7 October 2011 at 22:00 | Permalink

    Ah – Sharpe. It’s his fault…and my late father’s – I would never have started writing without the pair of them. I told Mr Cornwell I blamed him, and he was kind enough to send back a good luck message.

    A gentleman, as well as great writer.

    PS. JS – you forgot Lieutenant-Colonel (‘Waterloo’)

  9. Marnold
    Posted 11 October 2011 at 16:59 | Permalink

    First got into the Sharpe books in the early 90’s. Devoured everything else BC’s written since. Absolute inspiration.

    Great post, Ben.

  10. Ben Kane
    Posted 11 October 2011 at 18:46 | Permalink

    @Marnold: Hi Mike, and thanks for popping by! Very glad you liked the post. I think the great BC has been an influence on an awful lot of writers.

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