“O’er the hills and o’er the main
Through Flanders, Portugal and Spain
King George commands and we obey
Over the hills and far away”
Why is Bernard Cornwell such a successful Historical Fiction author? I have a slight confession to start with. While I’ve read almost every other book Cornwell has written, I haven’t actually read the Sharpe series. I have watched the television production, many times, and I have taken this theme tune from that to capture everything Cornwell does well in his writing.
We’ll start with adaptation itself. Apparently the Over the Hills version used in the Sharpe series is a modern recreation inspired by earlier originals, and, to me, it sounds better than what any of the earlier versions could hope to. That is Cornwell for you in a nutshell.
He has this way of capturing a historical time period that makes you feel like you are there living it. Whether you’re trudging through northern France under Henry V, building Stonehenge or defending Wessex from Viking marauders, you feel like you’re there, experiencing that period of history for yourself. Part of this is, of course, because he’s able to interweave it with a mesh of historical facts that leave you amazed anyone is able to know, but it’s more than that. He works very hard to imagine how his characters would react to the roles and situations they find themselves in. This capacity for imaginative empathy means he’s constantly giving you his impression of how people would have felt at the time and how they would have engaged with each other. More than interesting facts, this is how he is able to bring history to life.
Onto our next point, if you’ve seen the Sharpe series you’ll know the song is all about these brave soldiers going off to fight and die. More on that from an emotional perspective in a second but let’s just consider that on a simpler level for a moment. Cornwell does battle scenes very well. In fact, in an interview with George R. R. Martin, Martin tells him “I do believe you do the best battle scenes of any writer I’ve ever read”. In the interview they discuss whether it’s better to take a more personal or more global view of the battle or switch between them, as well as the difference between basing it on an actual battle or making it up from scratch. Well worth a read in itself but my point is, Martin is right: Cornwell manages to get the perfect mix between overall strategy and individual grit and gore really well, so you not only feel like you’re in the battle but you understand it too.
But there is a deeper level to Cornwell that shouldn’t be overlooked. “King George commands and we obey.” His protagonists are almost always the downtrodden and overlooked in society. He uses them to consider perspectives we don’t normally see. Uhtred of The Last Kingdom series is a great example of this. A pagan Saxon who loves the Vikings but fights for the Christian kingdom of Wessex, Uhtred is a character forever challenging our assumptions about life in the Dark Ages. When Cornwell empathises with his characters’ struggles and explores issues we’re not used to considering, he not only immerses you even further, but he gets you thinking.
There’s one other aspect of Cornwell’s writing we need to consider. He understands the need for a compelling protagonist. It doesn’t matter if he’s writing a series or a single book, he makes sure he has a protagonist who’s flawed but likeable, interesting but believable; someone you’ll remember long after you turn the final page. And that is probably one of the ultimate reasons he’s so successful. He understands that Historical Fiction is still fiction and readers still need to engage with it on that level too. He gives you someone to explore the turbulent world of history with, someone you’ll care about so much you can’t help but start the next chapter to see what happens to them next. And that’s worth remembering.
I’ve learned a lot about writing Historical Fiction from the works of Bernard Cornwell. Adapt the past for your own ends but do so faithfully nonetheless. Take the time to empathise with your characters if you want your readers to do likewise. A good battle’s always fun but remember the personal struggles of those we don’t see are often the most interesting of all. And finally, an engaging protagonist will keep your readers reading as much as anything else. Neglect it at your peril.
I hope you’ve found this interesting. I’ll continue my series on inspiring Historical Fiction authors next week where we explore the work of a remarkable woman who showed us just how interesting untold stories can be.
(You can access the lyrics to Over the Hills in many places online. Photo sourced from the British Museum)