The focus of this novel seems to be the death of King Alfred, and what happens after. On reflection, there seems to be less battles and fighting than other Cornwell books I’ve read... but that makes it interesting. The language seems quite simple sometimes, less complex than John Updike for instance. But when you read it again and think about it it’s potent.
Let’s look at an example:
“Alfred looked at the great leather panel that showed the crucifixion. ‘Do you notice anything strange about that painting?’ he asked me. I stared at it. Jesus hung from the cross, blood streaked, the sinews in his arms stretching against the dark sky behind. ‘No, lord,’ I said.
‘He’s dying,’ Alfred said. That seemed obvious and I said nothing. ‘In every other depiction I have seen of our Lord’s death,’ the king went on, ‘he is smiling on the cross, but not in this one. In this picture his head is hanging, he is in pain.’ ‘Yes, lord.’
‘Archbishop Plegmund reproved the painter,’ Alfred said, ‘because he believes our Lord conquered pain and so would have smiled to the end, but I like the painting. It reminds me that my pain is nothing compared to his.’
‘I would you had no pain lord’ I said awkwardly. He ignored that. He still gazed at the agonized Christ, then grimaced. ‘He wore a crown of thorns,’ he said in a tone of wonderment. ‘Men want to be king,’ he went on, ‘but every crown has thorns.’
I actually think this is the most moving piece of the novel. There's one element that I hadn't noticed before until now- mentioning Alfred looking at 'the great leather panel' is acknowledging in a way that he was great. The passage is almost comparing Jesus' death with Alfred's death. Alfred lived with pain for most of his life, yet he still achieved much, and set about making what would become England. Christianity was the driving force behind his ambition, and the Christain religion dominated English life for centuries to come.