Let me introduce you to Uhtred, a Saxon raised by Danes, the hero of the Saxon series by Bernard Cornwell.
Uhtred is a warrior. He is bold and brave, impulsive, volatile and extremely violent. He is a brilliant tactician, noble, fiercely loyal, capable of great and awful deeds, supreme on the battlefield.
He is truly a wonder to behold.
During the ninth century, life in Wessex and Mercia was hard. Very often, it was also short. Few lived to old age. Cornwell describes a world in which no town or village was secure; at any moment, Danes could invade and kill you and all your neighbours. Imagine that. Eking out a living from the soil, trying to survive, knowing that each day could be your last. Imagine the fear, because from the fear rose a blend of superstition and religion.
In this world, religions clashed as on a battlefield. Pagan Danes worshiped the Norse gods, Thor and Odin, and fought for superiority over the God nailed to a tree, a god they saw as weak and helpless. While Alfred’s devotion to the one true God anchored him, sadly Christianity was distorted by superstition (relics were popular) and hypocritical monks and priests. Cornwell is an atheist, so one of his favourite tropes is religious hypocrisy.
What drives Uhtred? What makes him heroic?
Certainly, it isn’t his belief system. He is a pagan. He clings to the Norse gods, especially Thor, and believes that his fate is decided by the three spinners – the Norns – who sit at the base of the tree, Yggdrasil. Wyrd bið ful āræd. Destiny is all! Uhtred believes that warriors will feast together in the great corpse-hall after death, but only if they die in battle with a sword in their hand.
These beliefs may make him brave and reckless at times, but they do not make him a hero.
Nor does his violence.
In several scenes, he loses his temper. The heroic leader from the battlefield becomes a merciless warrior who kills priests in a rage. This creates the impression that he’s just wild and unprincipled, and that is not heroic at all. However, this is only half the story.
Uhtred is certainly a flawed character, but he possesses something which all heroes need.
A moral core. Once you’re able to get past the paganism and the violence, it turns out that some of his beliefs – and consequent actions – overlap with orthodox Christian faith. These are the things which turn him into a hero.
The preachers tell us that pride is a great sin, but the preachers are wrong. Pride makes a man, it drives him, it is the shield wall around his reputation... Men die, they said, but reputation does not die.
The Last Kingdom
In this quote, we see his distorted view of pride, but also the immense value he places on reputation. It matters hugely to him, because without it, he cannot build the wealth he needs to take back his home, Bebbanburg – stolen by his uncle. A warrior’s reputation is built on bravery, physical prowess and tactical skill. It makes him a leader. But more than that, Uhtred values reputation because he believes that while life is transitory, his reputation will outlive him. His name will live on. He says,
Men die, women die, cattle die, yet reputation lives on like the echo of a song.
The Burning Land
As Maximus says in Gladiator, “Brothers, what we do in life echoes in eternity.”
Don’t be put off by the word “reputation.” Uthred may state that pride is a shield wall around his reputation, but the word has little to do with vanity or pride. Instead, it’s a word which expresses a heartfelt belief in significance. To gain reputation through battle is a way of saying “my life means something.”
Let me put this in Christian terms: our choices have eternal consequences. We all leave a legacy that matters. Hugely. We’re not just sitting in a lifeboat waiting to go to heaven. We’re not just “saved from,” but “saved for.” We are significant because of the part we play in God’s Big Story. That’s why we must live bravely and faithfully.
Throughout the books, Uhtred faces death many, many times. The descriptions of the shield wall are enough to turn your stomach – the blood-soaked horror of sword thrusts, the flesh-ripping, jaw-breaking battles. What a contrast to our 21st century lives.
How comfortable it is nowadays with our password protected online banking, Facebook likes, and regular Amazon deliveries. I wouldn’t want to live in ninth-century Wessex, fearing warring Danes who might kill me in my bed. I’m not looking back romantically wishing I could fight beside Uhtred. Not at all. I am, however, asking these two questions:
What does it mean to live bravely in today’s world?
What will be your legacy?
Battles are highly revealing. It is no place for a coward. Osferth – Alfred’s illegitimate child – wants to be warrior. During a ferocious battle, he grabs his opportunity. He’s physically weak, yet he jumps off a wall and attacks the huge Danish warlord, Sigefrid, seriously injuring him. His sword thrust turns the tide. When it came time to risk everything, he delivered. He was bold and brave. As Uhtred says,
To gain everything, a man must risk everything.
Are you brave? Will you risk all for the Lord Jesus? Or will you play it safe?
And how will you inspire courage in your people? Without courage, how can we follow a Lord who calls us to give up our lives for him?
Then he said to them all: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.
For a church leader, what does it mean to be brave? A few thoughts.
No more avoiding conflict. Feel the fear and address your broken relationships. Today. (See post on handling conflict).
Address your fears by stepping out in faith. Fear of failure. Fear of others. Fear of offending those who pay your salary.
Apologise when you mess up. Do it publicly if you have to.
What does it mean to be bold and brave? Well, it doesn’t require a cape, does it? (If you watch the movie, The Incredibles, you’ll realise that capes are dangerous.) Instead, courage is the daily act of following a Saviour who followed the path of obedience. It may mean standing up for the unborn or marching for justice. But it may equally be the simple act of serving coffee or chatting with a lonely person after church. The antithesis of fear is courage, but it’s also love. As the Apostle John writes,
Perfect love drives out fear.
1 John 4.18 (partial)
Because our Saviour always acted in love, courage is the ability to act in love when we’re fearful.
So feel the fear. And follow Jesus. Respond with love.
Trust him to be there with you when obedience is demanding and love is painful.
For the sake of his glory.