Friday, January 15, 2016

Reads to Reels: The Last Kingdom

Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Stories series begins with a young boy losing his father and brother to a Viking raid.  Incensed, the child attacks them on his own – and as amuses the lord leading the invasion that he adopts the boy as his own, raising him as a Dane.    Even as he grows to become a man, Uhtred of Bebbanburg – now Uhtred Ragnarson – loses his adoptive father in a powerplay. Blamed for the murder, he becomes an outcast, a man of no tribe.  To the Danes, he is a sniveling Saxon traitor; to the Christian English, he is an unknown factor at best, and a godless beast at worst.   What Uhtred craves is respect as a lord, a return to his Saxon father’s estate in Northumbria and fame in battle. The path to both is open only through alliance with the last remaining Christian king in England – Alfred.  Such is the set up for both Cornwell’s fantastic series, and the BBC’s fair adaption of it.

It took me a while to warm up to this DVD version of The Last Kingdom,  as Cornwell’s dramatic narrative voice and witty dialogue are almost wholly absent.   Initially, Uhtred is rather selfish and whiny, and matures in fits and starts throughout the series.  Visually, the series is superb, especially in the final episode when the two armies meet in battle.  Some of the later Vikings have outstanding appearances.  It’s been ages since I read the first book,  but the series as a whole seemed to borrow a few elements from other novels in Cornwell's work.  The Danes, who seemed rather tame at first, quickly developed some pizzazz.   This actually became my enduring gripe with the series: despite the Danes being invaders, thieves, and rapers of England,  it is the defenders who are held in contempt.  The Danes bounce around dancing, drinking,  battling, and whoring, while the Christians are moving mud around their farm and praying.  When another Saxon child-turned Dane whines about their kinsmen – “Why are they so miserable?” – it was too much.  Brida, dear, ‘tis the Dark Ages. Believe me, the Danes at home are moving mud around their farms as well.   It’s work that creates civilization, not face-paint and thieving.  The contempt for the English  grows more outrageous toward the end, when the Danes are aided by a Celtic sorceress who is psychic and heals a baby through folk-magic.   When the Danes spend the entire series laughing at the Christians for praying for guidance,   it’s a bit ridiculous for their side to have an actual psychic. (HBO’s Vikings has a similar problem: the Norse are tough and cool, with a psychic woman, and the Saxons soft and whimpering. )

The Last Kingdom is at its most interesting when considering its relationships. Uhtred’s divided loyalties are explored more fully in the books, of course, but we get glimpses of it here.  Two of the Danish soldiers that threaten  the English remnant are Uhtred’s adoptive brother  Ragnar, and his companion-lover Brida.   He doesn’t want to fight them, and they don’t want to kill him (Ragnar, at least; Brida is more unpredictable)   Another man who is immediately antagonistic toward Uhtred, but becomes his best friend on the English side, is Leofric. Their growing friendship gives the series the majority of its humor, and the only time the dialogue ever approaches Cornwell’s snappy writing is when they are goading one another.

  I mostly enjoyed the series, save for its contempt of its own. If the BBC produces a series 2, I will probably view it…but given the cheap shots at the Saxons, I think I’ll wait for the DVDs to be discounted first.   There’s only so much modern snobbery one can tolerate at retail prices.

"Hey, remember when the Saxons were the cool ones kicking around the Britons, instead of the guys being kicked around by Ubba Come-Lately?"


  1. I liked the series - rather than loving it. Mostly because of the characters - 90% Danes as I found most of the Saxons hardly worth a 2nd look to be honest. If it's a pale imitation of the books - which I still haven't read! - then it prompts me even more to read them.

  2. What did you make of Ubba and Skorpa? Skorpa was INTENSE. He looked like a Klingon. I'd like him more if not for the last person he killed.

    I actually cheered when Odda the Elder dispatched you-know-who.

  3. Ubba was OK, and Skorpa was suitably crazy so highly entertaining! My favourite Danes where Guthrum and Ragnar the Younger. I really liked Brida when she embraced he Dane side and thought that Leofric was pretty awesome.

  4. Stephen, your thorough and thoughtful posting reminds -- I must confess -- that I hardly ever watch anything based on good books; I do not like my imagination, fed by the books, to be trumped by the creativity of films' directors, actors, designers, etc. Nevertheless, your posting does suggest that I am overdue in sampling Cornwell. Any recommended favorites as starting places?

  5. @Cyberkitten: Leofric was gold, especially in that scene after Uhtred escapes captivity and confronts Boy Odda on learning Mildreth is in his castle.

    @ R.T.

    Oh, wow! Where to begin with Cornwell?! He's written in a fair few different time periods, so let me give you a sample:

    He's MOST famous for his Sharpe's series, about a rifleman in the Napoleonic wars, a soldier made officer after saving Wellington's life. The first book written in that series is SHARPE'S EAGLE. Later he wrote novels set as the English were moving into India, when Sharpe was a new recruit.

    The King Arthur trilogy, beginning with The Winter King, is breathtaking. It's mostly historical fiction, with legendary references.

    The Saxon Stories series, beginning with "THE LAST KINGDOM", is my favorite, but it's getting long in the tooth: numbers 1 and 3 ("LORDS OF THE NORTH") are my favorites.

    Cornwell also has a medieval "Grail quest" series set during the Hundred Years War, and a couple of other medieval battle books about Agincourt and Poitiers.

    There are also a few standalone works; two revolutionary war pieces, and GALLOWS THIEF, a 19th century mystery.

    Where to begin, I think, depends on what period you like reading about most. Cornwell's dialogue is always a BALL to read, but his narrative voice is most dramatic in the Saxon stories series.

    I hope that give you an idea!

  6. I've read the Sharpe series extensively (still a few more to do) and agree it's very good. Haven't found a single book I haven't liked. I've read a few of his others and keep mean to read more. 2 more planned (so far) this year. I'll see if I can shoe-horn a few more in too!

  7. Stephen, thank you for such a thorough response with so many helpful recommendations. I will see what the local library has to offer and give Cornwell a try.


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