This is the story of the making of England in the 9th and 10th centuries, the years in which King Alfred the Great, his son and grandson defeated the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms.
Uhtred, a dispossessed nobleman, is captured as a child by the Danes and then raised by them so that, by the time the Northmen begin their assault on Wessex (Alfred’s kingdom and the last territory in English hands) Uhtred almost thinks of himself as a Dane.
He certainly has no love for Alfred, whom he considers a pious weakling and no match for Viking savagery, yet when Alfred unexpectedly defeats the Danes and the Danes themselves turn on Uhtred, he is finally forced to choose sides. By now he is a young man, in love, trained to fight and ready to take his place in the dreaded shield wall. Above all, though, he wishes to recover his father’s land, the enchanting fort of Bebbanburg by the wild northern sea.
Having just watched the televised version of The Last Kingdom, I was eager to read the book as I knew it would be a far richer experience and I was right. As you would expect, there are many differences between the book and series, however I’m not going to list them all here, because I enjoyed both in their different contexts. The book is far more epic in scope and much of Uhtred’s background with the Danes is lost on the small screen, particularly the fleet used to great effect during the raids, but I suspect that is down to budget constraints more than anything else. The extended look at Uhtred’s life as a child amongst the Danes helps us understand his character better and the dilemma he soon faces when he has to return to the Saxons, but, more importantly, it also serves to humanise the Danes. The Danes have long been portrayed as blood thirsty invaders who raped and pillaged their way across Britain, but their story is a far more complex one and it was good to see them portrayed as real people.
The book is narrated by Uhtred himself, an older Uhtred who is not afraid to criticise the decisions made by his younger self, particularly in his dealings with Alfred. Alfred often manipulates Uhtred for his own gain but, due to his youth and inexperience, Uhtred often fails to realise it and often bemoans his actions in hindsight. Uhtred is very much a work in progress since he is barely twenty when the first book ends but there are enough glimpses of the heroic warrior underneath to make us believe in him.
The relationship between Alfred and Uhtred is a complex one and while Alfred is seemingly a physically weak man in comparison to Uhtred, it doesn’t pay to take Alfred lightly as he often manipulates Uhtred into carrying out his tasks. Uhtred does not see Alfred as a great leader since he would rather pray than fight, so it will be interesting to see how their relationship develops over the rest of the books. Cornwell chooses to temper Alfred’s piety with his constant battle with temptation, particularly in regard to sex, which makes him a little more interesting.
I don’t know enough about this period of history to comment on the accuracy of it all, but having read other Cornwell books, I am secure in the knowledge that he does a lot of painstaking research. Inevitably, Cornwell does take liberties with a few facts to make his tale more cohesive and he explains his decisions in the afterword, however I’m sure casual readers like myself will be oblivious to them. I had a great deal of fun trying to work out the modern names of the cities and towns mentioned, which is no mean feat considering my poor knowledge of geography, however some of them were quite easy to work out. I also enjoyed how Cornwell utilised many of the towns and ruins left behind by the Romans, and Uhtred’s growing appreciation for their civilisation, another thing lost to the television series.
The Last Kingdom has many elements readers of Bernard Cornwell will be familiar with, such as the comradeship between soldiers, so there was the odd occasion where the story would become predictable but then Cornwell would pull the rug from under your feet so you realise even major characters are not safe in this world.