“The Last Kingdom,” by Bernard Cornwell

27 Oct

“The Last Kingdom,” by Bernard Cornwell (327p)

The newest series from popular British author Bernard Cornwell is set against the backdrop of the turbulent 9th and 10th centuries in the land that would eventually become England. Beginning in 866, it tells the story of a fictitious young boy named Uhtred who was one of the great warriors and earls of the time as he deals with the impending Danish conquest of Saxon lands across England. The Last Kingdom takes place from 866 to 876, concluding with the Battle of Cannington.

Ten year old Osbert is the younger son of the Earldorman of Bebbanburg, Uhtred, in Northumbria. But when Danish invaders arrive, they kill Osbert’s older brother, making Osbert the new Uhtred. To get revenge for his first sons death the Earldorman Uhtred leads a raid against the Danes in Eoferwic (modern York), but he is killed and the younger Uhtred is taken prisoner. Uhtred is surprised to find that he likes life among the Danes with their wildness and no Christianity, but is also angered when he learns that his uncle, Ælfric, has usurped Bebbanburg and the earldorman title himself. He forces himself to bide his time, though, as he is still a child and a prisoner of the Danish earl Ragnar, and Bebbanburg is also seen to be the most impregnable fortress in all of England. Uhtred quickly becomes friends with Ragnar’s sons Ragnar the Younger and Rorik and also the enemy of Sven, the son of Ragnar’s shipmaster Kjartan. Their rivalry comes to ahead when Uhtred catches Sven attempting to indecently assault Ragnar’s youngest daughter, Thyra, and attacks him. He alerts Ragnar and the earl banishes Kjartan and his son, taking his eye as a prize.

The Danes launch their first southern thrust to capture the rest of the English kingdoms – Northumbria was already theirs and soon Mercia and East Anglia fell under the leadership of brothers Ivar the Boneless and Ubba. Uhtred then travels into Wessex, the last remaining Saxon kingdom, to spy for the Danes. But he is taken captive by his fathers old priest, Father Beocca, and accidentally meets the future Alfred the Great in a moment of weakness. Uhtred quickly escapes from Wessex and returns to the Danish camp as he prefers the life there – there is more freedom, less piety and more fun for him. He feels at home with the Danes.

Uhtred’s world is again turned upside down when Kjartan returns for revenge on Ragnar. Uhtred is forced to flee and returns to Wessex with no other choice. He is forced to learn to read and write (Uhtred thinks this is pointless) for Alfred, the new King of Wessex, to allow him to command warriors, his birth-right. Uhtred hates life among the Saxons again and chafes under their rules and piety, and can’t wait to begin his life as a warrior. But Alfred has one more surprise for Uhtred – he won’t let him command unless he marries, and so Uhtred is forced to wed Mildrith, a plain and pious West Saxon with massive debts owed to a landlord. He takes command during a siege against Danish lord Guthrum the Unlucky but the siege fails, and for the third time in his life Uhtred becomes a prisoner. While captive Uhtred meets Ragnar the Younger again, and they renew their friendship, helping Uhtred escape (again) back to Wessex. His wife had been taken by another earldorman, Odda, north so he heads there and meets up with Saxon forces commanded by Odda about to fight a battle at a fort named Cynwit against the Danes, led by Ubba. Uhtred seizes the chance to fight in his first proper shield wall – a symbol of honour – and his showdown with Ubba ends the novel.

The first thing many long-term Bernard Cornwell fans think when they read this is how similar to his Arthur series it is. I was the same, as I read those first, and the similarities are quite obvious for all to see. Uhtred and Derfel, the protagonist in that series, are both orphans and grow up among people not their own (Derfel is a Saxon living among Britons, Uhtred a Saxon living among Danes), both become brave famous warriors and commanders key to the success of their king. The basic plot – defending England from an invading enemy – is also the same, but those basic similarities end there. In later books, which I have read and will get reviews up soon, Uhtred becomes a far more ruthless warrior with little sentimentality, he is far more likely to kill outside of battle than Derfel is. Uhtred also has Sharpe’s tendency to be turned by anything with a pretty face whereas Derfel was entirely faithful to his wife in those stories. What I am getting at is that likely Cornwell drew inspiration from the Arthur novels with the plot and basic nuances of the novels, but Uhtred is still very much his own character and entirely different from Derfel.

The other bone of contention from Cornwell’s newest series is the portrayal of Alfred the Great. In later books he is described as being a weak man too concerned with priests and religion than the matter at hand, destroying the Danes. This is a fallacy of first-person narrative and Alfred, who was undoubtedly a brilliant leader in his own way, is shown negatively because Uhtred cannot stand his piety and rules. In that regard, it is up to the reader to make up their own mind on Cornwell’s Alfred. Subtlety, though, I think in the future novels you can see just how good a king Alfred was. He just does it mixed in between Uhtred’s narrative. It is subtle, but it is certainly there and you just have to read between the lines. Another thing to consider is that Uhtred is still very young in this, he only turns eighteen at the end of the novel, so he is very much a stereotypical headstrong bull of a young man eager to fight.

So, recommendations. The Last Kingdom is more or less the same as any Bernard Cornwell novel – fast paced, lots of action, blood curdling fighting, evocative scenery, a good villain and the presence of a heroine. For some people it may seem same-same but I loved this novel despite its arguable debating points. I loved the quick ebb and flow of the story as it barnstorms across 9th century Anglo-Saxon England, the action and the way Cornwell brings the era alive. As I have often said in my reviews, these sorts of novels are everything I look for in a read – to be amused and entertained, to escape and have some fun. That is why I recommend anyone to read it for something to do, but if you are looking for serious reads, go elsewhere. Otherwise sit back and enjoy Uhtred’s ride!



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