Review: The Last Kingdom

I finally finished watching this 2015 BBC series, which has been available on Netflix for some time now. It is an 8-episode adaptation of the Saxon novels by Bernard Cornwell.

To be clear, I only read the first of the Cornwall novels, also called The Last Kingdom, as I discovered them in the midst of writing my own Dark Ages novel. I read the first book to get a flavour of how another novelist tackled some of the practicalities of writing about this era, like, what do you call the various places? How do you explain the social structure of the times? What do these people eat? etc. Of course I enjoyed the book, but I didn’t want to read any more than one, because I didn’t want my books to take on any “Cornwell” flavour. And besides, Cornwell’s books take place after the Viking invasion, and mine, before, so I didn’t want to mix myself up in the history that I was learning.

Because I have only a little familiarity with the books, therefore, this review will strictly be on the series itself, without any reference to the books and how well the series did or did not capture the essence of the books.

So, caveat aside, it was with great anticipation that I settled down with my husband to watch this series. I mean, if it’s good to read another novel about the era you are interested in, imagine the delight of seeing it come to life?

And I will say the The Last Kingdom did not disappoint. The makers of the series went to a great deal of trouble to get the details right, for the most part, although I did have a couple of small quibbles with it, which I will cover later.

First of all, high marks to the producers for their excellent production values. I loved the costumes, and the way the Danes were portrayed in terms of their dress and hairstyles as opposed to the Saxons.

 

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This is the bloodthirsty Dane, Skorpa, ably played by the Swedish actor Jonas Malmsjö. That’s not blood on his teeth, they are showing how the Danes would file horizontal grooves in their teeth and stain them with red berry juice (probably to look like blood, however!) Looks like a character quite capable of going beserker, no? Photo: BBCAmerica

In fact the producers did a great job all in all of showing the contrast between the Danes and the Saxons. Just as an aside, the Danes themselves were not called Vikings until centuries later, in the 8th century they were called denes by the Anglo-Saxons, from which we get the word “Danes”. In the series we see the fighting, drinking, barbarian, party-animal Danes, and the more pious, educated Christian Saxons. I think there is a sense in which this contrast is played a bit too far, but I understand that for dramatic purposes you need to have clear demarcations between your characters or else it all becomes a muddle.

Speaking of protagonists, our hero of the story is Uhtred son of Uhtred, the heir to an earldoman of Northumbria. Uhtred is a boy when his father is killed fighting the Danes, and Uhtred is taken as a slave. He finds favour with his master and is basically adopted as a son. So his story is an compelling one – among the Danes he is seen as a Saxon, among the Saxons, a Dane. And this makes for some interesting conflicts and dilemmas for Uhtred, and keeps us watching!

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Our hero, Uhtred, played by Alexander Dreymon (photo from BBCAmerica). In many ways a stranger in a strange land, no matter where he goes. His quest is to get back his ancestral seat of Bebbanburg, and he will do just about anything to do it, including kill, cheat, and marry a pious Christian wife in order to get her wealth, even though he is a pagan.  But it’s never that easy…..

I get tired of Christians being portrayed as boring, dull, serious, and stupid in modern entertainment,  and although because of the aforementioned contrast with the Danes there is a bit of this happening in this series, on the whole I was happy with the portrayal of the Christian people here. I especially like the character of Mildrith, Uhtred’s Saxon wife, given to him in an arranged marriage by King Alfred. I like the interplay between the two, and the way her faith is portrayed as genuine. She comes across as a real person, not a caricature, and I appreciate that.

Sometimes when we read history, it’s all dry facts and dates. But when you see the events unfolding, even in fictional form, it brings back to us how terrifying these events must have been to the people of the times. While watching the Danes raid, rape and pillage I remarked to my husband, “Gee, it’s like they were the ISIS of the times.” And aside from the religious motivation of ISIS, which the Danes did not share, they were strictly motivated by the prospect of land, wealth, and power, the comparison works. The terror of seeing the Danes descend upon your village must have been overwhelming. As the kingdoms fall one by one and only Wessex is left, you get the sense that this is one of history’s turning points, as indeed it was in many ways.

Speaking of Wessex, one of my favourite characters in the series, besides Uhtred, is Alfred, King of Wessex. Because of my research of the history of the times for my books, I have learned a bit about Alfred, and discovered that he really was one of England’s greatest kings. He comes along after the events in my novels, of course, but because I was intrigued by him I read more than I needed to about him. And I think this show gives us a good portrait of this man. By all accounts he was more of a scholar than a warrior, and an extremely intelligent man. But he is able enough militarily to stop the Danes’ advance (in the show, it was because he had Uhtred’s help, hah) at a time when all the other English kingdoms had fallen.

Alfred leaves us some fantastic legacies – he develops England’s first code of law, commissions several important translations of major Latin works into Old English and likely is responsible for the commissioning of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (mental note – I have to feature this on my blog soon!) and Bede’s  Ecclesiastical History as well. I definitely have a soft spot for this king, and I loved seeing him come to life in this series!

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The Alfred Jewel, discovered in 1693 in Somerset. There is an inscription around the edge which reads “ALFRED MEC HET GEWYRCAN” which mean “Alfred ordered me made” (you can see the letters on the bottom left of the jewel). It is thought by scholars to be the end of a pointed stick by which people would follow words in a text as they read. This beautifully decorated gold, enamel and crystal object was worthy of a king, and it was likely one of Alfred’s own possessions. (Photo by Bill Tyne, on Flickr)

Final small quibble with the series – Wessex, the “last kingdom” was not really the last kingdom to fall in all of Britain. Our friends the Celts up in the north and west of Britain in some cases were never conquered or managed to align themselves with the Danes against the Anglo-Saxons. And although the Danes and Saxons get a lot of screen time, we don’t see much of the Celts in the series, except for the introduction of Uthred’s relationship with the British sorcerer Iseult near the end. I would have liked to have seen more of the Celts in the show, but I understand that the focus had to be on the other two cultures, and the Celts were very much on the fringe of the cultures of the times, so it’s not wrong that the story didn’t include them much. Hopefully we’ll get to see more of them in Season 2, which happily, has been confirmed. No release date yet, I’m not sure if they have begun production.

All in all, I give this series 5 stars. The acting is excellent, the production values superb, and the story-line compelling. Be warned, though, there is plenty of violence and blood, so if you are squeamish, this might not be the show for you. There is some sexual scenes as well, but I thought they were done tastefully for the most part.

I really enjoyed seeing these people and cultures come to life. If you have watched the show, what did you think?


 

Featured photo from BBCAmerica.