The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell: the bloody birth of England

The Last Kingdom (The Saxon Stories, #1)The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Like its fledgling-warrior hero, this book is easygoing—until battle is joined, and then it packs a punch.

My introduction to the writing of Bernard Cornwell was via the TV productions of his Sharpe novels. I came across these in DVD form at the library and have watched them, I think, three times. With Sean Bean as the title character, a soldier from Yorkshire (I think) who, through his street smarts and physical courage, finds himself rising Horatio Alger-style through the ranks of the British army during the Napoleonic wars, the series delivers a lot of action, strategy, tactics, and soldierly bonding and enmity. Along the way, beautiful women of various nationalities also have a hard time resisting Sharpe’s charms. This mixture of action, adventure, enmity, and love kept me coming back for more, even though I am not usually a consumer of male-action stories.

Now, working on a historical epic of my own, I’m surveying the work of other writers to see how they’re handling their historical and literary themes, and I thought again of Bernard Cornwell. I decided to try the Kindle edition of The Last Kingdom, volume 1 of his series The Saxon Stories. The story plunges us into late-9th-century-AD England, or anyway the land that might one day become England if its native residents can survive the onslaught of the invading Danes. As the story opens, this is looking doubtful, for the handful of minor kingdoms that make up the more or less organized remnant of post-Roman Britain are weak, divided, and besotted with a religion—Christianity—that seems to put them at a disadvantage when compared with their fierce, pragmatic, and fearless opponents.

The story is the tale, told in first person, of one Uhtred son of Uhtred, who in 866 is age 9 and part of a noble family that has owned and held the castle of Bebbanburg in Northumbria for generations. Since Bebbanburg is thought to be impregnable, it seems they don’t have much to worry about, but that view proves to be naive, for a series of events causes young Uhtred to be ripped from the bosom of his family and thrust instead into the care of a Danish warlord named Ragnar. Ragnar, jovial and appreciative of Uhtred’s feisty spirit, takes a shine to the British boy and decides to let him live as part of his own family. In this way Uhtred gains a unique cross-cultural upbringing, and among the Danes he receives probably more warrior training than he would have as the younger son of a British lord.

The Danes, finding nothing among the priest-ridden British to make them doubt their own superiority and their right to rule, knock down one kingdom after another until only Wessex in the far south, under a young king named Alfred, remains free. He and his followers are all that stands between the Danes and complete conquest.

By this time Uhtred has mostly grown up and is able to take an active part in some of the decisive action. And in the process, his boyhood dream of becoming a real warrior becomes progressively realized. He also forms his first relationships with women—”women” in this period meaning girls over the age of 12. In short, Uhtred becomes a man.

The story flows in a conversational style of Uhtred’s own telling at a much later, unspecified, date. Only reluctantly did the boy learn how to read and write; and in more than one aside the adult narrator expresses contempt for the poets that he himself pays to write and sing about him. But now he has a command of language, and if the work is indeed supposed to be a written one, then he has learned his letters well.

In an afterword the author, Cornwell, discusses the historical aspects of the story, and how he has done his best to remain true to the known facts (making only a couple of adjustments). Because history is messy, sometimes I had difficulty following the flow of political and strategic events, the vicissitudes of war and allegiance. There was some quality of “one damn thing after another.”

In addition, I noticed that Uhtred’s relationships with women were not addressed in much detail. Early on Uhtred befriends a British girl, Brida, who is a fellow captive and a daring, unconventional tomboy, and their relationship becomes intimate, but Uhtred does not dwell on it. It’s as though he takes such things for granted; his soldier’s mind is much more excited by war. That view is plausible and in character, but this reader missed a fuller telling of his love life.

As for the depictions of war, here too there is a real sense of the “hurry up and wait” quality described by soldiers: much planning, moving of troops, mishaps, and a few skirmishes, but only a few big, decisive battles. But what battles! There are not many scenes of fighting in the book, but in these Uhtred comes alive, both as a narrator and as character. One senses that this grim part of the human terrain, the desire of some men, maybe all men, to fight and to kill, is of special interest to Bernard Cornwell. Whatever his sources, he writes with insight and feeling about the feelings and attitudes that surround combat. I found myself feeling surges of primal emotion during his fight scenes, and certain other scenes as well. The feelings that arise from the unremitting brutality of the melee were evoked in a way that I hadn’t felt since I read the Iliad a few years ago.

There were other aspects of the story as well, notably the clash, usually handled with humor, between Christianity and the Norse pantheon, for the souls of the people on battlefield Britain, that rang of epic. For this book and this series is epic in the proper sense, that is, it deals with the birth of a society, in this case the society that will be called England. By the end of The Last Kingdom that parturition is still under way; but there are more books, and Uhtred’s story continues.

Like the swords that form part of the imagery of this story, Uhtred himself is formed of two contrasting elements, the English and the Danish. He is a type of the warlike race that will emerge from the blending of these peoples. I sense that where he goes, England will go.

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