Some years ago, I was thinking about writing a book for children which would involve time travel back to significant points in the history of Britain. The first place I planned to head off to was the cottage where Alfred the Great burnt some cakes. (The story goes that Alfred, the only king left standing in the England of 878, had fled from the Danes ans was hiding in a peasant's hut in some marshes, gloomily contemplating his woes. The peasant's wife, unaware of the true identity of her guest, asked him to keep an eye on some cakes she was baking; he, sunk in misery, forgot about them, and when the good lady returned, she found them burnt. She was cross.)
I discovered that Athelney, where this incident took place, was not far from where I live. I went along there and was bewitched by the atmosphere of the place; it's still marshy, (it was where the famous floods were on the Somerset Levels, two years ago) and remote, haunted by the cries of water birds. The ninth century seemed almost within reach as I gazed out towards Glastonbury Tor.
Anyway, more of that another time - but I was hooked. I plunged into researching the story of Alfred the Great, discovering what an unusual and enlightened leader he was during that dark time. I began to write a book - this book.
But somewhere along the way, I discovered that Bernard Cornwell had also become interested in Alfred - who was a very popular figure in Victorian times but is relatively unknown now. (King Arthur is far more famous, and he wasn't even real. Or not very.) Cornwell was way ahead of me; the first book in his series, The Last Kingdom, came out while I was still writing mine. Plus, he is better known than me by a factor of about a million and one.
I decided not to read his book, for obvious reasons, and I never have. But now it's been televised, and the first programme was on last night. It's been marketed as the BBC's answer to A Game of Thrones, and that makes sense, because George Martin's saga clearly draws heavily on Viking and Dark Age tropes. I've been looking forward to it immensely, and it didn't disappoint.
So far, Alfred - my hero - has been mentioned but he hasn't appeared. In Cornwell's story, the hero is Uhtred, the heir to a Saxon nobleman in Northumberland who is killed in battle by the Vikings. Uhtred is captured by a Viking called Ragnar, and eventually becomes part of his family.
The battle scenes are visceral, so much so that there were frequent moments where those of us watching flinched and covered our eyes protectively. I won't go into detail because some of you won't have seen it yet - but there was a particularly unpleasant incident involving an eye... So far, it hasn't reached the territory of my novel, but Wessex - and Alfred - is foreshadowed. A priest whispers to Uhtred that for his own safety he must flee, not from Ragnar but from his own uncle; and he should go to seek out Alfred and Wessex - the 'last kingdom' of the title. And one of the Viking leaders speaks greedily of Wessex, as the greatest prize of all. This same priest also lectures Uhtred as to the importance of reading and writing - if something is written down, he says, it becomes a truth that cannot be tampered with. Another marker is laid down; education was one of Alfred's great concerns.
I was fascinated by all this - the interweaving of history and fiction, the careful structure of the plot - but it also stuck me how much the visual medium brings to the story. There are moments which are clearly intended to be iconic, and will probably become so; the one where Uhtred the child is plunged into a stream, and emerges as a man, and rather a beautiful one at that, And the one where Ragnar rides up to the Saxon fortress completely wrapped in a massive cloak. (Made out of what? Furs? Feathers? Whatever, it's extremely stylish.) He slowly unfolds it, and holds aloft the head of the young heir: an action which is mirrored at the end in different circumstances.
But what are they going to make of Alfred? Well, I'm very interested to find out. A story can't have two heroes, and Uhtred is clearly the hero and a half of this one. So what role is my hero going to play? Well, I'll certainly be watching to find out.