Friday, 23 October 2015

The Last Kingdom: BBC2

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.


  1. Looking forward to reading this! :-)

  2. There definitely seems to be a GoT feel to that poster; the young man looks rather like the TV series Jon Snow. ;-)

    I believe GoT was meant to be closer to the Wars of the Roses than the Dark Ages - and it felt that way when I was reading. But Martin uses whatever works, so why not?

    I do have a copy of The Last Kingdom. Bernard Cornwell is very good, whatever period he's writing. He did a fabulous Arthurian trilogy in which the story of Arthur is seen from the viewpoint of a Saxon raised by Merlin. I particularly liked his version of Lancelot, who is a vain, arrogant man who wears polished armour and pays poets to write about his heroism.

  3. Interesting. I've read most of the GOT books, and yes - maybe there are mediaeval elements. But the overall feel of it seems to me to be Dark Ages. I've only seen one early episode of the TV series, but that certainly looked earlier than the Middle Ages to me - very like The Last Kingdom, in fact. The two do get elided, don't they? Look at Arthur. If he was real, he probably lived in the 6th century. But the usual image of Camelot - thanks, I suppose, to various literary interpretations - is definitely mediaeval. Lancelot sounds like something out of Monty Python!

    1. Yes, Cornwell's Lancelot was not very nice. He was the one who rode in parades to the cheers of the crowd while Galahad - in this trilogy his brother, not his son - does all the work, including the fighting. Even Guinevere only sleeps with him once, in her temple of Isis, as a part of a spell to make her husband king(Mordred is his nephew only and the rightful heir - Arthur is regent and has to stay in the role because Mordred is useless and nasty with it).

  4. Actually, Malory and others of his era were the ones who updated Arthur to the Middle Ages. I read a lot of this stuff when I was working on my Honours thesis, "Arthur - From Epic Hero To Master Of Ceremonies In Middle English Literature". There's not much mention of him in very early literature anyway, almost none, in fact, except maybe a character who "glutted ravens in the fortress wall, though he was not Arthur". but the earlier romances show him as the warrior we all love while in later ones he's just the king who sits in Camelot handing out quests and knighthoods and the one time he tries doing his own quest in Malory he stuffs up. I suggested it was the Christianity which did for Arthur as a hero - he had to be a Christian king and that was the role of a Christian king(unless, of course, he was Edward IV who had to fight the Lannisters - whoops, Lancastrians!). GRRM has himself said he had the Wars of the Roses in mind, though I do agree the Night's Watch scenario is very Dark Ages.

    1. Yes - the popular version of the Arthurian legend certainly owes a great deal to Malory etc. But since it became evident - in the 20th century - that the 'real' Arthur may well have been a romanised 6th century leader who fought a rearguard action against invading armies, I think that some writers began to feed that into their retelling of the legend - writers such as Susan Cooper, for example. Thanks for your comments - what an interesting subject for a thesis!

  5. Thanks for the illuminating review Sue. We are looking forward to watching the next episode tonight

  6. Watched a chunk of this. Thought it was grim stuff. Hero, with the beardette, and little moustache... looking like London urban hipster. While everyone else, bar his girlfriend, seemed to be Neanderthal.

    Sex scenes (attn. Ms Purkiss) seemed to have been written by a 15 year old spotty youth, sweating over a hot keyboard as his mother banged on the bedroom door... "What are you doing in there Tarquin..?"

    Wish the producers had spent a few quid on decent lighting.

  7. I rather agree with Andrew. I enjoyed Cornwell's book, and I'm interested in Alfred - but was disappointed by this series. I almost yawned when our hero, with his 'beardette' (thank you for that!) - rose from the waters and struck a pose. It was so obviously calculated to pull a few more viewers. And, for me, a complete turn-off, as someone self-consciously posing and pouting for the camera always is.
    I might watch a few more, to see how Alfred is treated - but I don't have any great hopes..
    Good luck with your book, Sue. It's on my pile To Be Read.

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