The Last Kingdom
© 2005 Bernard Cornwell
My name is Uhtred. I am the son of Uhtred, who was the son of Uhtred and his father was also called Uhtred.[…] I look at those parchments, which are deeds saying that Uhtred, son of Uhtred, is the lawful and sole owner of the lands that are carefully marked by stone and by dykes, by oaks and by ash, by marsh and by sea, and I dream of those lands, wave-beaten and wild beneath the wind-driven sky. I dream, and know that one day I will take back the land from those who stole it from me.
I picked The Last Kingdom up to read after lunch today, and it maintained my attention all through the afternoon as the sun sank into the horizon. It was a pleasure. I’ve read a couple of Cornwell novels before and have enjoyed them, but none so much as this! The Last Kingdom is the story of Uhtred, a young Northumbrian boy captured in battle by a Danish war chief who took such delight in the sight of a ten-year-old boy charging him with a sword that he adopted him as a son. Uhtred grows up with the Vikings as they subdue one Anglo-Saxon kingdom after another, until at last only one stands against them: Wessex, led by the young King Alfred who assumed the throne after the death of his elders in battle.
Though Uhtred is a Northumbrian noble, he grows to love the Danes who adopted him, and for good reason: dialogue and characterization convey the sense that the Danes are a people “unafraid of live”, ever wild and exuberant. Their unbound pleasure is infectious. Despite his adoration for his new father and brothers, Uhtred still feels in his bones a loyalty to his family’s lands in Northumbria, and he intends on ruling there regardless of which side claims him as their own. When he fights, he does so for himself — for the joy of the hunt, to avenge himself upon those who have wronged him, to prove himself a man and a lord of men. Judging from the book’s inside cover I thought Uthred would simply make one decision to return to the side of Alfred, but Cornwell’s tale is not so simplistic. Uthred is truly his own man, and I look forward to continuing in the series.
As mentioned before, Cornwell’s use of language conveys the energy of the Danes: though ‘villains’, I enjoyed their every appearance. As I suspect is usual for Cornwell, the world is rich in detail, and quite immersive. England in the 800s is a land between cultures: Rome’s legacy still stands, and the Anglo-Saxon warriors who seized Britain from the Celts following the Empire’s departure are slowly growing into the notion of being a country ruled by law rather than swords. Alfred is the exemplar of this trend, possessed by the desire to bring order to the chaos and establish a single English state. The Danes laugh at the civilized virtues and at Alfred’s ‘womanly religion’, preferring instead the starkness of a fight and the religion of their ancestors. They aren’t alone, for more than a few Anglo-Saxons have not yet been Christianized and silently pay homage to Woden rather than Jesus. Uhtred is such a one. Even so, they’re not stock villains: they pillage and raid, and they seek to conquer England and make it their home, but Alfred’s ancestors did the same to the Celts and would receive the same in kind from the Normans in two hundred years. (England is a dangerous place to live during the early medieval period…)
Rollicking good read — I’ll be continuing in this series and recommend Cornwall to historical fiction readers with gusto.