Name the Kings of England.
Well, there's mad old George III, who lost the Revolutionary War.
That's one. And Henry VII, everyone remembers him. After that,
there's King James, who we recall from his version of the Bible,
and the one who gave up his crown to marry the American woman, and
the one who got his head chopped off.
After them, and maybe Richard III from the Shakespeare play, the
collective memory (at least on this side of the Atlantic) goes a
But only one of those Kings of England who we really don't know or
remember was named "the Great," and that was Alfred, who ruled from
871 to 900, back in the days when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was on
the bestseller list, at least for people who could read. Bernard
Cornwell thinks we should know more about Alfred and his times,
which is why he has written THE LAST KINGDOM. That should be enough
of a recommendation for anyone.
Cornwell is the author of the bestselling Richard Sharpe series,
which follows the adventures of a hard-charging British soldier
during the Peninsular Campaign. Although Sharpe is a great
character by himself, one thing he serves to do is to illustrate
the greatness of Lord Wellington --- the commander of the British
forces in Spain, and Sharpe's own patron. Wellington (at least as
portrayed by Cornwell) is far too stiff, aloof and unlikable to
ever be the hero of his own tale, and Sharpe ably stands in.
The same trick is tried in THE LAST KINGDOM, with a twist. The
first-person narrator here is Uhtred, who is the son of a minor
lord of Northumbria. As a child, he is captured by a raiding pack
of Danes that are "going Viking," or raiding the coast. The young
Uhtred becomes the adopted son of a Viking leader and learns a
central, universal truth: Vikings are cool.
Vikings are cool for the same reasons that Vikings have always been
cool. Vikings don't have to brush their teeth (not that anybody
did, much, in the ninth century). Vikings get cool swords and stand
shoulder to shoulder in the shield wall. Vikings don't have to
learn how to read, or say their prayers, or build a stable,
efficient society based on the rule of law. Vikings don't have to
do any of that, so they are
While Uhtred is with the Vikings, learning the way of the warrior
from his surrogate parents (and bedding a nubile wench or two along
the way), the story meanders along, explaining the Viking way of
revenge and the blood feud and the glories of Valhalla. But Uhtred
is English and wants nothing more than to reclaim his lost castle
and birthright; to do that, he may have to return to his own
people. And when treacherous Danish opponents of his foster family
launch a surprise attack, he has no choice but to do so.
Alfred is different because he, at least for his day and age, was
civilized. Uhtred misses few opportunities to sneer at Alfred for
his Christianity, his belief in law, and his supposed softness.
Uhtred takes off the cross and puts on the hammer of Thor because
he finds Thor to be the stronger --- but Thor lives on today only
in the pages of Marvel Comics and in the name of Thursday. It was
Alfred, and Western Civilization, that were the stronger in the
battle, and it is Cornwell's job to show why.
THE LAST KINGDOM is the first of a proposed trilogy, which will
show how Alfred defeated the Danes and established England as
England and not as a Viking protectorate. As such, it is just the
beginning of the story, and a long and bloody epic it promises to
be. Cornwell is a talented historical novelist, and he's at the top
of his game here --- all the more so because the history of the
ninth century is much less documented than the nineteenth.
The novel provides a lot of insight to our time, of course, with
Western Civilization again under threat. And the character of
Uhtred, going back and forth between the civilized and uncivilized
worlds, is emblematic of the struggle (as well as being a skilled
teller of tales and describer of battles). But none of this
explains the appeal of THE LAST KINGDOM so much as these three
words, which are all you need to know about the book.
Vikings are cool.
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds, who writes movie reviews at txreviews.com. on December 30, 2010
The Last Kingdom