It’s the stories that matter. Stories teach us. They always have.
So forget about endless wars, conspiracies and power rivalries by ruthless wannabes in Throne land — I bet you thought I was talking about D.C. — and learn about the stories that mattered.
I’m talking about “The Last Kingdom.”
Here’s the history behind what has become my favorite series in the era of Binge TV. Way back in the 9th century AD (habitually called ‘the Dark Ages’) the North men, or Norse — those traders, pirates and raiders who hailed in the lands we now call Scandinavia and are generally known today as Vikings — were well established in the northern part of England. In the latter part of that century fresh waves of raiders and invaders from the continental North, whom Saxon England simply called “the Danes,” began attacking the Christianized Saxon kingdoms of the relatively wealthy south of England. East Anglia, the southeast of England (where Danish influence is still felt today), fell to a Danish warrior king who then quickly moved against Mercia, the ‘heart of England.’ When Mercia, including London, fell as well, Wessex knew itself to be “the last kingdom” of the island’s seven kingdoms still under Saxon rule.
After some four centuries of “owning the ground” (by Winston Churchill’s count)* the Saxons faced the prospect of losing the upper-hand in their country and possibly even extermination.
Ninth century Saxons were well are that their own ancestors gained control of England (along with the Angles, who gave their name to the language and the country where it was spoken) in the same way the Danes were now doing it: raids, then full-scale invasions, then settlement.
What happened next was the emergence of England’s true national hero, Alfred the Great.
(St. George, for the record, is a fiction borrowed from the Middle East. King Arthur is a wonderful mythic — as opposed to historically founded — hero who supposedly rallied the Celtic Britons to fight off the then-barbarian Saxons while representing all that was noble in a lost age. The Britons’ struggle proved unsuccessful.)
Alfred, one of whose most attractive qualities is his creation of the county’s first ‘library’ through his collection of scrolls containing reports assembled from intelligence agents throughout the country, managed to unify Saxons from all the kingdoms to stand against the fearsome invaders and persevere their nation in a lengthy struggle.
At a low point in this struggle, after a surprise attack scattered his forces and deprived him of his capital ‘city’ (wooden huts within a surrounding wall), Alfred hid from the Danes in the marshes and was presumed dead. Recovering health, he put out a call for all men of England to rally at a point known to them, less apparent to the Danes, and his reputation proved sufficient to bring an army together on the spot. He then maneuvered the Danish warrior kings into a single defining battle on the plain of Ethandum and defeated them in the year 878 AD.
That’s a long time ago. We know of these dates, and these events, because Alfred began the practice of instructing scribes to write down what happened.
This victory did not permanently end the Danish threat and the island remained divided for much of a century between English rule and Danish rule (a region termed the Danelaw), but the England we recognize today — and the English language, which I confess is the single biggest point for me — was preserved from a worse fate by the actions of a single, outstanding leader. I can’t think of many other such examples.
Rome fell. Ancient Greece faded. The United States was the product of a generation of gifted leaders.
The story of how Alfred the Great saved England from Norse rule in those ‘dark’ early days is the story I expected to encounter in the BBC production and Netflix edition (which took over the second season) called “The Last Kingdom.” For anyone attracted by the challenge of depicting life in those hard to imagine “dark ages,” that seemed more than enough of a story.
But then I didn’t know anything about a warrior called Uhtred, son of Uhtred, of Bebbanburg, who proves to be central figure in “The Last Kingdom.”
That’s probably because he’s fictional.
Perhaps he’s based on some actual figure of whom only fragmentary reports remain, or perhaps he is wholly the invention of the fertile pen of Bernard Cornwell, on whose historical novels this series is based. Either way, as the action hero of an historical saga, he’s a lord of attractions.
First off, he’s an orphan. Orphans are unique, special cases, others. Lacking living parents and strong family connections, their survival is not guaranteed. They are self-made people by definition. Uhtred is the son of his town’s lord, a kind of minor king. When his father is killed by the Danes, Uhtred becomes the lost heir of a royal line: the click bait of a thousand romance tales. Shakespeare would have liked this plot.
Further, he’s both Saxon and Dane. Born Saxon in Bebbanburg, in the nation’s unsettled north, he’s baptized as Christian, but determined from early boyhood to be a warrior. As the curtain opens on “The Last Kingdom,” a raiding party of Danes lands on the shore near his town and in a matter of a few minutes our hero loses his older brother (Bebbanburg’s heir apparent) and then sees his father and most of town’s fighting men mowed down in an open battle that shows the Saxons are no match for either the advanced tactics or fighting skill of the ferocious Danes.
After this battle, Uhtred is taken as a slave by a prominent Danish warrior who raises him within his own family and comes to consider him a son. In this capacity, a Saxon who knows Danish ways, Uhtred arrives at Alfred’s court at just the right moment to advise him on how to meet the potentially fatal Danish threat.
As Uhtred himself declares at the beginning of each episode: “Everything is destiny.”
Uhtred is at liberty to play this role because at the dawn of his own brawny manhood, his adopted Danish family is slaughtered in a sneak attack by a rival warrior with a grudge. Yes, there are good Danes and bad ones. To its credit, this series takes a more nuanced view of its times and setting and characters of both nations than, I suspect, a straightforwarded hagiography of Alfred the Great — the story I initially expected — could have managed.
And while “The Last Kingdom” is a story of kingship, it’s also a warrior’s story.
Violence, revenge, sword fighting, long hair and beards, both cold and hot-blooded killing loom as the show’s themes and memes, and find play in in the story arcs that flow from its opening cries. Despite the often excessive, and sometimes distressingly casual bloodletting by barbarians (and Christians) wielding steel weapons against unarmored flesh, the show’s atmosphere seldom remains grim. In addition to being the archetypal gifted warrior (near-death escapes in every episode), our hero Uhtred has a sense of both humor and justice, an appreciation for women, and a bedrock loyalty to those to whom he is pledged likely to win emotional attachment from any viewer with a heart.
And if we don’t wish our hearts attached, then why do we watch these things?
Then, to add to its surface attractions, the show is landscaped in a beautiful unsullied England — green valleys and wooded hills (though the obsessive English gardening, I notice, hasn’t quite taken hold yet). The mood, among both Christians and pagans, is more often rough and ready rather than crude or nasty. Warrior-guys on both sides laugh a lot, tease each other, drink themselves silly, eye the women and are put in their place by them; while the leaders contemplate, plan, chronicle, and (in Alfred’s case) invent the use of the ‘letter’ as an effective means of communication. The main female characters are smart and capable, particularly the fighting nun who attaches herself to Uhtred’s most dangerous missions.
And all this shouting, bonhomie, and bloody hand-to-hand combat serves the appealingly subversive notion of a ferociously embraced love of life, particularly evident in the Danes (who seem to accept their own will be short) and in our Saxon-born adopted Dane.
The production even comes up with a weird, savagely sung and yodeled soundtrack that sounds to me absolutely like the world of our saga feels.
All this works as entertainment and ‘story,’ but I make a case for the value of the history portrayed here as well. Though the Alfred depicted here is not always ‘good’ — his kingly virtues include a ruthless use of the few for the benefit of the many; and his Christian piety often comes across as ethical blindness, especially regarding the pagan Uhtred — his ‘greatness’ lay in saving a world of which we and many others are cultural inheritors.
If Saxon England had disappeared into obscurity during the time of the Vikings, along with its laws, values, nascent civil society, infant institutions (such the ‘witan’ council, the seed of Parliament) and still forming language, I do not believe we would be better for it today. Admittedly, I cannot imagine what we would be.
The United States of America, it is worth remembering, did not invent the world in 1789, despite out ceaseless clamor for ‘constitutional’ this and ‘founders’ that. This country, like all countries and all societies, owes its debts to the past. During Alfred’s time, at least in part because of his actions — and for that matter because of the Danish invasion — England had to get organized in order to survive.
I believe that’s something this country is still trying to do.
(*From “The Birth of Britain” by WinstonChurchill, 1956, Barnes and Noble edition.)