I rarely read historical novels, though I was educated as an historian. Britannia-playing friends introduced me to Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon novels, about a part of the era my game Britannia covers. They were so good that I have tried some of his other medieval novels, though never his Sharp’s Rifles novels (Napoleonic Era) that have been his most well-known work owing to 16 TV movies starring Sean Bean.
Formerly “The Warrior Chronicles/Saxon Stories,” these 10 books (more coming) have been renamed “The Last Kingdom” to mesh with the BBC TV series. The story arc begins during the gradual occupation of some of England by Vikings (“the Danelaw”), and will ultimately reach the Battle of Brunanburh many decades later.
The protagonist is an heir to what is now known as Bamburg Castle, disinherited and brought up by Vikings. Uhtred of Bebbanburg is very much a man’s man, sometimes Conan-esque (R.E.Howard style). There is a lot of fighting, down-in-the-dirt nasty-grim fighting, something like the real thing. George RR Martin has said Cornwell writes the best battle scenes he’s ever read, and not a book goes by without several battles. And there are a lot of strategems: Uhtred, like any good leader, would rather massacre the enemy (if they won’t surrender) than engage in a fair fight (that’s for suckers). I’m not a critical reader, more a “what happens next” type, and I certainly don’t see many of these strategems coming before they’re sprung.
Yet there’s no sameness about the books, the plot changes because history changes, and characters such as the historical Lady of Mercia come and go as we move through the resistance to the invasions of the “Great Heathen Army” and then the gradual reconquest of England, which has not been completed as of the latest (10th) novel. The books are “ordinary” size, not like so many fantasy novels these days, so there’s not time for their welcome to wear out.
We know so little about Dark Ages Britain – that’s why it’s called Dark Ages, the lack of information – that we’re not certain exactly where the Battle of Hastings occurred, and for the second greatest Dark Age battle in Britain, Brunanburh, we only have guesses that are scattered over hundreds of miles. We’re not even certain of the year of Brunanburh!
Cornwell is thoroughly conscientious about his history. Sometimes part of the art of an historical novelist is to invent a character who can be closely involved in the great events of the day, and in this case be a great influencer of those events, while still sticking to what actually happened. In this case we have little information about what actually happened so the author has more wiggle room than he would have in a more recent era. He can invent an entire battle and not contradict the historical record. (If he does so, he lets you know in his historical notes appendix.)
Authors sometimes write to project beliefs that they themselves do not believe, so I can’t say whether Cornwell is a Christian, but he certainly has no use for Christianity in the Saxon era, nor for any other religion. Uhtred has a Viking point of view (expressed in the first person) and consistently finds the Christian church opposing him because he’s pagan, even as he plays a great part in saving the Saxon world from the Vikings.
I’ve seen people suggest that “Christian values” are part of the “pulp revolution”, though I don’t know what those values are supposed to be, especially since Christianity suffers from bipolarism between New Testament values and Old Testament values, as though there are two separate religions. In these books we get what might be called “Viking values” and a Viking point of view, as in Uhtred’s belief that a Viking can’t go to Valhalla unless he is holding a sword when he dies. And a belief in sorcery and foretelling.
Cornwell has written dozens of novels, and I don’t know whether it’s me or whether there is really a difference, but I find the ones written in first person to be consistently better than the ones written in third person, such as the Holy Grail novels and Agincourt.
His King Arthur trilogy is outstanding, and while written in the first person, the writer/ protagonist is not one of the characters we may have heard of from Arthurian stories, rather another character made up to fit within the story. There’s no contemporary-with-Arthur historical evidence for Arthur, so Cornwell can make up what he wishes within the context of the little that we know.
One reason why I’ve enjoyed Uhtred’s tales is because they remind me of some forms of science fiction or fantasy, even though in the Saxon tales Cornwell is quite scrupulous about following history. There is no actual magic here, though many in this era believed in magic (both Christians and Vikings), and change their behavior in the stories because of that belief. In his Arthurian tales and the Holy Grail tales he allows a hint of “real” magic.
BBC TV Series “The Last Kingdom” (Netflix)
Any TV or film adaptation of Cornwell’s Saxon novels must be “R” rated to retain the flavor and character of the very dominant personality. I wrote the first part of this review, above, after reading Jeffro’s trashing (and later second trashing) of the TV series, which I had not yet watched.
Now that I have watched five episodes, I don’t see evidence that it has been “sanitized” (or castrated?). The TV series covers the first few books, as far as I’ve watched it, books that I read more than five years ago, so I don’t recall many details, nor is Uhtred quite the dominant force he should be until the fifth episode.
It’s a good production. There are apparently real Viking ships (many replicas have been built in the past 50 years), and evocative, exotic music. Yes, they gloss over the language differences, which are prominent in the books, just as nearly all TV and movie productions gloss over language difficulties. Of course, it’s compressed. Perhaps Uhtred is too mild-mannered to begin with (following the portrayal of Ragnar in “Vikings”?). The actor playing Alfred the Great does an outstanding job. Yet Alfred may be portrayed as less clever than he is in the books. It’s not perfect, but it’s quite good.
I am not an expert in Dark Age English history, though I did read a lot for my game Britannia, and I do have a Ph.D. in history. I don’t see any problem with Cornwell’s (and The Last Kingdom’s) depiction of Christianity historically, especially for a story told from a Viking/pagan point of view. Cornwell’s books, and the TV series, aren’t about religion, they’re about history and outstanding adventure. They deliver. May he write many more. Grade: A.
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher has tackled the topic of viking invaders not only in the classic board game Britannia, but again more recently with Sea Kings from Worthington Games. He has written countless articles about Dungeons & Dragons, game design, and more.