The Dung Age Fantasy of The Last Kingdom

Saturday , 21, October 2017 17 Comments

Ah, fantasy!

Who doesn’t like a good fantasy? Dashing knights, greedy dragons, fair maidens, odious goblins, perilous elf women, cunning trolls… it doesn’t get any better than that!

But it sure can get a lot worse. And it certainly has. From the inspiring heights of Dunsany, Howard, and Tolkien, fantasy has descended into grime and incoherence with each passing decade. In the silver age it had to pay tribute to sticklers, hecklers, modernists, and socialists– slipping under the radar as “science fantasy” as it did under the hand of authors like de Camp and Pratt. And don’t get me wrong, some good stuff was created in this period to be sure. Luckily fantasy winter didn’t last too long and writers like Leiber, Moorcock, and Zelazny made the signature works of the bronze age.

Not everyone saw this correction in the fantasy marketplace as a good thing. And if critics like Joanna Russ didn’t quite declare epic fantasy dead, then they certainly declared it bad and would have gladly pushed it back underground again like it had before the swords & sorcery revival if they could. But Tolkien being amply available in paperback format combined with the sensational cargo cult that was Dungeons & Dragons ensured that the genie was more or less permanently out of the bottle: the iron age dawned with works like Sword of Shannara, Lord Foul’s Bane, and the veritable deluge of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels.

Where are we now…? Firmly in the dung age where fantasy is exemplified by Game of Thrones and the people trying to outdo George R. R. Martin in their explorations of wretchedness, depravity, and awfulness. I know, the next stage really should have had some redeeming qualities– iron mixed in with the clay as it were– but it really doesn’t. And episode three of BBC’s The Last Kingdom does an excellent job of illustrating why.

In the first place, everyone looks positively filthy, as if the feces-covered peasants of Monty Python and the Holy Grail were the touchstone of historical realism. The Christian characters are shown to be superstitiously pious and highly judgmental of the lax morals of the devilish “heathen” than have conquered what would ultimately become England. But though marriage is supposedly integral to their great enlightenment over and against the pagan Vikings, the filmmakers go to great lengths to establish that none of the people that matter are capable of governing their appetites for fornication and adultery for even half a day– even in a very small community where everyone knows everyone else and no one can keep a secret. This makes half of the players more than just uninspiring and unlikable. It makes them downright odious.

As bad as Christendom comes off here, Breeda the Saxon girl raised by Vikings is even worse. She could have been cute. She could have been fun. She could have been nice. Instead she is a nagging, loud mouthed, foul mouthed and sassy lout that cannot hold her tongue to save her life. And that’s a shame, really, because pagan’s celebrated any number of virtues that she could have exemplified. Instead we get a repeat of the “hand on glass” moment from Titanic as she and the protagonist (I can’t call him a “hero”) go at it like dogs right in the middle of Alfred’s anointing.

The way the BBC contrasts this with the religious elements here, it’s as if they are absolutely mortified that anyone among their history had anything to do with the church. Meanwhile, Breeda lets everyone know how stupid she thinks they are– and yeah, I can’t help but agree with her on that– as she wanders off to get high off of mushrooms. Incredibly, she sees a vision of the future! So while the Christians are depicted as being lame and superstitious for swearing oaths on their holy relics and so forth, har har har! the even more dung-covered and flea-ridden pagans are shown to have real honest to goodness supernatural powers. It makes you think!

And yet the story-tellers are not done making you feel gross and beaten down. A consequence of Breeda’s free love and drug use is shown to be… a miscarriage. And that is the anti-climax of the episode. At which point I can’t help but hope that this train wreck of a character gets shipped off to another island where she can be a part of plot threads that don’t make the cut for the rest of the series. Good riddance!

What is left, after all, when you set out to create a fantasy where no one is even remotely likable, where no one really believes anything, and where everyone’s worst moments and least flattering aspects take center stage? A bunch of dirty people with absolutely no redeeming qualities who don’t have even a tithe of the epic appeal of characters like Conan and Aragorn or even Harold Shea and Elric.

This show is horrible. And it’s past time for fantasy to just start over.

  • Anthony says:

    John C. Wright is on it!

  • Bruce says:

    Clifford Simak’s The Fellowship of the Talisman was what happened when pro writer saw the checks for Shannara and had bills to pay. It’s pretty good, and with Simak you know it’s not damaged by having grimdark stuffed in everywhere.

  • caleb says:

    British appear to be weirdly obsessed with this image of libertine, “free thinking”, moral-free “pagans” that is, of course, far removed from reality…

    Even the great Dunsany fell into that trap for a while, just after the end of WWI. as seen in his novel “The Blessing of Pan”.

    • William sova says:

      Seem to me it was psychological response to the effects of world War1 had on the people of Europe a rose tinted want to return to a much simpler time with none of that modernization and the religion that helped usher it

  • jic says:

    I’ve never seen *The Last Kingdom*, so I may have gotten the wrong end of the stick; but isn’t it historical fiction, not fantasy?

  • Vlad James says:

    Drug use, silly and unrealistic adultery, anti-Christianity, pro-pagan, full of misery…sounds like the Social Justice BBC alright!

  • m.tin says:

    Certain parts of your write-up reminded me of Harry Harrison’s venom-drippingly anti-Christian historical fantasy series, “Hammer and the Cross”. That one would be a perfect fit for BBC adaptation, alright… One of more hilarious examples of the enlightened-secular-whatnot-pagans vs. dumb-evil-hypocritical-Christians trope.
    I’d really like to transport one of these nerdy leftist writers back in time, and place them among actual Vikings. For science!

    • jic says:

      Did you ever see *Dragonslayer*? In that movie, a dragon attacks a kingdom where paganism is dying out, and Christianity is taking over. Now, that’s not, in itself, a bad set-up. However, the pagans are shown as having real and significant magical powers, whereas the Christians are shown as being oppressive, deluded, and ultimately ineffectual. This ruins the whole concept, since you spend most of the movie wondering how Christianity could possibly be taking over when, in this world, you’d have to be a complete idiot to become a christian in the first place.

      • JD Cowan says:

        I hated that movie for that exact reason. Nothing that followed made sense because the heroic pagans were literally saving morons to stupid to understand they were being bamboozled.

        It kills the entire movie and makes you want to root for the villain to wipe them all out.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    What strong emoitions with weak minds have these writers.
    The writers are annoyingly uncurious about actual history.
    The Vikings weren’t nice people and their raids were just as destructive as the Moslems down south.
    Christianizing the Viking helped to channel their destructiveness to much more positive endeavours.
    Same with the Magyars.
    In any case, time to fork and replace

  • TPC says:

    The books aren’t like this. The author and his ancestor-expy don’t like Christianity, but there is respect for the fact that there are Christians with strong faith and there are descriptions of Christian faith having supernatural power.

    It’s interesting to see how much (and there wasn’t much) of the positive regard towards Christians and Christianity they stripped out for the tv show.

  • Big Brutha says:

    Bernard Cornwell was raised in a strict religious sect called the “Peculiar People” which he broke with later. As a result, much of Cornwell’s fiction is suffused with a low level of antipathy toward Christians and Christianity. It is more palpable in some works but it definitely exists in the source texts in is not simply a Hollywoodification of Cornwell’s work.

  • Gunnar von Cowtown says:

    TPC is correct, Bernard Cornwell’s “Saxon Stories” aren’t like this. In fact, I would very highly recommend the books to anyone who reads this blog. Cornwell’s novels are historical fiction, not fantasy.

    Uthred of Bebbanburg, the protagonist, is a Saxon who was raised from early adolescence by Northmen. His father worshiped the old gods, but his mother was an early convert to Christianity. Uthred is essentially a pagan who develops a grudging respect for “the Christian God” slowly and over the course of many books. This drives much of his character development and serves as an apt metaphor for what people of the time likely went through during the dawning of a new faith.

    The Christians in the novels run the gamut from pious leaders with stunning faith and vision, to cynical ladder climbers who view priesthood as the fast path to power and influence, to badass but likable warriors who “Deus Vulted” before it was cool. It comes across as pretty fair and historically believable.

    It’s a shame the BBC decided to go full SJW with the adaptation, but hardly surprising. “Breeda”, or “Brida” in the novels, is trouble, but I don’t recall her having more than a few lines of dialog. Think “devious” not “sassy”.
    She’s like the hot/crazy girl you dated when you were young and stupid. Scratch that. She’s literally the hot/crazy girl Uthred dated when he was young and stupid. If they made her character more significant than that….. it speaks volumes to the BBC’s convergence.

    Read the books.

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