You Should Watch The Last Kingdom

Saturday , 13, May 2017 13 Comments

The Last Kingdom is a historical fiction series based on the Saxon Stories novels by Bernard Cornwell. The first season was produced by BBC, with Netflix co-producing the second. Set in the 9th century during the viking invasions of the British Isles, the story follows the exploits of a fictional noble Saxon taken by the invaders as a boy. Over time his captors grow to love him, and he is granted his freedom and raised as an adopted son.

Without getting too heavy on the spoilers, our protagonist eventually finds himself wanting to reclaim his birthright – the lordship of Bebbanburg, his ancestral home. The fact that he was born and baptized as a Christian but brought up as a Danish warrior both hinders him and provides him with unique opportunities.

I originally watched the first episode of the show, found it mildly entertaining, and then stepped away. Upon the advice of trusted peers, I returned to it recently and was glad that I did. After the groundwork has been laid, the story really opens up. The Last Kingdom shares much in common with a Game of Thrones, and the comparison has been made in many quarters. Except the Last Kingdom gives us heroes who aren’t killed off for being heroic. Where a Game of Thrones glories in its nihilistic edginess, the Last Kingdom clearly values virtue. Honesty, loyalty, courage, compassion, patriotism, faith, and perhaps above all sacrifice – these are exalted traits, not weaknesses to explain why a particular character bites the dust.

For those of us who enjoy history, the inclusion of real people and events also presents a draw. Alfred the Great features prominently, as he strives to resist the Danes and unite England as one kingdom. Viking lord Guthrum and some of the sons of Ragnar Lodbrok also appear. Don’t expect a high degree of accuracy, but basically if you’ve read the Volsunga Saga (or even the Broken Sword) or watched Vikings or read up on 9th and 10 century Britain…well, you’ll hear names you recognize.

The Last Kingdom does stray at times in its portrayal of Christianity and the Church, but at least it does seem to make an attempt at even-handedness compared to other modern TV shows and film. There’s at least one shifty bastard of a clergyman, but there are also good and true men of the cloth and women of the veil. What the writing lacks in this department it makes up for (in my book) with kickass warrior priests and nuns.

Lastly I wanted to share one thought about the protagonist. Placing him between the Christian and pagan worlds opens him up to a certain ethos and posture that we can observe in many of the old pulp heroes. What I mean is this – the idealized version of a true Christian knight would most likely not lop the head off an obnoxious, barb-tongued antagonist, or deliver a much deserved stabby-stab to a weasel who had slandered his wife. A heathen viking mensch is not bound by such conventions, and that can make for some fun storytelling.

 

So go forth and watch, my friends! Deus vult and Valhalla!

PCBushi can also be found on Twitter or at the PCBushi blog, where he ruminates on scifi/fantasy, games, and other spheres of nerd culture.

13 Comments
  • John E. Boyle says:

    Thanks for the post, PCBushi.

    I enjoyed the first season of The Last Kingdom, but thought that the show had been canceled.

    Glad to hear it is still around.

  • Dean says:

    Cornwall is a great writer who treats his heroes with respect. I’ve enjoyed everything of his I’ve read so far and can’t recommend him enough.

  • Xavier Basora says:

    I enjoyed watching Sharpe at Masterpiece theatre. Sean Bean is a great actor, i was particularly bemused when he was in Spain

  • Turd Ferguson says:

    Cornwell is fantastic. And while I haven’t watched the Sharpe’s BBC series of movies, I have read most of the books and they are excellent. Great action/adventure combined with historical fiction. They remind me of Forester’s Hornblower books but they surround an English rifleman rather than a sailor.

    There is no padding in Cornwell’s books. Nothing left in to drive the word count up. Great stories.

    I have avoided The First Kingdom because I took it to be a knock-off of Vikings. I had a hard time making it four episodes in to that show. I was mostly bored with it. Maybe I’ll give The Last Kingdom a try, if it’s source is Bernard Cornwell.

    • PCBushi says:

      I wasn’t that impressed initially either, but if you didn’t like it after four episode…well, never hurts to revisit, but it may not be your cup of tea!

      The show isn’t without its flaws, for sure. But after watching crap like Iron Fist, I found it pretty damn refreshing.

    • jic says:

      The *Sharpe* TV movies were pretty good, although I preferred the early ones set in the Peninsular War and never saw the India-set ones. I haven’t read the books, so I can’t compare them. By the way, they weren’t BBC shows, they were on the commercial ITV network.

  • Scott says:

    I love this series.

  • Joe F Keenan says:

    Along the same lines as The Saxon Chronicles, anyone here ever see, Outlander? It’s an amazing Beowulf re-do starring Jim Caviezel.

  • Jill says:

    I’ve started watching it with my husband. Very compelling, so far. They killed off Mr. Darcy 1st episode, though. 😉

  • Jeffro says:

    “Where a Game of Thrones glories in its nihilistic edginess, the Last Kingdom clearly values virtue.”

    Judging by the first two episodes… I have to say the series is dead set on pulling its punches on this point.

    But it is far better than Vikings with its cuckoldry fetish… and Game of Thrones with its… well, whatever the heck that is.

    I’m holding out for whoever decides to regress harder!

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