At the beginning of this episode of The Last Kingdom, as scenes from the previous episode flash across the television screen and the voice of Uhtred summarizes his early life, he says, “Destiny is all.” This phrase appears in every one of Cornwell’s Saxon novels. It is Uhtred’s definition of how the world works. The Old English phrase is Wyrd bið ful āræd, from the poem, The Wanderer.
The loner holds out for grace
—the Maker’s mercy—though full of care
he steers a course, forced to row
the freezing, fierce sea with bare hands,
take the exile’s way; fate dictates.
Translation: Greg Delanty
This is a fairly accurate description of Uhtred’s situation just now. He is exiled from his father’s lands because his uncle has usurped him. The Danes hate him because he is a Saxon. The Saxons despise him because they believe he is at heart a Dane. His only friends are the priest who knew him as a child and his woman, Brida, who argues against every decision he makes. In this episode he first confronts the man who will offer him grace – although Uhtred doesn’t know it yet.
The man is Alfred, and the Alfred we see here is not quite the same as the Alfred in the novels. That Alfred is viewed through the eyes of a churlish, resentful, hot-headed, young Uhtred, who dismisses him as physically weak, way too pious, too trusting and too bookish. Because the reader knows what Alfred will eventually accomplish, Uhtred’s low opinion of him is taken with a grain of salt – even amusement.
The screen writers, though, have presented a more even-handed version of Alfred, drawn from tradition, history, and even Uhtred’s own words:
“I was to discover in time that he was a clever man, very clever, and thought twice as fast as most others, and he was also a serious man, so serious that he understood everything except jokes. Alfred took everything heavily, even a small boy, and his inspection of me was long and searching as if he tried to plumb the depths of my unfledged soul.”
I love Alfred as he’s presented in this show, who even manages to surprise Uhtred with his knowledge of events occurring in the north. “I have eyes and ears in each of the kingdoms,” Alfred says. And then he nails Uhtred with, “I believe you are here only to hide, to save yourself.” Which is exactly what Uhtred is doing.
In this episode the writers have inserted events that, in the novel, took place long before the hall burning that we saw in Episode One. Uhtred’s first encounter with Alfred, the forging of the sword Serpent Breath, the martyrdom of King Edmund, even the battle of Æsc’s Hill (which will not actually happen until next week), all took place when Uhtred was 12 or 13 and he was, heart and soul, a Dane. In placing these events here in this episode when Uhtred is nineteen or so and an exile, his character has been softened. We haven’t seen the life that he describes this way:
“I was a Dane and I had been given a perfect childhood, perfect at least, to the ideas of a boy. I was raised among men, I was free, I ran wild, I was encumbered by no laws, I was troubled by no priests, I was encouraged to violence, and I was rarely alone.”
“And I learned another thing. Start your killers young, before their consciences are grown. Start them young and they will be lethal.”
To some extent this violent life is implied as we see Uhtred and Brida make their perilous way from Northumbria to Wessex, but we do not see this Uhtred ravage East Anglia with the Danes, burn Saxon villages and plunder abbeys and convents. Yes, he is lethal. But this is Uhtred light. The Uhtred of the books is more like the Ragnar that we saw at the beginning of the first episode – a brutal warrior who gives no quarter and asks for none. There is a darkness in the Uhtred of the books that Alfred sees and mistrusts, but is not quite conveyed by the figure on the screen.
This is a quibble. I thought the show was wonderful. If you haven’t seen it yet, take notice of the setting, particularly the scrolls that surround Alfred, and the Roman villa where he and his brother reside. Winchester has stone walls (which it did), unlike the Winchester of History Channel’s The Vikings which I think had a wooden palisade.
I do question whether Winchester would have had so many stone buildings. Alfred is going to one day re-found the city, laying out streets and a network of channels to supply water, and building a palace complex of stone buildings. Yes, the wealthy will erect two-storied houses made of stone with slate or thatch roofs, in among timber dwellings. But that all comes later.
For now, Alfred is not yet king, the Battle of Æsc’s Hill has yet to be fought, and poor Uhtred is neither Saxon nor Dane. He is imprisoned, you might say, by his own fate. And we know that Fate is relentless.
Wyrd bið ful āræd.