THE POWER OF LOVE
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
The final episode of The Last Kingdom, Season 2, is filled with action and conflict: King vs. ealdormen, brother vs. brother, Saxons vs Northmen. Although I’m not particularly fond of battle scenes, I have to admit that my favorite moment in this episode is when King Alfred – in the dark of night and up against a horde of howling northmen – cries “Shieldwall!”
But, back to the beginning. As Uhtred and his men ride toward Winchester Uhtred looks worried and pensive, and he is no doubt thinking of Æthelflæd and of the request that she has made that he help her flee with the Northman, Erik. It’s risky business for all of them.
Father Pyrlig, who has heard Æthelflæd’s confession, probably knows that she’s in love with her captor. As he rides beside Uhtred he pointedly muses – and I am quoting him word-for-word because it is so important:
What binds a man to a land? You have a poor wretch toiling in the fields, burning in summer and shivering in winter. He works all day every day for nothing more than a loaf of bread and a pot to piss in. His children die of disease, his wife dies giving him children, yet when that land is threatened, something stirs. It can only be love. ‘Tis a powerful thing. Would you not agree, Lord Uhtred? From wretch to warrior, love gives a man strength, often at the cost of his mind.
It is love that underlies this episode – a father’s love for his child, a leader’s love for his land and people, a man’s love for a woman.
The story begins, though, with lust: for silver, for fame, for power. Uhtred and his companions inform Alfred that the Northmen want 3000 pounds of silver and 500 pounds of gold to ransom Æthelflæd.
Alfred, with less than a month to make the first payment, has three options.
Option One: Ignore the ransom demand. Outcome: The king’s daughter will be paraded, probably naked, before mocking crowds; men will pay to use her. It would mean humiliation for her, for the king, for Wessex. But Alfred loves his daughter too much to abandon her to that, nor will he allow that humiliation to be the story of his reign.
Option Two: Lead an army against Sigefrid and Erik.
Outcome: the brothers will kill the king’s daughter. This is the option that Ealdorman Odda would choose. Fight, dammit, and never mind what happens to the girl. Odda, who was badly wounded fighting the Danes at Cynuit, sacrificed his own, traitorous son for Wessex, and Alfred, he thinks, should sacrifice his daughter. Let her be a martyr for Wessex. After all, Odda claims, Alfred still has his son Edward. But Odda is speaking from the perspective of a man who has nothing left to lose, and Alfred has a very great deal to lose if he makes the wrong decision.
Option Three: Pay the ransom. Outcome: the Danes will use the silver and gold to bring more Northmen to Wessex who will unite and destroy Alfred’s kingdom. As Æthelwold observes, the Saxons will pay for the swords that will kill them.
All of the choices are bad, but Alfred gambles that if he pays, God will help him find a way to beat the Northmen when the time comes, despite their vast numbers. This is not, on the face of it, a bad plan. He has paid tribute to the Northmen before to buy an alliance (with Guthrum) or to buy himself time to prepare for war. Odda, though, continues to demand that the king attack now, and Alfred struggles with misgivings, not at all certain that he has made the right decision. Finally, though, he is frustrated by Odda’s refusal to accept the decision he has made. He tells the old man that his injury and his love for wine have robbed him of any value and that he no longer serves a purpose. Odda must leave Winchester.
There are times when Alfred’s insistence on obedience is a weakness; it will not allow him to bend when sometimes bending is the only solution to a problem. It happens here, with Odda, and it happens a lot with Uhtred. We have seen it before, and we will see it again. Alfred told us in Season 1 that he is no saint. This is a reminder.
Meantime, Odda is convinced that Alfred is wrong, and despite Uhtred’s pleas that he do nothing – for Uhtred alone knows that if Æthelflæd gets away, no ransom need be paid – Odda has already sent for the Devonshire fyrd. If Alfred won’t lead his warriors against the Danes, Odda will. When Alfred finds out – because Odda sends Father Pyrlig to tell him – Alfred gathers his warriors and sets out to try to stop Odda, playing right into Odda’s hands because they all meet near the Northmen’s fortress at Benfleet.
I’ve told my men that we are here on your orders, lord, Odda tells Alfred. Now that you’ve marched an army to the Northmen’s door, they will not believe that you’re not here to fight. And he’s right.
Unknown to the king and Odda, though, inside the fortress Erik and Æthelflæd have been planning their getaway, and Uhtred has arrived in secret to help. But Sigefrid and Hæsten have become suspicious of Erik’s too obvious affection for his prisoner and they have taken steps to make sure that their prize doesn’t escape.
Erik’s plan goes awry, and when brother is pitted against brother, it’s up to Uhtred to improvise the rescue of Æthelflæd, which he does brilliantly. They are pursued, of course, and under a night sky lit by flames, a Northman maddened by grief and howling for vengeance rallies his men against the Saxons – for death and glory. And Alfred the king, who has brought a Saxon army to stop a Saxon army, turns on the Northmen and cries, “Shieldwall!”
Alfred was a great king. He survived months in a swamp, he rallied his people to save Wessex from destruction by Viking raiders, and he began the task of fulfilling his dream of a united England. He was also ruthless, because a 9th century king had to be ruthless. That is the Alfred that we see in this episode when, back at Winchester, he is forced to turn his ruthlessness on an old friend.
Uhtred returns to Cookham, and it is his voice that reminds us of the theme that Pyrlig introduced at the beginning.
What binds a man to his land? What power within allows him to give his life to preserve his land and the lives of the families who work it? It can only be love. It will not be written that Odda gave his life to save Wessex, but that is the story I will tell – that he gave his life to save the lives of many and ensured that King Alfred of Wessex became more powerful than ever.
Did it happen this way in Cornwell’s novel? No. There are enormous differences. For one thing, ODDA WASN’T EVEN THERE! But both versions of this story are beautifully told. If you haven’t read the books, now would be a good time to start while we hope that Uhtred and The Last Kingdom will be back for a third season next year.
- The Last Kingdom
- The Pale Horseman
- The Lords of the North
- Sword Song
- The Burning Land
- Death of Kings
- The Pagan Lord
- The Empty Throne
- Warriors of the Storm
- 10. The Flame Bearer