Woe to thee, O land, when they king is a youth…Ecclesiastes 10:16
In Episode 10 of THE LAST KINGDOM Æthelwold’s argument against the naming of the ætheling Edward as the successor to King Alfred is that Edward is too young and inexperienced to rule, especially given that there is a viking army threatening Wessex. And Æthelwold, too, has a claim to the throne. (We do not know when Æthelwold was born, only that he was older than Edward—probably by only 5 or 6 years, though. Both cousins would have been in their 20’s, although there are scenes in which Edward looks much younger.)
Like Edward, Æthelwold is an ætheling (it means throne-worthy), the son of a king of Wessex. Æthelwold insists that it is the witan that must decide who will be king, and this was a fact in Anglo-Saxon England. Indeed, his attempt to persuade the ealdormen to support him was what happened whenever there was more than one man who had a blood right to the crown.
But in this series, in the books on which it is based, and historically, the odds are stacked against Æthelwold. Alfred has made certain of that, although it is a near thing. In the series Edward’s authority hangs on how he will deal with Uhtred. There is wonderful tension in that scene, where Uhtred claims that Alfred has given him his freedom, the queen wants Uhtred silenced, Beocca says Edward Rex must decide, Æthelwold argues that Edward is no king, and Uhtred hesitates when Edward asks why Alfred did not choose to publicly pardon him.
Uhtred seems at a loss for a response, and his men look worried. But Uhtred sees the ghost of his old friend watching from the back of the crowd, and it is the memory of Leofric’s words—the bastard thinks—that gives Uhtred his answer. Alfred may have foreseen that this would happen, and Uhtred lays the decision of his guilt or innocence at Edward’s feet. I was hoping we would see Leofric again before this season was finished.
The kings of Wessex and even, later, of England in the Saxon period, were proclaimed by acclamation. And we see it happen here. Edward is recognized as Alfred’s heir, and Æthelwold rebels. Historically, the rebellion began soon after Alfred’s death and Edward’s accession, but it was not resolved quickly. It took several battles and several years, and it must have been – as Uhtred’s voice claims in the opening scenes of this episode – a time of great turmoil in Wessex, Mercia and East Anglia. The battle scene follows is not the usual shield wall battle we’ve seen before. It is not as complicated as the battle that takes place in the book, but many of the same elements are there. It is an ambush of the unprepared viking army’s long line, and quite a scrum.The tension comes from the fact that despite their advantage of surprise, the Saxons are outnumbered. Will the Mercians arrive to aid Wessex? Which side will the men of Kent fight on? Sigebriht apparently wasn’t sure about that himself, and his hesitation added to the suspense.
Historically, both Æthelwold and Sigebriht were killed at this battle, although Æthelwold’s death on the screen was that of the craven he has always been, lower than a snake’s belly as Aldhelm so accurately observes.
There were some terrific set scenes in this episode: the argument in the marketplace, Uhtred’s stirring words about Alfred and Wessex, Edward’s rallying of his troops, the battle itself. But what makes a good story great is the way it wraps the characters and their fates around our hearts. This story surely does that.
Thyra’s end is not spelled out in the novels (that I recall; I hope someone will correct me if I’m wrong.) But screenwriter Stephen Butchard, honoring the Old English words wyrd byð ful aræd, has sent her in the footsteps of her parents—a fate she had escaped many years before—leaving us to grieve with Beocca.
Edward, as Uhtred’s voice-over tells us in the final scenes, must learn what a king needs to know in order to become a ruler in his own right. He must find his allies and mark his enemies.
Also, don’t forget that he has a son named Athelstan.
Æthelflaed has found a supporter in Aldhelm, but we do not even know if he is still alive. She has, too, a daughter that she must raise. Meantime the chasm between the Lord and Lady of Mercia is now vast.
In working with Uhtred to send Ragnar to Valhalla, Brida has come to a kind of acceptance of her old lover, for now.
But she has a new lover, Cnut. And if she was furious at Uhtred for betraying Ragnar (which he didn’t, not really), we can only imagine what she’s likely to do if she discovers that Cnut ordered Ragnar’s death even though it was Æthelwold who wielded the knife.
Uhtred’s men (Finan, Sihtric, Osferth) and supporters (Hild, Beocca, Pyrlig, and Steapa) appear to have survived that last battle, thank God and the gods.
As for Uhtred, although he followed Edward Rex into battle, at the episode’s end he identifies himself as both Saxon (Uhtred, son of Uhtred) and Dane (Uhtred Ragnarsson).
In the Author’s Note at the end of DEATH OF KINGS Bernard Cornwell says that Alfred’s dream of England “has not yet come true, so Uhtred must fight again.” We definitely want to see that. Netflix, take note.
So when will we see season 4?
Hi Lee. My dear, you know as much as I do!
I am catching up with seasons 1 and 2. I stumbled upon your reviews when researching one of the characters. Thank you! I didn’t even realise there was a third series so now I’m really, really happy! I haven’t read the books but will do one day, although I realise it may be difficult doing it this way round. I think they’ve done a terrific job in re-creating the period and making sense of the times. Of course as an English person I knew of Alfred, but hadn’t appreciated just why he was considered ‘Great’. Now I do. Your enthusiasm is infectious and is like sharing the joy with a friend. Thanks again.
Hi Lesley. Thank you for saying hello. I agree, the show is terrific and I’m glad you’ve discovered Season 3. I’m watching it the second time through.
Hi Lesley and any other Last Kingdom followers. You have to read the books whether you have been following the series or not. You become totally immersed in Uhtred’s life and every adversity he is confronted with. The stories are incredibly evocative and an insight into how life was like in the Dark Ages, including not only the battles and warring of that era but also the loves and lives of Anglo Saxons and Vikings. They are historical dramas well worth reading
The books are a really quick read, only a few hundred pages. I read through the first 6 ebooks in a week a few years back, if you love the show you’ll love them, it does go really far into the future though, so if you wanted to stay where the show is stop after death of kings
First, I am very grateful for this discussion. The posting’s I’ve seen elsewhere are hopelessly superficial. Patricia has, it seems, inspired a much higher level of analysis and consideration. That was what I hoped for: to hear what other literate fans think. So, moving on to the “However…” part…
What I don’t see, even here, is discussion of the liberties taken in season 3, compared with the book. In seasons 1 and 2, the series came close enough to the books. After S3, episode 1, it all diverges radically. I am bewildered that fans of the show who have taken the time to write comments, have not read the books. How can you restrain yourself? And taking on the books is not difficult. If you can’t find time to read, perhaps you can repurpose your commute with the Audible books.
The thing is, season 3 completely rewrites Cornwell. Ordinarily, I’d call that a crime. Cornwell is universally acknowledged for his battle scenes, but in fact is a true and rare master of the historical novel.
How different are the two?
Cornwell’s Brida in the later books is a completely different person from her younger self, an awful woman in every regard. The redemption of Ragnar’s spirit by Uhtred and Brida belongs only to the series. In the books, Ragnar’s death is not murder and not a focus of the story. Even more drastic, Cornwell does not provide the reconciliation between Uhtred and Alfred which we all loved in season 3. Many other parts of the show’s storylines differ enormously, plucking characters and incidents from here and there in the books, and using them to different purposes.
It would be easy to condemn the series because of that, but how can we condemn anything that worked so well. Each episode offered a perfect story arc, and so did the season as a whole. I can’t recall many series which can make that claim.
As I understand it, TLK is a go for season 4 and maybe 5. What will they do with it? Much of what was in books 7 through 10 can’t happen in the series.
Since Cornwell did a cameo in season 3, I’ll assume he wasn’t angry about the changes. Or did he have a hand in them? Would he work with the series writers to devise the season 4 plot, or is that too much to hope?
You are spot on in your observations about the way Season 3 veers wildly from the books, much more so than Seasons 1 & 2. I’ve actually thought about that a lot, and I believe it has to do with the fact that we are dealing with 2 different mediums. Scenes that work beautifully in a book don’t necessarily transfer as well to a visual medium.
A perfect example is the battle at Benfleet. Uhtred prepared Edward for it in the books by having him practice leading his men up a slippery, muddy bank after they’ve thrown spars and sails on the thing. It made for page-turning reading, and it gave Edward the confidence he needed in order to lead men. In the tv show, it is Alfred who challenges his son to be a leader, and we were squirming in our seats watching Uhtred’s men die while Alfred waited, and waited, and waited, and it was finally up to Edward to give the order to attack. It was the same idea – make Edward a king; but far more visually exciting.
I think the reconciliation scene between Uhtred and Alfred in TLK was fabulous – and it had to be set up by Uhtred’s outrageous physical assault on the king in an earlier episode. I see why the writers had Uhtred do that, but it still rang false to Uhtred’s character for me. I accept it though because it led to that beautiful reconciliation scene. In the books, Uhtred is called to Alfred’s death bed, and Alfred grants him land and (I think) thanks him. Again, it was good reading, but not as stunning as that scene between them.
In the books Ragnar dies in his bed; Thyra dies we don’t know how. Even Beocca is mentioned in passing as having died. These are openings for a screen-writer, places to play with possibilities. And they’ve done it with Ragnar and Thyra. I really felt that their deaths led to strong plot developments and brought emotional resonance to the show.
I don’t know what to think about Brida. We certainly see a ruthlessness in her character in the tv show in the way that she dispatches Storri. I don’t know what the series writers are envisioning for her, and I think they may, indeed, still take her in the dark direction that we see in the books. The Brida of the earliest episodes, though, was so strongly embraced by series fans, especially those who had not read the books, that I wonder if that might keep the writers from going down that dark road with her. We’ll see.
You asked about Cornwell’s involvement. My literary agent has advised me that once an author signs a film/series contract, the characters they’ve created on the page no longer belong to them. (See Game of Thrones!) Bernard has made it clear in a number of interviews that he has no interest in being involved in scripting the tv series, at the same time commenting that he writes BOOKS not SCREENPLAYS. (Unlike Diana Gabaldon who is a consultant on the show OUTLANDER, based on her novels and has even written at least one episode.) So it’s unlikely that he will be involved in producing the screenplays for the coming seasons.
I really think that, despite the changes in storyline that we have seen, especially in Season 3, the screenwriters have embraced and stayed true to the themes and the characters of the books. I love the books. I love the show. And you are absolutely right in asking how anyone who enjoys the show can possibly restrain themselves from reading the novels.
OK, OK! I will read the books! I mean to anyway but am savouring the last two episodes and have a couple of other books ahead in the queue. I love well researched and authentic historical novels. I’ve now got yours on my list too, Patricia.
Meanwhile, I’m hoping for series 4. Like many others I suspect.
Lesley, I’m delighted you are including my books on your ‘to read’ list. I’ve just finished writing the third book of the trilogy and it’s now in the hands of my literary agent. Hopefully it will be published next year. Meantime, Bernard Cornwell is working on his 12th book about Uhtred. His will probably be out before mine. Once you start reading Cornwell, you won’t be able to stop. And by the way, Season 4 of The Last Kingdom is already in rehearsals. Yay!!!
Hooray! Best thing I’ve seen on TV in ages. For me, it doesn’t put a foot wrong. It’s great to share my enthusiasm with others. I’ve just ordered your books so look forward to reading them soon. PS I lived in California (Orange County!) myself for four years and my son was born there in 1996.
I’m watching it again and finding it very hard to bear the death of Thyra a second time. I hope you’ll enjoy my books! I know you’ll love Cornwell’s. Uhtred is irresistible.
You were right! Just finished the fourth book and waiting for the next to arrive at the library. They are page turners and I’m racing through them at a rate of knots. How much longer until S4 I wonder?
Patricia who? I would like to read your books also!
Hi Ruth. All the comments by Patricia on this site, as far as I know, are mine: Patricia Bracewell. If you haven’t already read my books, I hope you will!