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THE LAST KINGDOM 2, Episode 8

Ep2.8Kinga

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.

Ep2.8LoveaFather 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.

Ep2.8RansomaAlfred, 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.
Ep2.8BrothersaOutcome: 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.

Ep2.8OddaaThere 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.

Ep2.8AlfredaUnknown 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.

Ep2.8CageErik’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.

Ep2.8UhtredaDid 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.

  1. The Last Kingdom
  2. The Pale Horseman
  3. The Lords of the North
  4. Sword Song
  5. The Burning Land
  6. Death of Kings
  7. The Pagan Lord
  8. The Empty Throne
  9. Warriors of the Storm
  10. 10. The Flame Bearer

Photos: Netflix/BBC2/TheLastKingdom

 

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THE LAST KINGDOM 2, Episode 7

Ep2.7Griefa

THE KING’S DAUGHTER

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

In the opening scene, Uhtred and his companions arrive at the Saxon camp to find no one left alive. It is heartrending to watch Beocca calling Thyra’s name over and over and getting no reply. That entire scene had me all misty-eyed.

Despite having read Bernard Cornwell’s Sword Song, I did not know how Beocca’s search was going to turn out because the book handles this event quite differently. The screenwriters are, of course, forced to compress and revise because of time and because they are dealing with a different medium; at the same time it allows them to toss in some surprises for those of us who have read the novels on which the show is based. I’m enjoying the changes/additions because they remain true, I think, to the world, the characters and the story that Cornwell created.

Now, back to that ravaged Saxon camp. Unfortunately for Æthelred, he has to go back to Winchester and face Alfred’s wrath when the king learns that his daughter is missing. Serves him right, the weasel. Luckily for Æthelred, who apparently has only half a brain, his buddy Aldhelm is there in every scene, murmuring instructions in his ear about what to do, say and think. Æthelred is one step up from a ventriloquist’s dummy.

Alfred is royally outraged upon learning that
a) his daughter accompanied her husband to battle and
b) she is probably a hostage of the Danes.
He is, though, amazingly self-controlled, and all the good lines are given to Odda. He snarls that Æthelred has put the kingdom at risk and gets to call him useless, arrogant, a toad, an idiot and a fool. We are cheering Odda on, and we cheer again when Æthelwold pipes up and adds that the only man capable of cleaning up this puddle of shit that Æthelred has created is Uhtred.

Uhtred has wasted no time in sending spies to Benfleet to discover if the king’s daughter lives, but he doesn’t go to Winchester because Alfred has banished him from court. Instead he goes to Cookham and he tells Gisela what happened. Now we are treated to a couple of scenes that illustrate the close relationship between them. She tells him, You will be Æthelflæd’s hope, and she urges him to go to  to Winchester right away to take part in the search for the girl. He counters that they will go, but not yet. He wants no part of the court intrigue until he has news. (Is he just a little pissed off at the king? You bet!)

Ep2.7GiselaaWe go to Winchester, next, to witness a scene between Alfred and his wife Ælswith. She is no friend of Uhtred’s but, fearful of what the Danes will do to her daughter, she gently echoes what Gisela has said. Send Uhtred to Benfleet. If our daughter is there, and alive, Uhtred will raise her spirits. Alfred, though, is as stubborn as Uhtred. His hope must be in God, not in Uhtred.

In the Anglo-Saxon culture, it was expected that a good wife would counsel her husband and that he should listen. He may not follow her counsel, but he should listen. This is where Uhtred, Alfred and Beocca differ from The Weasel. They listen to their wives, even if they don’t agree with the advice they’re given. The Weasel, though, doesn’t want Æthelflæd’s advice about anything. She’s just supposed to shut up and do as she’s told.

When the Witan meets to discuss the problem of Danish armies and a captive royal daughter, Ælswith is at her husband’s side.

Ep2.7Witana

Ælswith is never called a queen, but she has been present at every Witan session.

Uhtred arrives with news that Æthelflæd is alive, and Alfred orders The Weasel to negotiate with the Danes for her release. Odda, Æthelwold and Beocca counsel that Uhtred should go as well, and now Alfred’s doubts are whirling in his mind and we see them reflected on his face. Can he trust Uhtred? He sought counsel over that and prayed over that, and he still does not know. It is Ælswith who, with a single, pleading look, convinces him. Yay Ælswith! (Eliza Butterworth, can you hear us applauding your portrayal of Alfred’s wife?)
Ep2.7Aelswitha
I have to say, though, that like that snake, Aldhelm, I am wondering how Erik knew where Æthelflæd was or even that she would be with her husband’s army. All I can think of is that he must have had spies shadowing the force from Mercia and Wessex, and that would certainly make sense.

In the Viking camp at Benfleet, Æthelflæd has drawn some unwanted attention. Hæsten and Sigefrid have both been leering at her, and Erik seems to be puzzled and bemused by his own growing feelings for the Saxon king’s daughter. Hæsten tries to rape her (this is practically a requirement, right?), and she defends herself using whatever comes to hand: first a bucket of piss, then the bucket itself, and then a knife.

Æthelflæd's strike would have been lethal if Erik hadn't stopped her.

Æthelflæd would have knifed Haesten if Erik hadn’t stopped her.

Erik steps into the fray and, to her surprise, he’s on her side. One thing leads to another, and although the relationship that springs up between them seems to happen very quickly, it probably develops over many weeks. Besides, Erik is far more tender toward her than The Weasel ever was.

In Winchester Odda suggests to Alfred that if the ransom demanded for Æthelflæd is too costly in silver or blood, perhaps she should be encouraged to take her own life. She would be one of God’s martyrs, rewarded in heaven. You are a king before you are a father, Odda says.

Whoa! I did not see that coming. Alfred didn’t either, and he is not exactly receptive to this suggestion.

Note the drawings on the walls. The Anglo-Saxons loved bright colors, and the writer worked the paintings into the dialogue.

Note the drawings on the walls. The Anglo-Saxons loved bright colors, and the script writer worked the paintings into the dialogue.

Let’s talk about Odda for a moment. I do not know if I’m right here, but I think this is an illustration of Odda’s concern for Wessex. He puts Wessex first always. He supports Uhtred not because he’s fond of the warrior, but because he recognizes Uhtred’s value to Wessex. And let us remember that in Season 1, Odda killed his own son because he had been a traitor to Wessex.

Æthelwold overhears Odda’s conversation with Alfred, and later Odda accosts him and says that if Æthelwold is anything like his father, Alfred’s brother, I may need you. For what? Æthelwold asks. And I’m wondering, too. For what?

Ep2.7Aethelwolda
I do not know what Odda is going to do next. We know that he feels as if his life has been wasted – he is always drinking  –  so what is going on in his head?

When the negotiation team from Wessex arrives at Benfleet, the Danes totally humiliate The Weasel and we are cheered to see him wake up naked in a pig pen, which means that he and Æthelwold now have something in common. While The Weasel has been unconscious, Uhtred has been negotiating a price for Æthelflæd as well as watching Erik with interest and concern because he intuits that something may be going on between Erik and his hostage. In private, Erik confesses to this. Then Æthelflæd puts Uhtred in a really tight spot because she and Erik want to run away and she wants Uhtred to help them. He uses all the arguments against it that he can think of – and they are really good arguments. Your husband, your father and Sigefrid will all come after you. You’ll die. Your family will die. I am sworn to your father. If I help you and succeed, he will have me killed, and besides that you are asking me to assist in getting you killed.

But Æthelflæd is not just a young girl in love. She tops all his arguments with I will not be the treasure that builds an army against my father.

Whoo boy. Now what?

Photos: Netflix/BBC2/TheLastKingdom

 

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THE LAST KINGDOM 2, Episode 6

Logo2ARE YOU SAXON OR DANE?

There are numerous plot lines weaving through this series now, and here’s a look at how they develop in this episode.

ÆTHELRED vs UHTRED: There is never going to be a bromance between these two.
Ep2.6UhtredÆthelred is jealous of Uhtred’s skill as a warrior and of his friendship with Æthelflæd.  Uhtred sees Æthelred for what he truly is – not the good and godly man that Alfred imagines, but a smarmy, preening, egotistical, treacherous, lying, smooth-faced weasel. And that’s before Uhtred learns that Æthelred is cruel to Æthelflæd. Oh, and he’s stupid. Did I forget anything?

ÆTHELRED vs ALFRED: Æthelred wants to be king of Mercia AND Wessex, and his buddy Aldhelm (James Northcote), who is a viper in men’s clothing, reminds him that he can only accomplish this goal if Alfred is dead. Also, he says, a war between Wessex and the Danes would help. With these guys as allies, Alfred needs no enemies, although he has lots more.

ÆTHELRED vs. ÆTHELFLÆD: Æthelred reveals his true nature on their wedding night. Yes, it was a very brief honeymoon. When it comes to his wife, Æthelred is suspicious, possessive, controlling and mean.  Æthelflæd has allies, though, in Hild, Beocca, Thyra and Uhtred. She is politically savvy, so she understands how important her marriage is to her father’s plans for Wessex. This puts her in a bind because it forces her to submit to her husband’s control. Nevertheless, she is determined that he will not break her. And remember, she’s only 15.

The unhappy couple

The unhappy couple

BEOCCA and THYRA: We see them wed in this episode, and it’s a striking contrast to the marriage of Æthelflaed and the weasel. I don’t know about you, but at the end of the episode I’m really worried about Thyra.

The happy couple

The happy couple

ÆTHELWOLD vs HIS MOUTH: This guy is the show’s comic relief. In Season 1 he was sleeping with a pig, and that pretty much says it all. His one-liners are terrific, though, and he can occasionally be quite bright although we are constantly reminded by his companions that he has the spine of a jellyfish. Sometimes, though, he just can’t shut up, and in this episode he is continually yammering at Uhtred about how they could be kings of Wessex and Mercia because Dead Bjorn said so. Uhtred knows Bjorn was a trick, but he won’t reveal that to Æthelwold because of his big mouth.

OSFERTH and HIS CAREER PATH: This is Alfred’s illegitimate son. Osferth (Ewan Mitchell) is a monk who wants to be a warrior like his Uncle Leofric, Uhtred’s best buddy from last season who introduced us all to the word earsling.

ALFRED vs UHTRED: Alfred spends most of his screen time in this episode trying to resolve his doubts about Uhtred. David Dawson is terrific in this role of a man conflicted, a king beset by enemies and unable to quite bring himself to trust the warrior who stands at his right hand.
Ep2.6AlfredprayerabHe’s given some fabulous dialogue, all of it to do with Uhtred. He wonders if Uhtred is
a seemingly loyal and brave man who piece by piece is eating at my soul and clouding what I believe to be right and wrong.
Wow.

Alfred flings accusations at Uhtred about his relationship with Sigefrid and Erik, and he argues with Odda about whether Uhtred is a spy, calling him
a sword I would rather wield than face.
At one point Alfred asks Steapa, Do you trust Uhtred?
And Steapa’s answer is simple and eloquent. With my life, lord. 
I love that.

Alfred flanked by Steapa & Odda, who support Uhtred

Alfred flanked by Steapa & Odda, who support Uhtred

But Alfred is still not convinced that he can trust Uhtred. That is because Alfred’s mind works in a way that Uhtred’s does not.
I do not understand you, he says to Uhtred. And it’s true.
But he also says, I do not know you, and Uhtred looks as if Alfred has slapped him. My mind immediately went back to last season and those moments at Athelney when Alfred’s son was at the point of death and the two men spoke long into the night together. They knew each other then. And it seems to me that Uhtred is thinking of that, too, for soon he asks Odda,
How can I serve a man who doesn’t trust me?
Face twisted with grief Uhtred continues,
A man to whom I have given so much?
Alexander Dreymon and Simon Kunz were absolutely wonderful in this scene. Heart wrenching, the both of them.

UHTRED vs SIGEFRID & ERIK: In Bernard Cornwell’s novel Sword Song, written in Uhtred’s first person viewpoint, our hero is tempted by the idea of joining Sigefrid and Erik, and of becoming king of Mercia. The moment that he realizes that he cannot do that is when he sees the brothers about to crucify Fr. Pyrlig. Things develop a little differently in this tv series, and although Uhtred strings the brothers along for a while, we know early in the episode that Uhtred is going to stick by Alfred. Even though he is embittered by Alfred’s lack of trust in him, Uhtred is no oathbreaker. He bows to Alfred’s irritating and unwise decision to put Æthelred in charge of scouring the Danes out of London, and is the first to realize that the Danes are after a different prize that leaves us with a cliffhanger of an ending.

Trouble One and Trouble Two.

Trouble One and Trouble Two

 

Photos: Netflix/BBC2/TheLastKingdom

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THE LAST KINGDOM 2, Episode 5

LastKingdom.2aTHE DEAD SPEAK

Three years have passed since the rescue of Thyra and the banishing of Sigefrid and Erik. Ragnar and Brida are in Dunholm (Durham), Guthred rules at Eoferwic (Jorvik/York), Guthrum/Athelstan) is sitting like an old hen in East Anglia, Æthelred is Lord of Mercia, and Uhtred is an ealdorman and is living at Coccham (Cookham). The action has moved south now. Want a map? Here.

Map from THE PRICE OF BLOOD by Patricia Bracewell

Map from THE PRICE OF BLOOD by Patricia Bracewell

The first scene, of Uhtred’s attack on some ravaging Danes, is wonderfully faithful to the Prologue of SWORD SONG, the book that is the basis for this episode and for those that will follow. Uhtred is protecting his land and the nearby villages from Danish raids. As ealdorman, that is his responsibility – protect the people, maintain bridges and roads, keep the peace, punish offenders. As you can see on the map, Cookham is on the Thames and not far from Watling Street, which is the border between Saxon Mercia and the Danelaw – called the Danelaw because those living there were governed by Danish laws, not Saxon laws. Alfred reprimands Uhtred, at one point in this episode, for following the wrong law. We are west of Watling Street, Alfred snaps. Also, remember that London, at this point, is part of the Danelaw. Alfred’s royal city was Winchester, not London.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Uhtred is now a family man, married to Gisela, with two lovely children – his son Uhtred and his baby daughter Stiorra.
Ep2.5FamilyaCookham itself is Uhtred’s holding, but it is also a settlement and, somewhere, there’s a burh. A burh is a large, fortified enclosure where the people can go for safety/defense in case of attack. They were a defensive network that Alfred built all across England, and many of them eventually became towns. We don’t see the burh, but at one point we’re told that that’s where Uhtred is.

And I’m getting ahead of myself again because… Æthelwold! He’s waiting to see Uhtred to give him a message that is, essentially: I’ve been told by a dead man that I’m to be king. He wants to talk to you because you’re going to be a king, too.

Now, just when we thought that maybe Æthelwold was showing some promise, he slips back into stupidity. I don’t mean the talking dead. The Anglo-Saxons believed in ghosts, as did the Danes, the Celts – heck, everybody in the 9th century, pagans and Christians, believed in supernatural beings, both benevolent and evil. No, I mean, Æthelwold has been colluding with Danes. He’s gone into the Danelaw – forbidden territory – and we know that Alfred is keeping him on a short leash and he’s been very naughty. Uhtred knows it too, so he’s in no hurry to go talk to the Danish dead. Alfred would not be happy about it, and Gisela warns him probably 3 times in this episode not to get on Alfred’s bad side.

Next thing you know, Alfred arrives at Cookham, and we have a couple of scenes in which the discussions range from Æthelflæd’s upcoming marriage (Odda: The purpose of marriage is not to be happy); to Æthelwold’s naughty excursion into the Danelaw (Uhtred: Put him on trial, lord, and then kill him. Just saying.); to the Viking threat at the mouth of the Thames that should be Guthrum/Athelstan’s problem but about which he is doing nothing (Uhtred: Guthrum won’t stop them, lord. Send ships and men to Benfleet before they find a leader and become an army).
Ep2.5Uhtred'sHallaAlfred doesn’t like Uhtred’s suggestion about Benfleet because he doesn’t want to break the peace that he has worked so hard to build. He is not a preemptive strike kind of guy. But before the episode’s end, Æthelwold will observe that Alfred’s peace is already over, and early on we are given the reason why. Erik, brother of Sigefrid, arrives at Cookham while the king is there (I don’t know why Uhtred isn’t more nervous about this) and makes nice with Uhtred for a few minutes, letting him know that the power structure in southern England is about to change.

Erik is the friendly brother; nicer than the surly, now one-handed Sigefrid. Remember that.

Erik is the friendly brother; nicer than the surly, now one-handed Sigefrid. Remember that.

Sigefrid, Erik says, is bringing 19 ships (that’s 500 men) from Frankia to the fort that the Danes have built at Benfleet. They are not going to stay at Benfleet but will make bold inroads on Wessex. It’s clear that Erik wants Uhtred to join them. Well, we’ll see.

In this episode we meet, at last, Fr. Pyrlig (Cavan Clerkin), a Welsh priest who appeared in the books much earlier. Alfred sends him to East Anglia to goose Guthrum/Athelstan into action against the Danes in Benfleet. He’ll be back. (Which reminds me, what’s happened to Brother Asser? He was Uhtred’s bane last season, but he seems to have disappeared.)

In Winchester preparations for Æthelflaed’s marriage to Æthelred are under way, and Alfred tears himself away from his work for a moment to look fondly upon his daughter in her wedding finery before going back to his parchments. Alfred is definitely a Type A personality.

Ep2.5AlfredDada
Æthelflæd, who already looked 22 three years ago when she was 11, hasn’t aged a bit. She still looks 22, but now she’s 15. Nobody else has aged either, certainly not Uhtred. Apparently, I’m the only one who has aged since the last episode.

Look at the map on the wall! There are maps everywhere, but we don't have any maps from the 9th c.

Look at the map on the wall! There are maps all over Alfred’s chamber, but we haven’t found any maps from the 9th c. Sad.

Æthelflæd’s intended, Æthelred, is bad-mouthed by just about everyone. Ælswith, who rarely has a good thing to say about anyone, thinks he’s a little too fond of himself. Someone else calls him a peacock while Alfred tries to convince himself that Æthelred is a good and godly man. (He’s wrong.)

Ep2.5AethelredaRegarding the upcoming nuptials, Gisela observes that a peace cow is just a whore in a wedding gown. Peaceweaver is the Anglo-Saxon term, but Cornwell uses peace cow and I’m glad that writer Stephen Butchard managed to work that in.

Father Beocca, though, has found love with Thyra. In the book this happened much sooner, and they already had children by this time. I was afraid that Stephen Butchard was going to cut this relationship, but I need not have worried. Priests, by the way, could marry in 9th century England, but the stunned reaction of the royal family to Beocca’s announcement is hilarious. And we need some hilarity because things are about to get dark.

Uhtred finally decides to go visit the ghost. He heads into the Danelaw with Æthelwold, and when Alfred learns of it he puts a guard on Gisela. I feel the need to defend Alfred here. He’s a worried man. Danes are traveling through Mercia to hit Saxon villages; Lord Æthelred, in Mercia, is ambitious and has his eye on Alfred’s throne (his reason for marrying the king’s daughter, duh); there are Danes gathering at Benfleet but Guthrum/Athelstan is doing nothing to stop them; Æthelwold thinks he is the rightful king and is apparently plotting with powerful Danish warlords; Uhtred is married to a Dane, has a powerful Danish brother in the north, and now is hanging with Æthelwold and his Danish buddies. Alfred is, like the king on that Tæfl board last episode, surrounded by enemies and does not know who he can really trust.

And then there’s Dead Bjorn. Uhtred and company arrive at Eilaf’s hall, and the dead guy couldn’t possibly be any scarier than these thugs hanging out with Eilaf. Haesten is there – Uhtred saved his life at Eoferwic – and the lead-up to the meeting with the undead is appropriately creepy. Now, Uhtred himself has played an undead horseman, so he’s appropriately skeptical. He orders Sihtric to hide and keep an eye on what happens after the meeting with the dead guy is over. Sihtric, the ninny, will get scared and run away. But they are all scared, Finan probably most of all because, hey, he’s Irish and probably more superstitious than anyone. Things get under way when a man is killed to beckon the Dead Bjorn, and, yes, that was gross, but he was a thief and by Danish law he was doomed, so no one bats an eye except Æthelwold who is a dweeb. Dead Bjorn is remarkably eloquent in his prophecy: Tonight, London’s streets are red with Saxon blood. And Uhtred, he says, will one day be the Mercian king of both Saxons and Danes.

And so we anticipate that London – beautiful London – had better look out.

I love this model of London but that massive stone entrance way into the city with its round towers? No. Nice bridge! And the Thames is appropriately WIDE. But no towers like that until the Normans post 1066.

I love this model of London. Cornwell describes the wall surrounding the city as studded with circular bastions, built by the Romans, so you can see two of them here. There is a model of Roman London in the crypt of All Hallows that shows a similar gateway into the city. Nice bridge! And the Thames is appropriately WIDE.

Photos of THE LAST KINGDOM ©Netflix/BBC2

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THE LAST KINGDOM 2, Episode 4

Ep6CoverWE ARE HERE TO DO ALFRED’S BIDDING

The title I’ve given this episode distills, I think, the moving force – not only in this episode, but in the entire series. Uhtred is the hero of the story, but the larger background is the history of England and the character of King Alfred.

At the end of Episode 3, Uhtred had been freed from slavery, and had once again sworn his oath to Alfred as his king. You may recall that Uhtred’s earlier pledges to the king were for a specific period of time or to accomplish a specific task. But this oath, made under duress to keep the king from punishing Ragnar for a murder that Uhtred committed, appears to be open-ended. Uhtred is now Alfred’s man. Period.

Ragnar, who had expected that Uhtred would help him rescue their sister from Dunholm, is resentful, claiming that in making that oath, Uhtred has made himself a slave again; he is not free to follow his own aims. This is a very Viking way of looking at the matter. The Scandinavians had no kings at this time – only war lords whose goals were to achieve wealth and fame for themselves and their followers by preying upon others. Men might bind themselves to such a lord, but only for as long as he was a worthy warrior and ring giver, and sometimes only for a specific campaign or season. And, if the leader couldn’t provide the expected rewards, they could turn to someone stronger and more successful. The brothers Erik and Sigefrid represent this type of leader; they have no wish to settle and rule, only to prey upon those weaker and unprotected. It is why Alfred wants them out of England. Later in this episode, Brida speaks for the Danes when she complains that Guthred – whom Alfred supports as king in Northumbria – is weak, and that the Danes won’t fight for him against Erik and Sigefrid.

This difference between the Viking view of a man’s bargain with his lord and the Saxon view of his oath to a king is at play throughout this episode. It begins with Ragnar’s quip that Uhtred is a slave. Then Odda refers to it when he warns Alfred that Uhtred’s desire to regain Bebbanburg may have a greater hold on him than his oath to Wessex. Alfred’s response is that, should Uhtred disobey him and try to claim Northumbria, Steapa has been instructed to kill him. That sounds very cold-blooded, but Alfred has a grandiose plan and Uhtred as king of the north is not part of it. Uhtred is too pagan and too strong, unlike Guthred who, although a Dane, is also a Christian and, just as important, a weak leader who will not turn on Wessex.

Interestingly, it is Æthelwold, Alfred’s disinherited nephew, who articulates Uhtred’s role in Alfred’s plan: Uhtred, you more than anyone, will bring about Alfred’s dream of England. He wants Guthred to be the lord of the north, and you will make that happen. Then he adds, I see it as a king sees it.

Ep2.4AethelwoldAnd that is to remind us that Æthelwold, too, has a stake in this game: Alfred is a sick man and Æthelwold sees himself as the rightful king of Wessex and hopefully Alfred’s successor. Æthelwold also believes that Alfred is sending him north with Uhtred in the hope that Æthelwold will get killed, thus ridding Alfred of an inconvenient relative. Whether this is in fact Alfred’s plan, we do not know. Alfred himself claims that Æthelwold has proven himself in battle and in the witan, and that this assignment is recognition and reward.

We are given insight into Alfred’s mind when he is playing Tæfl with Æthelflæd. There is a lot going on in that scene, so let’s unpack it.

First, there is the game of Tæfl itself, which is, essentially, a war game of this period played on a board similar to a chessboard. It is a precursor of chess, and the ivory pieces used in play are similar to the late 12th century Lewis Chessmen.
Ep2.4Taefla

Photo Credit: The Lewis Chessmen by James Robinson, The British Museum Press, 2004.

Photo Credit: The Lewis Chessmen by James Robinson, The British Museum Press, 2004.

 

 

 

 

Alfred is teaching his daughter war strategy, and here writer Sophie Petzal is foreshadowing Æthelflæd’s role in the distant future as the Lady of the Mercians. That Alfred compliments her on making a bold move in the game is a really nice touch, for she will be bold and she will command warriors.

The insight into Alfred’s mind comes when he explains to her that the king is placed in the center of the board, surrounded by his enemies. Now, I do not know how to play Tæfl or if this is how the game actually begins, but you can see how Alfred perceives himself – as a king surrounded by his enemies. The camera immediately goes to Æthelwold, who is watching. He hears this and gives Alfred a penetrating look because Æthelwold is aware that, as a man with a claim to the throne, he is a threat to the king. It’s why he thinks Alfred is sending him north – to get him out of the way and put him in peril. But Æthelwold will remember the set-up of that Tæfl board in a later scene, and will give Uhtred advice on where, amid the tents of the Danes, their leader will be found: in the center. Again, it’s a nice touch.

Then Alfred gives Æthelwold a token – a symbol of Alfred’s kingship – to indicate Æthelwold’s authority. I squealed when I saw what the token was: the Alfred Jewel.

Ep2.4JewelaWell, a facsimile anyway. This object was discovered in Somerset in 1693, and it has an inscription in Old English around the central crystal that says, in gold, ‘Alfred ordered me to be made’. It’s actually believed to be the handle of an æstel, which is a manuscript pointer used in formal readings and in teaching from manuscripts, and it would have been very valuable.

The Alfred Jewel. Photo Credit: The Ashmolean Museum.

The Alfred Jewel. Photo Credit: The Ashmolean Museum.

Like the Tæfl game and like the scored candles of the previous episode, the Alfred Jewel is a distinct reference to the Anglo-Saxon world of Alfred the Great. And the presence of these items is so wonderful that I am willing to overlook the gown that Gisela is wearing which is neither Danish nor Anglo-Saxon nor 9th century. She does look lovely in red, though.
Ep2.4GiselaGowna
Gisela’s brother Guthred gets the chance to say “Sorry” to Uhtred for selling him into slavery, and Uhtred gets to slap him. In the book Uhtred calls him a bastard, an earsling and a piece of weasel-shit, and then forgives him. The two men actually like each other. I kind of like that Uhtred, here, hits him. He should have hit him harder though.

The episode is all about how Uhtred manages to boot Sigefrid and Erik from Northumbria per Alfred’s instructions, and also manages to help Ragnar rescue Thyra and punish Kjartan. Ragnar’s berserker savagery toward Kjartan shocks everyone, but remember that Kjartan murdered Ragnar’s father, mother and grandfather, and drove his sister to near madness. In the novel, Thyra is much worse off than we see her in the series. In the book she is naked except for a deerskin cloak; her body is covered with scars and sores; her hair is matted, greasy and tangled; her fingernails are long as knife blades, and she is like something out of a nightmare. In both series and book, it is Beocca who calms her, who pulls her back from insanity. Good old Beocca!

Missions accomplished, Uhtred returns to Winchester where Gisela is waiting. He leaves Northumbria to Ragnar, Brida and Guthred. But Alfred, too, is waiting in Winchester, and because Uhtred is Alfred’s man, we can be pretty sure that his work is not yet done. And besides, there are four more episodes!

Photos of THE LAST KINGDOM © Netflix/BBC2

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THE LAST KINGDOM 2, Episode 3

Logo2PULL, YOU BASTARDS!

Beware! Spoilers ahead, big time. DO NOT read this if you have not seen Episode 3 of Season 2. Even if you’ve read the book, this episode differs enough from the novel that I don’t want to spoil it for you, so proceed at your peril. Go watch the episode, but don’t forget to come back.

Guthred made a bargain with Uhtred’s Uncle Ælfric to trade Uhtred’s freedom in return for 200 armed warriors. Too bad for Guthred that the fine print specified that Ælfric wanted Uhtred’s head, and selling him to a slaver wasn’t good enough.

Guthred's hall at Eoforwic. Interesting throne.

Guthred’s hall at Eoforwic. Interesting throne.

So right away we have everyone pissed at Guthred, especially Ælfric. Ælfric, the Viking brothers Sigefrid and Erik, and even Gisela desert Guthred. His plan to lay siege to Kjartan at Dunholm was likely to fail in any case. So, the vikings run amok through his kingdom, with Sigefrid gleefully calling himself the Lord of Chaos. Guthred is helpless without Uhtred’s sword and cleverness. He’s left with no friends but Abbot Eadred and Brother Trew, and the three of them deserve each other. Before she leaves, Gisela gives Sihtric (Kjartan’s bastard son who is sworn to Uhtred) a note to give to Hild, trusting that the nun will eventually return to Eoforwic. Presumably it has the name of the slaver who has taken Uhtred.

In Winchester, Alfred and Æthelflæd are looking at a map (I love maps) as a way of bringing up the idea of a marriage alliance with Mercia.

Ep2.3aMap

If you have never seen the Gough Map, you should take a look at it. I think it may have been the model for the one we see here. Æthelflaed, of course, is prepared to do her duty in the marriage market, which makes her the exact opposite of Gisela who balks at any mention of marriage, although Abbot Eadred is clearly leaning toward such an alliance with Ælfric.

Every so often in this episode we check in with Uhtred and Hallig and their new friend Finan (Mark Rowley). We see them rowing. We see them baling to keep their feet from rotting. We see them shivering violently in rain and snow. We see them whipped. There is nothing on the ship in the way of comfort or sanitation or even room to move. We see them growing more and more physically wretched and mentally/emotionally damaged.

Ep2.3aShip2According to Paddy Griffith’s The Viking Art of War, an extended voyage on a longship (they go to Iceland!) was an endurance test, even if you weren’t a slave. If you were clothed for bad weather, in skins or wool that had been treated with fish oil to repel water, you would still have gotten soaked. And baling in rough weather was not only a matter of keeping your feet dry, but of keeping the ship afloat. Uhtred and his friends are not dressed for the weather and they are clearly ill treated, underfed, suffering, and barely clinging to hope. The show did a darned good job of portraying the abject misery of the slave crew’s plight. The shipmaster is a horribly inhuman creature, and although the writers cannot duplicate what occurs in the novel, they invent a particularly heart-wrenching incident to get the point across.

In Winchester Alfred gives a feast for Ceolwulf (David Gant). This is not in the novel, and it is a wonderful addition, wonderfully written and acted. Ceolwulf was the ruler of Western Mercia, and in this scene he is yammering about wanting men to fight the Danes while Alfred is trying to nudge him toward an alliance. We are one, Alfred says gently. We are not one! Ceolwulf barks. I want warriors to help me against the Danes, and you want to make Mercia an appendage of Wessex. He’s right. That is exactly what Alfred wants.

The fact that Ceolwulf is even in the story is awesome because his reputation has been one of a puppet king put in place by the Danes; but two years ago a coin hoard was found that seems to indicate that Ceolwulf was much more significant than has been thought, and that Alfred and his chroniclers have, until this discovery, pretty much rubbed him out of history. So the writers are really digging into the actual history of the period to add depth to the show. And then Ceowulf keels over dead, and for the first time, we see a stunned, speechless Alfred. It’s priceless. Oh, and we meet Æthelred (Toby Regbo), who will soon be pledged to wed Æthelflæd, and he is gently bullied by her parents into offering a bride price that involves land. Alfred is all about the land.

What did you think of Æthelred? In the novels he is Uhtred’s cousin on his mother’s side, and Uhtred calls him a “bumptious little shit”. (Æthelwold now – Alfred’s nephew – he’s a bumptious little shit. He hasn’t said much so far, but whatever he does say is always pissy.) We haven’t seen much of Æthelred yet, so the jury is still out, but I’m wondering if they’ll make him as bad as he appears in the books. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself, and poor Uhtred is still on that boat.

When Uhtred is finally freed (it’s been a year!) there is a tender moment with Ragnar, and then an even more tender scene with Hild. It is set in Northumbria instead of in Hild’s Winchester convent, but this works just as well.

Ep2.3aUhtredHild

Now there are two strings still left hanging: Gisela, and Ragnar’s oath to return Uhtred to Alfred. Gisela has taken refuge in a convent but Abbot Eadred finds her and proxy marries her to Ælfric. What happens next plays out pretty much as in the novel, except that Hild is there. And the shocked look on Hild’s face as she watches Uhtred’s savage attack on the abbot will likely lead to the convent that, in the novel, she founds in Winchester.

And then Uhtred goes to Winchester to see Alfred, who is messing with candles.

Ep2.3aCandlesYes, Alfred – along with everything else he did – was a kind of inventor. He experimented with candles until he found the exact candle height, width and weight that would burn for four hours. He scored the candle at approximately one hour intervals so that he could gauge the passing of each hour.

Photo credit: http://www.syler.com/bespoke/hornLantern.htm

Photo credit: http://www.syler.com/bespoke/hornLantern.htm

He also designed the horn lantern to protect his candle by inserting pieces of thinly sliced horn into a wooden frame around it so that a stray breeze would not affect the burn rate.

Where was I? Oh yes. In Winchester canny Alfred uses Uhtred’s murder of Eadred to force Uhtred into his service again. Kings can do that, and Alfred does it while he is messing with his candles. I love this show!

Photos: Netflix/BBC2/The Last Kingdom

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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THE LAST KINGDOM 2, Episode Two

Logo2UHTRED RAGNARSSON IS MINE!

Our Uhtred is many things: a Saxon, a sometime-Dane, a pagan, a baptized Christian (well, not really), a canny warrior, a lady’s man (Beocca: ‘even his scars are handsome’), and sometimes a downright fool. Gotta love the guy.

In this episode he is all of the above and, unfortunately for Uhtred, the foolishness comes at the episode’s end. But, to begin…

We are again in Cumbraland. Where, you may ask, is Cumbraland? Well, it’s near the western end of Hadrian’s Wall. Bernard Cornwell calls it Caer Ligualid, or Carlisle. It was on the border of Saxon controlled land, and everything west of it, all the way down to Chester, was controlled by Scandinavians (Danes or Norse, take your pick).

So, in lovely Cumbraland Guthred is king and Uhtred is Guthred’s war leader and he is making friendly with the king’s sister Gisela.

Gisela ♥ Uhtred, although this moment happens a bit later...

Gisela ♥ Uhtred, although this moment happens a bit later…

A big fellow named Clapa (Magnus Samuelsson) is helping Uhtred train his troops, and here comes Tekil with 6 friends to offer their swords to Guthred. Really, though, they’ve been sent by Kjartan to capture and maim Uhtred. They might have succeeded but for Hallig, Hild and Clapa who come to the rescue. The thugs are dispatched, but it turns out that one of them is Kjartan’s bastard son, Sihtric (Arnas Fedarvicius), and when he begs to swear allegiance to Uhtred, Uhtred takes him on. Does Uhtred really trust Sihtric? Apparently. Do we? We are not altogether sure.

Much of this episode is pulled straight from Cornwell’s Lords of the North, but once again, Stephen Butchard has had to condense or collapse events and combine several characters into one. For example, the Danish war leader Ivarr, grandson of Ragnar Lothbrok, has been replaced by the brothers Sigefrid & Erik who first appear in the following novel, Sword Song. This works, at least so far. Also, Abbot Eadred seems to be doing triple duty as Uhtred’s religious nemesis without any help from the novel’s creepy monks Jænberht & Ida, and he does just fine all by himself. He badmouths Uhtred to Guthred every chance he gets and schemes against him in secret. The abbot definitely has the king’s ear, which worries Uhtred, but not as much as it should. Nice habit, he’s wearing. I quite like the colorful trim, and we know that the Anglo-Saxons were fond of bright colors.

Abbot Eadred looking good.

Abbot Eadred looking good.

Hild’s role is a bit more martial than it was in the novel. In exchange for a butchery lesson conducted on one of Kjartan’s dead Danes, (eww) she nabs herself a byrnie. She chooses one that is combo chain mail and leather. It certainly has a nice, lacey look to it, and is probably much lighter than a chain mail byrnie (even a small one weights 25 lbs), but will it stop a sword? Hild! Fashion isn’t the key consideration here!

Clapa & Hallig next to Hild who is sporting her new byrnie.

Clapa & Hallig next to Hild who is sporting her new byrnie.

Despite the changes and substitutions, though, the bones of the story are the same. Uhtred gives Guthred good advice, but Guthred listens instead to the sly, serpent-tongued abbot who secretly sends an offer to Uhtred’s nasty uncle Æfric up in his Bebbanburg fortress. Ælfric, I have to say, is looking quite natty in his handsome new tunic. He’s clean and quite good looking. He actually reminds me a little of Alfred. Too bad he’s a bad guy.

Uncle Æfric

Uncle Æfric

Speaking of Alfred, he is down in Winchester standing with his wife, Ælswith, watching his daughter Æthelflaed practice her sword skills with Steapa. Steapa (Adrian Bouchet) is a significant character. Keep an eye on him. Alfred remarks fondly that he does not wish to see his daughter wed. Practical Ælswith says that she must be wed and in any case,

“Steapa would kill any man who dared to harm her. Even a husband. He’s as much her man as he is yours.”

And then Alfred – pious, intense, serious Alfred the Great – makes a joke! Even Ælswith can barely believe it.

We need a little levity right about now because back up north Uhtred is putting the severed heads of Tekla and his men to good use. I’m sorry that the writers did not have Uhtred describe himself as a shadow walker, a sceadugengan, because I’d love to hear that word said out loud. How do you pronounce it again? However you say it, a sceadugengan is what he is, and when Kjartan and his men find those severed heads the background music is a total creep out. Uhtred, disguised as the dead horseman, rides again, and even though Kjartan shouts that he knows it’s Uhtred, the cry comes back, “I’ll have your soul!”

Ep2.2aHorseman
And then it’s time for Uhtred to be a darned fool by making a bid for Gisela’s hand in marriage. He does this by explaining to his friend Guthred that he, Uhtred, is a lord of the north just like Sigeferth; that he might easily become Guthred’s rival. He says this half in jest, half in earnest, and really it’s his timing that is so horrible because he has just unwittingly (Uhtred, you dimwit) played into the hands of Abbot Eadred who’s been hissing to Guthred that Uhtred wants to be king.

So, in the final scenes, Guthred turns on his friend like a snake, turns on the man who saved him from slavery and who was responsible for making him king. He trades Uhtred for 200 of Ælfric’s warriors so he can defeat Kjartan by besieging Dunholm. Sure, he knows it’s wrong and he feels some guilt. But, let’s face it: all the grit in Guthred’s bloodline went to his sister.

Here is Guthred feeling guilt for what he's about to do.

Here is Guthred feeling guilt for what he’s about to do, the snake.

All is not lost, though, because Hild has gone to Alfred for help. She covers the 200+ miles to Winchester in practically the blink of an eye, and although there are some there who are pretty eager to say it would be impossible to save Uhtred so why even try? – I’m looking at you, Ælswith – and although Alfred can’t imagine how to go about finding our sold-into-slavery hero, good old Odda the Elder has a brilliant suggestion. Way to go Odda!

But help for Uhtred and his trusty companion Hallig is, of course, a long way away, and we’re left with a lovely cliffhanger of an ending until the next episode. Oh, well done!

All Photos: Netflix/BBC2/TheLastKingdom

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THE LAST KINGDOM HISTORICAL NOTES

logotlkEvents came at us thick and fast in Episode 1 of Season Two, The Last Kingdom, so I thought I would offer a few historical tidbits.

GUTHRED: The 10th century History of St. Cuthbert says that a Dane named Guthred was raised to kingship from a Viking army through the visionary intercession of the saint.

Ep2.1aGuthredTo show his thanks, Guthred granted St. Cuthbert’s community control over all the lands between the Rivers Tyne and Wear. Take away the element of miracles and visions, and we have a Viking warleader acknowledging the power and authority of this community of monks. In return, they offer him allegiance and St. Cuthbert’s approval of Guthred’s kingship. His sister, Gisela, is a character invented by Bernard Cornwell for his novels.

St. Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral (Dunholm) Credit: Chris Furkert

St. Cuthbert, Durham Cathedral (Dunholm) Credit: Chris Furkert

ST. CUTHBERT: he was a 7th century bishop of Lindisfarne, the holy island off the east coast of Northumbria. He was inspired by a vision in his youth to become a monk. He lived at several different abbeys until, in the 670’s he joined the community at Lindisfarne. He was a hermit for a while, living outside the abbey on the remote island of Farne until he was persuaded to become a bishop. He returned to Farne in 687, which was where he wanted to be buried. When he died a few months later, though, he was buried first at Lindisfarne, and then his remains were placed in a wooden chest above the original burial ground so pilgrims could see his casket. The body was found to be incorrupt – a sign of his holiness. But Lindisfarne’s position off the eastern coast was exposed to continued Viking raids, and the community moved all their treasures, including the Lindisfarne Gospels and St. Cuthbert. He was taken first to Norham-upon-Tweed, then to Chester-le-Street and finally he was laid to rest at Durham, where you can see his shrine today at Durham Cathedral. It’s possible that he traveled more in death than in life.

Fenwick Lawson's sculpture: St. Cuthbert's Journey. Photo: David Hawgood, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13832521

Fenwick Lawson’s sculpture: St. Cuthbert’s Journey. Photo: David Hawgood, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13832521

David Dawson as King Alfred. Photo Credit: THE LAST KINGDOM

David Dawson as King Alfred. Photo Credit: THE LAST KINGDOM

WHAT IS PHYSICALLY WRONG WITH KING ALFRED? He has to be careful about what he eats, and he is frequently in pain. In an article in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine from 1991, G. Craig postulates from Asser’s description of his symptoms that Alfred suffered from inflammatory bowel disease, probably Crohn’s Disease from the time he was 19. Although this disease is chronic, the sufferer experiences periods of remission followed by relapses. The symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation and sometimes fever. It is an indication of Alfred’s fame (or of his desperate efforts to find a cure) that the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Elias, sent the king remedies that were intended to ease his symptoms.

NORTHUMBRIA: Most of the action in the first episode takes place north of the Humber, and the written records for Northumbria at that time are pretty scanty. When Guthrum was baptized (at the end of last season), he took the name Athelstan and settled in East Anglia. But there were still plenty of invaders attacking the island of Britain: crossing the Channel from France after the Franks had paid them off or kicked them out, sailing the North Sea from Scandinavia, and hopping across the Irish Sea from Ireland, not to mention the Scots. The northern end of Britain was a mess! So Alfred is trying to not only protect his borders, but also gain some control over his out-of-control neighbors in Mercia and Northumbria. Guthred – who is a Christian Dane – would be someone that he would perceive as perhaps able to help keep Northumbria peaceful.

HORSES: Jamie Jeffers at The British History Podcast reminded me that the horses in Anglo-Saxon England would have been much smaller than those in the show.

Photo Credit: The Last Kingdom

Photo Credit: The Last Kingdom

What I noticed, too, was that there were no saddles – or if there were, they were so heavily covered by fleeces that they couldn’t be seen. Saddles and stirrups did exist by this time. No sidesaddles, though.

GISELA’S GOWN: Gisela was dressed in Danish style, very different from what Aelswith is wearing back in Winchester.

Ep2.1aGiselaUhtred

Photo Credit: The Last Kingdom

Also, she didn’t drop to her knees when St. Cuthbert was carried in. So, she is a Dane and a pagan – and Uhtred definitely notices. His kind of girl!

Sources:
Craig, G. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Volume 84, May 1991, pg. 303
Lapidge, Michael, ed. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England, Blackwell Publishing, 2001
Higham, N. J. and Ryan, M. J. The Anglo-Saxon World, Yale University Press, 2013.
https://www.thebritishhistorypodcast.com/

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THE LAST KINGDOM 2, Episode One

Season2Episode1THE PATH NORTH

Uhtred is back! The eight episodes of THE LAST KINGDOM Season 2 must cover events in two of Bernard Cornwell’s novels – Lords of the North and Sword Song, so screenwriter Stephen Butchard has a lot of ground to cover. He throws us immediately into the year A.D. 878 and deftly introduces us to the major players.

Twelve of these characters we met last season; another eleven are introduced in this episode. I’m going to mention every single one of them, so try to keep up.

After a brief look at events in the life of Uhtred as portrayed in Season One, we are swept into Winchester and the court of King Alfred (David Dawson). His daughter Æthelflæd (Millie Brady) has grown into a dark-haired young woman and is practicing her sword skills. If, as in the books, she is only 14, she is a VERY MATURE 14. I suspect she has been cast quite a bit older here because her father and Ealdorman Odda (Simon Kunz) are discussing a husband for her, and although the Anglo-Saxons had no qualms about marrying off their 14 year old daughters, modern audiences might balk. So Æthelflæd has been given at least 3 extra years and a sword. Nice touch, that sword. One day she will lead armies, but that’s in the future.

Alfred introduces the theme of this entire season during a meeting with his witan, warning that there are Danish troublemakers, Sigefrid (Bjorn Bengtsson) and Erik (Christian Hillborg), up north and that a day of reckoning is to come. His nephew Æthelwold (Harry McEntire), who resents his position as Not-the-King listens attentively. Moments later Brother Beocca (Ian Hart) – Uhtred’s friend and former teacher – introduces Brother Trew (Peter McDonald) from Cumbraland who reveals that St. Cuthbert has told his abbot Eadred in a dream that Cumbraland’s heir to the throne, Guthred, has been enslaved by the Danes and must be rescued. Please help.

Alfred, who is already thinking about the troublesome north, instantly agrees, and a few scenes later he will speak of his hopes for (designs on) Eoforwic to his wife Ælswith (Eliza Butterworth), who, I must say, looks quite fetchingly sexy in this scene and comes on to her husband a bit like Lady Macbeth. Ælswith! You naughty!

Ep2.1AlfredAelswithHistorical fact: Alfred sired 6 children, one of them illegitimate – so we are seeing, in this scene, another side to the rather pious Alfred.

Meanwhile, our hero Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon) has been traveling north with two companions – the nun Hild (Eva Birthistle) and the young man Halig (Gerard Kearns). (And no, Halig was not in the novels.) Hild has replaced Brida as Uhtred’s Voice-of-Reason, and although he would like to see her in his bed as well, in this tv version she keeps him at arm’s distance. She goads him out of drinking and whoring, and sets him on the path to Dunholm, to rescue his sister Thyra and avenge his adoptive father, Ragnar Ravnson.

They soon arrive in Eoforwic where the Saxons, led by the firebrand Fr. Hrothweard (Richard Rankin), have taken advantage of the temporary departure of those Danish troublemakers Sigefrid and Erik to murder every Dane they can catch. Uhtred rescues the Danish warlord they have tied up and are tormenting – Haesten (Jeppe Beck Laursen) – and sets him free. (He’ll be back.)

And, oh look! Beocca and Brother Trew, sent north by Alfred to rescue Guthred, just happen to already be in Eoforwic, and Uhtred’s turning up there saves them having to go look for him. Alfred wants Uhtred to help them free Guthred, and when Uhtred learns that the young man is being held on the lands of Uhtred’s old enemy Kjartan, he sees fate at work and agrees to help. If this seems a bit coincidental, well, it is. It didn’t happen quite this way in the book, but Butchard only has 8 episodes to tell the story. Give the guy a break! Besides, it’s logical that Beocca would start looking for news of Uhtred in Eoforwic, so I quite happily bought this fortuitous meeting of the rescue team.

In the book Uhtred drives away the slavers who hold Guthred and who are working for his old enemy, Kjartan’s son, Sven-the-One-Eyed (Ole Christoffer Ertvaag) by disguising himself as a leper. Butchard riffs on it by setting it at night, adding a creepy wolf’s skull to Uhtred’s disguise, and tossing in some real lepers. (About that skull. I thought it was a horse skull, but a keen-eyed reader and zooarchaeologist informs me it is a large dog or wolf skull…thank you!)

Ep2.1aHorseLordIt works beautifully, and I especially liked Beocca’s enthusiastic role playing to assist Uhtred. The priest has hidden depths we have yet to see.

Uhtred as a phantom horse lord sends Sven into the wilderness, hands bound, to relate his horrifying experience to papa Kjartan (Alexandre Willaume). It’s there, in Dunholm, that we get our first glimpse of Thyra (Julia Bache-Wiig), looking like a cross between Miss Havisham and mad Ophelia.

Ep2.1aThyraShe is living in a cell below ground, surrounded by fierce hounds that appear to be under her control, so Sven keeps his distance. Clearly, she has not had a happy time in captivity, but she’s found a way to cope.

Then Uhtred and Guthred (Thure Ep2.1aGuthredUhtredLindhardt) arrive in Cumbraland to be greeted by Abbot Eadred (David Schofield) who, despite the vision of Guthred sent him by St. Cuthbert, mistakes the far better garbed Uhtred for the king and then hates Uhtred for making him look a fool. Calls him a pretender and snarls that he is someone to be watched. Poor Uhtred just can’t seem to get the clergy on his side. But he’s far more interested in Guthred’s sister, Gisela (Peri Baumeister), anyway.

Ep2.1aGiselaUhtredAhem: Uhtred ♥ Brida Mildreth Iseult Hild Gisela. Just sayin’.

I was very excited when St. Cuthbert’s coffin was carried in and they opened it up! I was searching for the gospel book that was buried with him – the one that I saw at the British Library a few years back. But alas, it wasn’t there. St. Cuthbert’s Corpse (Corpse) was there, though. Luckily for Alexander Dreymon they skipped the part where Uhtred had to kiss the saint’s lips. And I’m sorry, Abbot, but that saint looked pretty corrupted to ME!

Ep2.1aCuthbertWhile Guthred is being crowned in Cumbraland, Alfred is in Winchester having a little talk with the hostages Brida (Emily Cox) and Ragnar (Tobias Santelmann) that hints that the king is planning something involving them – set up for a future episode, surely. I love how, when he gestures to them to sit in some very nice, comfy chairs, Brida hooks her leg over the chair’s arm, reminding Alfred – lest he forget – that she’s no lady; she’s a Dane, dammit!

Ep2.1aBridaAnd in Dunholm Kjartan discovers that Uhtred has hooked up with Guthred, so he orders his man Tekil (Marc Rissman) to join Guthred’s army, kill the king and “bring me Uhtred!” More set up for what’s to come.

So there you have it: 23 significant characters and a breathtaking first episode. Bet you can’t watch just one…

All Photos: Netflix/BBC2/TheLastKingdom

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VIKINGS 4 Recap, Episode 20: THE RECKONING

4.15VIKINGSabSPOILER ALERT. A number of characters meet their ends in this episode. One death, at least, has been anticipated for some time. One is a total surprise, so if you haven’t seen this episode yet, read on at your peril. (And now you can’t resist, can you?)

THE RECKONING has elements of King Lear, Richard III, and Hamlet, and I loved everything about this season finale. Terrific, long-running story lines are satisfactorily wrapped up while new plot elements are introduced for the story going forward.

We begin with Ecbert (Linus Roache). We will, essentially, end with Ecbert. And all through the episode we keep checking back with Ecbert.

4.20Ecbert1AThere is a kind of Lear quality about the king as he sits on the floor in front of his throne, rocking back and forth, knowing – because he has a brilliant tactical mind and his son does not – that the Saxons facing the Great Army in a battle miles away, are losing. It seems to me that Ecbert has been, throughout this series, the quintessential medieval king: pious, ruthless, cruel, compassionate, treacherous and, now at the end of his reign, wise. Many fans of the show are already lamenting the disappearance of Ragnar, who has been such a fascinating hero. But as marvelous as Ragnar has been, for me he faded into the background the minute that Ecbert arrived on the scene. Are you Viking or are you Saxon? In my heart, I have always rooted for the Saxons.

So after a brief glimpse of Ecbert, it’s off to the battlefield where we see the Lothbrok Lads, all but Ivar, having a grand time at the slaughter. Æthelwulf (Moe Dunford) puts up a good fight, but when he is unhorsed and then flattened into the mud we go into slow-mo and see the battle from his point of view, and he knows that all is lost. Nice technique.

4.20AethelwulfaIt’s a Richard III at Bosworth moment, but Æthelwulf doesn’t have to call for a horse. His steed awaits, and when Ivar (Alex Høgh Andersen) arrives in his little cart with more Vikings, the Saxons retreat, falling back to Winchester where Æthelwulf announces that the royal family must flee.

Ecbert, still in Lear mode, refuses to budge. He insists on a ceremony that transfers the crown and its powers to his son, then sends his family away with a kind of wild bravado that, when they are gone, dissolves into grief.

4.20EcbertBishopaThe Vikings are deliriously happy about their victory – all but Bjorn who has been grim-faced from the moment the fleet set sail from Kattegat. Now he snarls that they’re not finished yet, that they still have to deal with Ecbert, and that puts a damper on the celebration as they start for Winchester…

…where Ecbert and the bishop, two old allies, are silently getting drunk as they await the reckoning that they know is coming. I felt sorry for the poor guards who stayed behind with them and had to face a Viking horde sober.

The Great Army can’t believe their good luck at finding Winchester deserted, except for Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig) who is still wearing his angry face because he hasn’t found Ecbert. But then Ecbert appears in all his drunken, mad-Lear glory. He doesn’t rage, though. He reaches out to Bjorn – the son of Ragnar who is so like his father.

4.20EcbertBjornaMeantime, Helga (Maude Hirst) is wandering through the burning halls of Wessex singing a mad Ophelia tune and dragging poor, terrified Tanaruz (Sinead Gormally) along with her. We’ve known for some time that Tanaruz was working up to suicide, and I wasn’t terribly surprised when she took Helga with her. Poor Helga.

Next, Ecbert sits in a cage hanging from on high while the Lothbrok Lads debate what to do with him. Ivar wants to Blood Eagle him and continue to ravage the land. The others think they should settle down and hold Ecbert as hostage for their protection. Ecbert makes them an offer: I will give you a deed to East Anglia; that kingdom will be yours and you’ll have the paperwork to prove it. (This, by the way, was the same agreement that Rollo made with the Frankish king. That actually happened and the deed still exists. Ecbert, though, never ceded E.Anglia to the Vikings.) In return for what? Bjorn asks. Ecbert is cagey. Well, he’s in a cage after all. Not sayin’ until you agree to the deal.

The Lothbroks decide to accept Ecbert’s offer, although Ivar insists that Ecbert has to be Blood Eagled. But Ecbert’s one request is that he choose the manner of his death. This is good diplomacy. Everyone at the table gets something. EXCEPT: Unknown to the Lothbrok Lads, Ecbert is no longer king. The deed he signs is worthless. (And he was never the over-king of East Anglia in any case.) The once-king is still duplicitous.

So Ecbert comes full circle in this series. We first glimpsed him in his bath, and that is where his life ends.

4.20EcbertBathaIt is a fitting end, but I will miss him. He was a mighty king.

Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård) , too, seems to be bidding us farewell. There is a lovely Hamlet-like moment when Floki lays Helga in her grave and tenderly placies her treasures beside her.

4.20HelgaaLater, in a beautiful soliloquy, he offers himself to the gods – I am an empty ship with no rudder, set upon their endless sea.

But the episode isn’t over yet. Hirst has a surprise in store for us at the celebration feast where the Lothbrok Lads quarrel yet again about what to do next. Feasts were a time of drunken boasting and taunting, and often it was up to the queen to keep order. Weapons were not allowed in the hall. But there is no queen here, and weapons abound. Ivar, who has anger management issues, snaps. He throws an ax at Sigurd (David Lindström), and the blow is lethal. At first Ivar seems surprised at what he’s done. But his look of surprise fades, and as he justifies his action to himself we can read it in his face.

4.20IvaraI am unhappy with Ivar. I was hoping for someone more like Richard III – false and treacherous, yes, but subtle and clever. Ivar, instead is like a blunt instrument – a cudgel instead of a scalpel. I presume that is what Hirst intends, but I wish it were otherwise.

And still the episode isn’t over. In far off Dorset, in a matter of literally minutes, a warrior bishop (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) engages in prayer, sex and violence, and opens up a whole new story line.

4.20DorsetaHis Latin, by the way, is excellent. No doubt he picked it up at the Tudor Court.
And now we wait for Season 5.

Photos of VIKINGS ©The History Channel

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