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Favorite Childhood Reads

January is when many bloggers write about their favorite books of the previous year. I’m going to be a little perverse and look back a little farther than that – all the way to…

Grammar School

When I was a kid I could usually be found curled up somewhere with a book. Look at that picture below. See? I looked JUST LIKE THAT.



I had favorites, of course – books that I read and loved. Every reader has such a list, and mine is a long one, but here are the three books at the very top.

little-womenLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)
How many girls have been inspired by Louisa Alcott, I wonder. The number must be in the millions. She gave us a loving family, a supportive mother and four sisters to choose from as role models. All the elements that we look for in a moving story are here: conflict, tragedy, romance, noble heroines and heroes, disappointments and, eventually, a happy ending. I owe Ms. Alcott a great debt for creating the character of Jo March and inspiring me to be a teacher and a writer. Keen-eyed readers of my novel The Price of Blood will find a nod to Ms. Alcott in one of its scenes.

AnneGreenGablesAnne of Green Gables by Lucy M. Montgomery (1908)
Montgomery’s redheaded Anne Shirley appealed to me because although she was clever and good-hearted, she managed to get into one scrape after another. Clinging to a bridge support, stranded, in the middle of a river and getting her best friend Diana Barry drunk on elderberry wine are just two examples. For a ten-year-old me who didn’t always make the right decisions, Anne was not so much a role model as a kindred spirit. (How many times did my father say to me, “I don’t know how someone so smart could be so dumb”?) For years I wished that my hair was red and that my middle name, Ann, was spelled with an E.

SecretGardenAThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgsen Burnett (1911)
At first glance Mary Lennox appears to be an unlikely heroine. Orphaned, unlovely and sullen, she is self-absorbed and even a little mean – until she meets her cousin Colin and sees herself reflected there. Of all my favorite heroines, Mary had the most to learn – about herself and about the world. Like the slumbering garden that she nurtured into wakefulness, Mary’s personality blossomed under the gentle guidance of the people who befriended her. Did I recognize myself in sullen little Mary when I was a child? Probably not, although I see my young self in her now; I could pout with the best of them. No, I was enraptured instead by the huge, mysterious house in which she found herself, by the Yorkshire moors that struck me as no less strange and mysterious, and by the garden that, growing up in suburban Los Angeles, I could only imagine.

Does anyone read these classic novels today? There is a whole new crop of adventurous heroines now to inspire girls, and I have a feeling that Jo, Anne, and Mary have been replaced by newer heroines like Hermione and Katniss. But where did Hermione and Katniss come from? No writer works in a vacuum. The writer’s mind – and the readers’ minds! – carry the memories of earlier stories and earlier characters, embedded so deeply that often we don’t realize they are there. They color our expectations of what a heroine should be or what a villain should be. Sometimes the influence is conscious. Katniss Everdeen’s last name, for example, is pulled from a character in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd; and J.K.Rowling’s literary allusions are legion. Without her wide reading, surely begun in childhood, there would be no Hermione or Harry.

So while I applaud the new heroines, I also hope that the moving stories that inspired so many readers once upon a time will continue to be read and treasured by little girls for years and years to come.

On Pilgrimage:


Orchard House, Concord, Mass. Where Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women.

Green Gables, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Where L.M.Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables

Green Gables, Prince Edward Island, Canada. Where L.M.Montgomery wrote Anne of Green Gables

On the moors, Yorkshire.

The Yorkshire moors, that figure so prominently in The Secret Garden. Burnett wrote the book, though, at Great Maytham Hall in Kent, where the gardens can still be seen.


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The Last Kingdom, Episode 8: The Battle of Edington

Ep6Cover878 A.D. In the seventh week after Easter King Alfred rode to Ecbryht’s Stone…All those of Somerset came to meet him, and those of Wiltshire and Hampshire…they were glad of his coming. ..He went from that camp…to Edington, and there fought with the whole force and put them to flight… Then the force gave him hostages, and great oaths that they would go from his kingdom; they also promised that their king would receive baptism.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, translated & collated by Anne Savage

For seven weeks now The Last Kingdom has been journeying toward the Battle of Edington, which is the climax of this season finale. But there is so much that happens before that battle! Those of us who have read Bernard Cornwell’s book The Pale Horseman have a general idea of what will occur, but because writer Stephen Butchard has been forced to re-work some characters and events, there are some surprises in this episode even for those who know the story.

Ep8LeofricChange is in the air after the four difficult months in the marshes at Athelney. Alfred has been tested, and he comes out of this trial stronger and more determined, convinced that God is with him. He has come to a decision about what must be done to preserve his kingdom, and he turns for advice to Uhtred and Beocca.

Some of my favorite moments in this episode occur when the camera is focused on Alfred as he listens to the men around him, because although Alfred’s determination has strengthened, in other ways he has softened. There is a warmth here that we did not see in the cool, level-headed king of the earlier episodes. One example of this occurs when Brother Asser warns Alfred against trusting Uhtred. He is a man without a soul, Asser says – echoing words that Alfred himself has spoken in a much earlier episode. But Fr. Beocca cries Then I will be his soul, lord! The ensuing dialogue, this argument over Uhtred’s soul, is fine writing, and Alfred’s expression as he listens conveys the change in his attitude toward Uhtred even though he says almost nothing.

Ep8AlfredWhen Uhtred weeps over a terrible loss, the camera angle includes Alfred observing him from a distance. Later, when Alfred goes alone to Ecbryht’s Stone to search for a sign of the men he has summoned, it is Uhtred who follows him and hears him say, Not a single man has come. And it is Uhtred who encourages the king with, Then we must wait, lord. It is subtle, this bond, this mutual respect that has been formed in the marsh between the two men, but it is there. 

AlfredTheGreatAlfred can be cold as well, as we witness in a scene set in Odda’s hall. He is stern and hard, even toward a grieving father. His mind is bent on saving his kingdom, and there is no forgiveness for treachery. As the armies prepare for battle Alfred gives a stirring speech to his men, and before it’s all over, this ailing, cerebral leader becomes Alfred, the warrior king.

Uhtred has changed, too – no longer the hothead we saw in earlier episodes. Fearing (correctly) that Brother Asser might try to undermine his relationship with Alfred, Uhtred turns to Fr. Beocca and asks him to intercede. The brash adolescent who blundered armed into the king’s assembly at Winchester has matured. You are the man I’d always hoped you would become, Fr. Beocca will tell him.


Photo Credit:

But the priest, like Uhtred, recognizes that Uhtred’s maturity has come at great cost.

Even Æthelwold, Alfred’s nephew who believes he should be king, is given some moments of grace before, during and after the battle. It is difficult to know what, exactly, moves him to act as he does in one particular scene when he follows Alfred, clearly with a murderous intent that he, surprisingly, purposefully sets aside. This is a scene that was not pulled from the novel, and all in all Stephen Butchard leaves us with a more positive image of Æthelwold than Cornwell did. That being said, because we don’t know Æthelwold’s motivation, there is still plenty of opportunity for him to turn to the dark side should the show go into a second season.

As for the battle, in my copy of the book it goes on for 36 pages. For the screen it has been trimmed down considerably.

Ep8BeoccaNevertheless, filmed both from above and from the viewpoint of the men in the shield wall, it gives the watcher a feel for the horror of medieval war.

Ep8ShieldwallI’ll leave it to others to describe it except to point out one thing: midway through, Uhtred, driven by rage, goes over the enemy shieldwall and is surrounded by Danes. This moment hearkens back to the first episode, when his father charged through the Danish line and found himself in the same position, surrounded by the enemy. But Uhtred’s father was part of an army that was divided, and despite his courage, the Saxons did not follow his lead. This time it’s different. This time the warriors follow Uhtred because they are fighting, united, under a single king: Alfred of Wessex.

Erik Kain in recently wrote: The market is better than ever for Medieval drama, and there’s plenty of room for more great shows about knights and warriors, swords and sorceresses. I hope that BBC2 and BBCAmerica agree with that view and that The Last Kingdom, which has received nothing but wildly positive reviews as far as I can tell, will go into a second season. We want to see more of Uhtred of Bebbanburgh and of Alfred the king.

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The Last Kingdom, Episode 7: The Sack of Wessex

LastKingdom.2aWhen last we left our hero Uhtred, the question on the table was, “What’s up with Leofric?” Why did Uhtred’s good friend (who we REALLY LIKE!) offer damning evidence against our favorite Northumbrian regarding their lawless adventures in Cornwall?

Ep7LeofricThe answer: Leofric explains that Odda2 had 20 men ready to swear against Uhtred, so he was going to be condemned no matter what, and all Leofric could do was give him a warrior’s death via single combat. In the book, it is someone else that Uhtred must fight, and the entire sequence is far more complicated. But this is a television drama with only so much time and money allotted to it. Screenwriter Stephen Butchard continues to do a terrific job of weaving story-lines together in a way that remains true to the behavior of the principal characters and to the themes that Bernard Cornwell introduced in his novels.

When Uhtred and Leofric duel, they don’t pull any punches. It’s a fight to the death, and it is not something that Alfred – who is angry that two of his best warriors are about to kill each other – cares to watch. If you saw the show or if you’ve read The Pale Horseman, you know how the combat ends, so let’s move on to the real heart of this episode.

There are two memorable tales about King Alfred, and the most significant one is that he was a king who hid out with his family and whatever remained of his followers in the marshes of Somerset for four miserable winter months. His fortunes were about as low as they could get. In this episode there is a wonderful moment when, having escaped from the Danes by the skin of his teeth (with Uhtred’s help), Alfred and the few followers with him remind a contemptuous Uhtred that Alfred is a king. Uhtred’s reply: He is Alfred. A man. King of nothing. And the camera shot opens up to reveal the water-ways dotted with small, reed-covered islands which are now Alfred’s kingdom.

Ep7AlfredIt’s looking very bleak for Alfred, but there are even darker moments to come.

At this point Uhtred harbors enormous resentment against Alfred because he believes the king has been unjust towards him and even lax in fulfilling his responsibilities as king. And always there’s that issue of the priests: Too many priests and too much praying – not enough action taken against a Danish enemy that cannot be trusted. Uhtred’s anger fades, though, as the episode progresses, and it is Uhtred – not Leofric or the priests or even Ælswith – who gives Alfred hope. The scenes between Alfred and Uhtred and their discussions about God, a sick child and an ailing kingdom are especially moving. David Dawson’s portrayal of Alfred, a man who believes his child is being punished for his own sins, is full of raw emotion.

Ep7UhtredAlfredEp7AelswithEliza Butterworth gives a wonderful performance as well. Her Ælswith is usually the woman we love to hate, but in this episode she is a worried wife and a desperate mother, grieving over the suffering of her child and terrified that she is about to lose him.

The child’s illness and imminent death bring Alfred to a personal crisis, worse than any he has experienced before because this is a crisis of faith. Leofric recognizes this and tells Uhtred, If the child dies it will take the fight from Alfred’s bones.

Ep7UhtredIt is Uhtred who takes it upon himself to urge Alfred to action for the sake of his sick child, persuading him that God is not punishing him, but testing him. He has one chance to save his child, and one chance to save his kingdom. The two are intertwined, and Alfred must trust that his God will use a pagan healer to restore his son’s health.

Ep7IseultIt is no easy matter for the healer, either. She claims that if she saves the life of infant Edward, some other child will die in his place, and she is haunted by that knowledge.

The issue of Christian beliefs vs Pagan beliefs plays a large role in this series as it must have in Wessex at the time, although probably not for the king in such a personal way. In Britain, pagan beliefs and rituals would linger well into the 11th century and beyond, condemned by priests like Beocca. Denmark would not begin to embrace Christianity for another 100 years after the time frame of The Last Kingdom, and then a Danish Viking – a Christian – would wrest the crown of England from the heirs of Alfred.

But that part of the story lies in the distant future. For now we are still with Alfred in the Somerset marshes, in the tiny village of Athelney, awaiting the final episode and the single great battle that Alfred, with Uhtred’s help, must win in order to take back his kingdom.

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The Last Kingdom, Episode Six: He is the One

Ep6Cover“I was young and I was foolish and I was arrogant and I was never able to resist a stupid impulse.” UHTRED. The Pale Horseman, Chapter 5. Bernard Cornwell

That about says it all, Uhtred. In Episode Six our hero scores a hat-trick of stupid impulses and manages to alienate Alfred, Mildrith and apparently even his buddy Leofric.

Poor Uhtred!

But it’s not all bad. He finds treasure hidden in a midden, he gets the church off his back (briefly), and he gets a new woman, Iseult.

For viewers who have not read Cornwell’s books, I hope you have realized by now that when it comes to women, Uhtred is the James Bond of Anglo-Saxon England. There’s always another girl in the wings.

But poor Mildrith! She seems to visibly fade beside this exotic shadow queen in the gorgeous gown who arrives with Uhtred from Cornwall.

Ep6Iseult2Iseult is a gwrach – a sorceress, who tells Mildrith “You are no longer part of Uhtred’s path.” Ouch.


Mildrith’s concerns are home & family. Unlike Uhtred.

Mildrith, though, is tougher than she looks, and writer Stephen Butchard has done a fine job of revealing the depth of her character in these few brief scenes. She sends Uhtred to sleep with the goats, and then like Brida she’s smart enough to cut her losses. She determines to find a new protector since her husband isn’t willing to do the job. By the way, divorce was acceptable in Anglo-Saxon and Danish cultures. Their kings frequently practiced serial monogamy – one wife after another as necessary, even after Christianity had taken hold.

Another character who is given a bit more depth in this episode is, surprisingly, Æthelwold. He is still something of a buffoon, but he takes quite a risk in tagging along with Uhtred on his lawless adventure to Cornwall.

So, what does Æthelwold hope to gain by siding with Uhtred, and what does young Odda hope to gain by siding against Uhtred (besides, possibly, Mildrith)? Well, King Alfred is not in good health. If he dies, it is not his infant son who will be placed upon the throne by the witan, but a warrior who has proven his ability to lead men. Young Odda seems to be attempting to place himself in that position, and he doesn’t need a warrior like Uhtred standing in his spotlight, so Uhtred has to go. Æthelwold also recognizes Uhtred’s skill as a warrior and seems to understand that Uhtred may be of use to him if something should happen to Alfred. The stakes for both men are high.

What Æthelwold is.

What Æthelwold is.

What Æthelwold wants to be.

What Æthelwold wants to be.







While in Cornwall Uhtred runs into King Peredur, who is a real charmer in his backward pigsty of a stronghold. He reminds me of a lecherous King Lear. Uhtred also runs into a Danish warlord who proves to be as devious and loathsome as he looks. In the books his name is Swein of the White Horse, but Butchard has re-named him Skorpa, probably because he doesn’t want us to confuse him with Kjartan’s son Swein from earlier episodes.

A creepy looking Skorpa before he double-crosses Uhtred. Why are we not surprised?

A creepy looking Skorpa before he double-crosses Uhtred. Why are we not surprised?

And Asser has finally arrived on the scene! One look at his clean face, neat hair and  stylish, wrinkle-free grey habit and we just know that this guy and Alfred are going to be kindred spirits. Get used to him. As Uhtred says in The Pale Horseman, “I had just met a man who would haunt my life like a louse.”

Brother Asser.

The impeccable Brother Asser.

Asser was a Welsh monk, later a bishop, and at Alfred’s invitation he became a fixture at the king’s court. In 893 he wrote the Life of King Alfred, and it’s thanks to him that we know as much about Alfred as we do. Uhtred hates him immediately, of course, and the feeling is mutual.

Which brings me back to Uhtred’s buddy, Leofric. At the end of the episode we are left dangling over a cliff-edge of suspense about Leofric. Stephen Butchard has done some skillful snipping and re-weaving of characters and story-line in this episode, and I’m wondering what he is going to offer as motivation for Leofric’s about-face in this final scene.

Leofric! Don't do it!

Leofric! Don’t do it!

Am I right in thinking that there is something going on behind Leofric’s pugnacious scowl? Does he have a plan to save both Uhtred and himself? Is he being blackmailed by Odda, who is, after all, his lord? Butchard has veered away from the book here, and we are as astounded as Uhtred by his actions. We’re just going to have to wait until next week, though, to see what, if anything, he has up his chain mail sleeve.

One final picture to post before I close because, you know, ALFRED!

Alfred the Great

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The Last Kingdom, Episode Five: Uhtred vs Ubba

LastKingdom.2aAlternate Title:

Episode 5 begins with shipwreck and concludes with a very different kind of wreck. In between, our hero Uhtred covers a lot of ground – he travels from Wareham to his farm, to Cynuit, to his farm, to Winchester, and back to the farm again. Just to give you some perspective, its 170 miles from Wareham to Cynuit to Winchester. That’s a lot of time on a horse. Ow.


Odda the Younger disturbs Uhtred in so many ways!

Odda the Younger disturbs Uhtred in so many ways!

But Uhtred covers even more ground emotionally this week. He runs the gamut of worry, jealousy, frustration, brash confidence, fear, desperation, pride, resentment, humiliation and anger until finally he gives way to uncontrolled rage. All in all, not a good week for Uhtred or his peace of mind.

Two scenes in particular give some insight into how, exactly, Uhtred’s mind works. The first is a brief negotiation scene in which he taunts Ubba. Uhtred understands Ubba. He knows how to get into his head and under his skin and he does it beautifully. He goads Ubba into frenzy and he loves doing it. Ubba’s manic response plays into his hands, and Uhtred knows just how far to go. He has tactical smarts that are part intelligence, part instinct. That doesn’t mean he’s not afraid of Ubba, and at the very beginning of the episode we are reminded of Ravn’s earlier counsel: Never. Fight. Ubba.

Rune Temte is a fabulous Ubba.

Rune Temte is a fabulous Ubba.

David Dawson's calculating Alfred thinks rings around everyone.

David Dawson’s calculating Alfred.

Unfortunately, for all the skill that Uhtred shows in manipulating Ubba, he hasn’t a clue when it comes to Alfred. Alfred’s mind works in ways that Uhtred can’t begin to comprehend. He is always a step (or three or four) behind. Alfred is a scholar and a thinker; he is not an action figure and he knows it. He confesses to Fr. Beocca that he does not inspire his men, and it obviously worries him. Uhtred, on the other hand, is all impetuous action, at least when it comes to Alfred. Thinking occurs after-the-fact.

Both Alfred and Uhtred are proud, and this inevitably pits them against each other. But Alfred is a king of Wessex while Uhtred is a landless Northumbrian who’s run wild from the time he was ten and who has no patience for the niceties of court behavior. Hotheaded, eager to demand the recognition that he sees as his due, he confronts Alfred in a church before a crowd of witnesses, sword ready to hand, and he cannot understand why a king might find this threatening.


Amy Wren as Mildrith

Amy Wren as Mildrith

Beocca, Leofric, even Mildrith try to get through to Uhtred, but his pride won’t allow him to listen, and Alfred’s pride and position won’t allow him to put up with Uhtred’s brazen behavior. It is a battle that Uhtred cannot win – will never win; but, being Uhtred, that doesn’t stop him from trying.

This tense confrontation between Uhtred and Alfred does not happen in the novel The Last Kingdom, but is one of the first scenes of novel number two, The Pale Horseman. In this second book Uhtred’s story continues to unfold, and new characters as well as new threats are introduced. But Alfred is a constant in Uhtred’s life. There are more fireworks to come between them, and a few unexpected twists and turns lie ahead – for everyone.


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The Last Kingdom, Episode 4: The Peace is Over

BBC2 With Episode Four we have reached the half-way point of this season. A new woman has entered Uhtred’s life. Those of us who have read Cornwell’s novels have learned to not get too attached to Uhtred’s women. They come and they go, except for one very special woman, and she has not appeared on the scene yet. (In the novels she is first mentioned on the very first page of the very first book, but so casually that a reader might easily miss it.)

Ep4MildrethBut back to Uhtred’s new woman, his bride Mildreth. Her face is covered when he meets her raising the question of what might be wrong about her appearance. I don’t know of any Anglo-Saxon tradition that would hide a woman’s face in this way, and it seems to me that the creators of the show have used this device as a kind of visual shorthand to put the audience in Uhtred’s shoes, raising the tension and misgiving – how ugly is she? – in the scene without the internal monologue that Cornwell used in the novel. And it works. And, as in the novel, the problem with Mildreth is not her appearance, but the burden of debt that comes with her.

Ep4Mildreth2A minor point: when we see Mildreth on horseback, she rides side-saddle. The concept of a side-saddle drives historical novelists crazy. When was such a thing first used? Not as early as the 9th century, I would hazard. But again, this is visual shorthand, differentiating the nobly born Mildreth from Brida who we saw riding astride. Nevertheless, in the 9th century women probably rode astride, or traveled in a litter, a cart, or a very cumbersome, uncomfortable – and slow – wagon.

Ep4LeofricUhtred now has one good friend among the Saxons, and actor Adrian Bower is a marvelous Leofric. He is older, wiser, and more experienced, at least when it comes to the king, than Uhtred – a comrade-in-arms in a way that Uhtred could never be with Alfred. And it’s important to remember that Uhtred is not a man of Wessex. He is an outsider, a Northumbrian and, even worse, has been raised by Danes. It is not surprising that the men of Wessex don’t trust him.

Which brings me to Alfred.

Ep4AlfredAnd now we see just how ruthless a 9th century king had to be – willing to risk the lives of men he would have known personally to attain his ends. Alfred chooses the men who will go as hostages to the Danes, and neither he nor the hostages have any illusions about what this means. Poor Father Selbix (in the book he is Alfred’s cousin) is physically sick at the thought of the kind of death he may face if worse comes to worst.
Ep4HostagesI found this entire segment dramatic and moving, and viscerally representative of how terrifying that prospect must have been. David Dawson’s portrayal of Alfred continues to impress me, as the king becomes hardened by his experiences.

Inside the walls of Wareham Uhtred is re-united with Ragnar and Brida, and we are given a small taste of what the Danes like to Ep4Ragnardo for fun besides drinking, whoring, and torturing their enemies. (They also liked music, story-telling, and board games, but this is a brief foray into a camp of armed warriors, and one glimpse of their entertainments will have to do.)

Uhtred’s departure from Wareham closely follows the events in the novel, but the final scene – the lighting of the beacons which, I can’t help it, I just loved it – was original, and perhaps a nod to Tolkien’s lighting of the beacons of Gondor which was itself based on the system of warning beacons in Anglo-Saxon England. Oh, well done!

From "An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England" by David Hill

From “An Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England” by David Hill

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The Last Kingdom, Episode 3: The New King of Wessex

BBC2Despite the fact that the main character of Bernard Cornwell’s books is our hero Uhtred, it is Alfred who is the focal character of this episode. Everything and everyone revolves around him, and actor David Dawson does a spectacular job of bringing Alfred to life. As the title of this episode suggests, the theme this week is kingship and what it means.

AlfredEp3In the very first scene Alfred arrives in Winchester, tense and troubled after the battle of Æsc’s Hill. His brother, the king, is badly wounded, and Alfred is clever enough to foresee what his brother’s death will mean: he will have to take the crown, and the crown of Wessex will be a burden because Wessex is under attack. It’s the last kingdom to resist the Danish invaders.

But wait! The dying king has a son named Æthelwold. Shouldn’t HE get the crown? He certainly thinks so. The crown is mine; my birthright, he says. A son comes before a brother.

AlfredCrowningActually, the concept of primogeniture doesn’t take hold in Britain until after 1066, and historically, long before Æthelred’s death, Alfred had been second in command in Wessex. The brothers had an agreement, approved by the king’s council (the witan) that Alfred would rule should his older brother die. The show is true to that historical fact. (And years later, a somewhat ruthless Alfred would prepare a will that would guarantee that his own son, and not the sons of his brother, would succeed to the throne of Wessex when Alfred died.)

AethelwoldWe don’t know what Alfred’s nephew was really like, but the Æthelwold we see here rings true to Cornwell’s depiction of him. Our first glimpse of him this week is when he wakes up in a stable beside a sow, and he’s such an obnoxious little jerk that we feel sorry for the sow. He gives us an excellent example of what a king is not, in contrast to Alfred who is, at the very same moment, in attendance at his brother’s deathbed, taking care of business.

But this Alfred is no saint. We know this because he says so. He is tempted by the pleasures of the flesh, in the form of a pretty servant girl. You stand for everything that is precious, always to be cherished, he tells her.

AelswithEp3Alfred isn’t quite as tempted by his wife, and we don’t blame him because Ælswith is exactly like Cornwell portrays her – pious, self-righteous, and spiteful. Nevertheless, Alfred treats her with courtesy and deference. She is his helpmate. It’s a pretty good picture of what a political marriage might have been like, although there’s reason to believe that there was personal attraction between the real Alfred and Ælswith. As for the pretty servant girl, she is his temptation, and Fr. Beocca, who interrupts him when he is trying to give in to temptation, is his conscience.

UhtredEp3So what is Uhtred? Uhtred is Alfred’s Dane – his pet Dane, Brida would probably say – and his sword. Alfred needs to understand the Danes in order to beat them, and so he needs Uhtred. Despite the fact that Uhtred can be churlish, Alfred is patient with him, another mark of his kingship. The king never loses his temper, not even when he’s negotiating with the Danes and Ubba starts throwing things. Alfred is cool and collected, and he can talk rings around everybody, UbbaEp3especially Ubba. Ubba is a raging viking, and actor Rune Temte is having a heckuva good time playing the role. I’m loving this Ubba. But, back to Alfred.

The bastard THINKS, didn’t I tell you? Leforic says of Alfred. And having seen the king in action, out-thinking, out-talking and out-maneuvering everyone, we absolutely believe him.


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The Last Kingdom, Episode 2

LastKingdom.2aAt 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:

LastKingdom.2d“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.”

LastKingdom.2gTo 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 LastKingdom.2hmistrusts, 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.


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The Last Kingdom, Episode 1


LastKingdom2BBC America’s new series THE LAST KINGDOM is based on The Saxon Tales a series of novels by the brilliant and prolific Bernard Cornwell. I have been a fan of Mr. Cornwell’s books for many years, so I was excited about this series, and especially curious to see how closely this filmed version would follow the story line and capture the atmosphere of the novels. According to a book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal, “Mr. Cornwell writes as if he has been to ninth-century Wessex and back.” After seeing the first episode of THE LAST KINGDOM I would say that everyone involved with the series went there as well, and those of us watching are going right along with them. This was the 9th century brought to vivid, often horrifying life.

The show’s creators haven’t spared us any of the horror. Right from the start we are privy to the heightened sense of terror inspired by the sight of Viking ships gliding along Northumbria’s coast. The ealdorman of Northumbria and his retainers race back to their fortress to prepare for trouble from these “devil’s turds”, and the language alone is enough to convince us that we’re in another time and place. Village women are sent into the woods to hide while their men, armed and prepared to die, are summoned to the LastKingdom4defense of their lord’s fortress, Bebbanburg. We witness this through the eyes of the lord’s youngest son, ten-year-old Osbert, later to be re-baptized as Uhtred – curious, mischievous, proud, and too fearless for his own good – traits that those of us who have read Cornwell’s novels know will define Uhtred for the rest of his life.

Cornwell’s use of Old English place names has been embraced by the series, and I was happy to finally learn how to pronounce EOFERWIC – it’s Efforwich in case you’re interested. The name appears in print on the screen, and then the letters cleverly arrange themselves into YORK. This happens as well with other place names, like LOIDIS (Leeds). By the way, I’ve read two reviews of the show that mistakenly claim that young Uhtred is taken to Denmark. Not so. He is taken to a Danish settlement in northern England, just as in the novel.


Viking Hall. Photo credit:

This series will actually cover two of Cornwell’s novels: The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horseman so it’s been necessary to collapse and condense some of the details to fit the demands of television. Many of Uhtred’s childhood experiences have been sacrificed, but the adaptation has been done with skill; the writers have kept the essentials and the set designers have recreated the era beautifully.

There were, as well, small visual touches added that I found particularly inspired:
A bit of humor in Uhtred’s baptism scene that helped alleviate some of the grimness of the situation;

The shell-shocked expressions on the faces of the children, Uhtred and Brida, as the world they had known was destroyed;

Uhtred grown up. Photo credit:

Uhtred grown up. Photo credit:

The method used to, all in a moment, illustrate young Uhtred’s relationship to his new, Danish father and at the same time skip forward nearly a decade;

The realistic, and heart-breaking, actions of characters trapped in a hall-burning;

The final scene of this episode that hearkens back to the beginning and at the same time moves the story into new territory.

That territory will be far to the south of Bebbanburg, Uhtred’s lost Northumbrian inheritance. It will be in Wessex or perhaps Mercia, where he will come up against the major figure of this period in Britain’s history, Alfred the Great. Alfred will challenge this young man, born a Saxon and raised a Dane, to decide who and what he really is.


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England’s First City, circa A.D. 1000

For centuries the city of London has been the cultural, political and financial center of the United Kingdom. Turn back the clock some 1200 years though, and you will find that the royal and religious center of England was farther west and south, in the heart of Alfred’s Wessex. The Anglo-Saxons called it Wintancæstir. We know it as Winchester.

The River Itchen today

The River Itchen today

Alfred the Great laid out and fortified Winchester in the 9thcentury on the banks of the River Itchen. The city was well designed and prosperous within its defensive walls. Channels were engineered to provide the streams that ran its numerous mills, and wells provided drinking water for palace and private homes. Royal officials, barons, nobles and wealthy merchants had town estates (hagas) within the city near the palace, and their homes would have been a mix of stone and wood, many of them two-storied, with roofs of oak shingles or thatch.

By the year A.D. 1000 Winchester had a royal complex that included a king’s palace, a bishop’s palace, two great abbeys – one for monks and one for nuns – and two massive churches, the Old and New Minsters, that stood side by side. The Old Minster was the largest church in England at the time, and recent renovations had added a marble baptistery and a six-storied bell tower. Its windows were made of colored glass, its walls were decorated with paint and sculptures, and even its floor tiles were multi-colored. The king had a special throne room in the cathedral’s upper level where he could be seen by his subjects, and the organ – yes, there was an organ! – needed seventy men to operate it.

Model of Anglo-Saxon Winchester (through glass, alas)

Model of Anglo-Saxon Winchester (through glass, alas)

If you lived in Winchester, life was varied and lively. The king, with his family and his court, was often in residence. (I’m willing to lay money that the palace as shown in the above model – lower center – was vastly more impressive than the creator of this model has imagined.) Pilgrims to the shrine of St. Swithun in the Old Minster came from all over England, and merchants from Belgium and Normandy came by ship through the city’s port of Southampton and then to Winchester via the River Itchen.

The major market was along the High Street, where food and raw materials were brought in daily from the countryside. Bakers, brewers, vintners, corn merchants, mead makers and herringmongers had shops in the marketplace. Shoemakers, tailors, hosiers, mercers and goldsmiths must have done a brisk business among the noble folk. Armorers, sword makers and shieldwrights serviced the warriors, while cabinet makers, laddermakers, painters and masons provided expertise if you needed some home repair. The housewife could find rush sellers, candlemakers and needlemakers, and on the outskirts of town the fullers, dyers and weavers represented the textile trade.

Godbegot House, Winchester. Photo: Wikimedia

Godbegot House, Winchester. Photo: Wikimedia

Queen Emma owned property in Winchester, in particular a haga on the High Street that would have provided income until the queen herself took up residence there late in her life. The manor, Goudbeyete,  was large enough that it included St. Peter’s church. A building still called Godbegot House survives from Emma’s time and she is reputed to have resided there.

It was Winchester that was the royal seat of Aethelred II, and once you could go into Winchester Cathedral and see Mortuary Chests that contained the bones of half a dozen royals, including Queen Emma. Today those chests have been moved to the Lady Chapel, where a team from the University of Bristol is examining the remains. Expect to hear more about that project in the future.

Winchester served as England’s royal city from the time of Alfred the Great until the reign of King Edward the Confessor. That was when the king turned his attention toward a marshy bit of land 2 miles southwest of London’s walls and decided to rebuild the abbey there that was called the West Minster. But that’s a story for another time.

The Great Hall of the Anglo-Saxon palace was torn down by pesky Normans in the 12th century. Now it looks like this.

Winchester in the Early Middle Ages; by Martin Biddle, Frank Barlow, Olof Von Feilitzen, and D. J. Keene, Clarendon Press, 1976.

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