BBC 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 defense 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.
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;
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.