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The Last Kingdom, Episode Five: Uhtred vs Ubba

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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.

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.

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.

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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