WE 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.
And 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.
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.
Well, 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.
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.
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