The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell.
I like to read about Anglo-Saxon England. It is, admittedly, a topic about which I know a fair amount compared to my colleagues but, considering we only had one term class about it, my knowledge may be quite poor compared to that of people from the UK who had a better chance to learn about it, and for whom this is their national history.
There aren’t many good books on that topic, or in fact, many books at all, and there are also not many writers such as Bernard Cornwell who can cover it as good as he did. I have only read the first book for now, and I cannot judge the series as a whole, but it certainly did make me want to read more of his novels.
“He was my king and all that I have I owe to him. The food I eat, the hall where I live, and the swords of my men, all came from Alfred, my king, who hated me.”
Portraying Danes as invaders as well as human beings and not just plunderers, he manages to introduce a Saxon boy, Uhtred who was once named Osbert, taken by the Danes and brought up with them. Uhtred was baptized and his step-mother was Christian but he still stuck to Woden (Danes’ Odin) in some cases, which made his assimilation into the Danish society easier. He is taken by the man who killed his elder brother and is treated like a son to one of the chiefs in Danish army.
His uncle, meanwhile, tells everyone that Uhtred is dead, thus making himself the heir to Uhtred’s property. However, the priest from Bebbanburg, of which Uthred should be the ealdorman, had his uncle not usurped his place, has taken Uhtred’s father’s will which shows that Uhtred is the heir.
Uhtred first hears of Alfred from the Danes, who do not have a good opinion of Alfred, saying that he
“[…] spends half his time rutting and the other half praying to his god to forgive him for rutting.”
The first time Uhtred sees Alfred is when Alfred is praying with Beocca, the priest from Bebbanburg. Alfred does not make a good impression on Uhtred:
“Alfred, I thought, was a pious weakling, a weeping penitent, a pathetic nothing, […]”
Yet in time his opinion of Alfred improves, as he says that Alfred 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.”
Eventually, Uhtred swears allegiance to Alfred and commands his ships. Alfred demands that he marry a local girl, whose father was indebted to the Church. Uhtred even says:
“Alfred had not changed my allegiance, but Leofric and Mildrith had, or else the three spinners had become bored with teasing me, though Bebbanburg still haunted me and I did not know how, if I was to keep my loyalty to Alfred, I would ever see that lovely place again.”
The last lines in the book are also gripping, making one very interested in continuing to read the rest of Uhtred’s story:
“For I am Uhtred, Earl Uhtred, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, and destiny is everything.”
In addition to catching quotes that capture one’s attention, the book is written in the first person, as it is obvious from the quotes above. It is an interesting portrayal of the only ‘English’ king that is called ‘The Great’ if one does not consider Cnut. Alfred’s biography was written by Bishop Asser and was commissioned by Alfred himself.
Why I put English in inverted commas? Because, as it obvious from the books, at that time Britain was very much divided into different kingdoms. Alfred himself used the title ‘King of the Angles and Saxons’. He, however, is not the first king that was the first king of all England, the title belongs to Egbert of Wessex, who BRIEFLY reigned over united England. Mostly, it is Alfred’s grandson Æthelstan who conquered Northumbria and is regarded as the first king of England by some modern historians. (Source: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_monarchs)
Why I find this book so interesting? It has a gripping portrayal of England and the Danes, the life at that time and the interesting portrayal of Alfred. I have always imagined Alfred as a healthy, strong person who pushed the Danes out of his kingdom and later managed to live side by side with them by with the treaty signed by Alfred himself and Guthrum who also features in this story, thus creating something that is nowadays known as Dane law. In the movie our professor for medieval literature showed us (a pretty bad movie, while we are at it), Alfred did not seem to suffer from any illnesses so it was interesting to read about it here.
To be honest, I could probably write a whole essay on the topic of Alfred the Great (with some research, of course), but I do not want this review to get (perhaps more) boring.
With the addition of Old English words and occasionally a phrase or two, the book is a masterpiece created by Cornwell. It makes one feel as if one is with Uhtred at all times, whether he is with the Danes or serving Alfred.