In 878 A.D. (C.E.) a battle took place in a field in what is now southern England, which determined the very existence of the country. How odd it is now, to consider that of the few thousand fighting men and women present that day, some gave their lives for what they thought was the small kingdom of Wessex - the last remaining stronghold of the Anglo-Saxon peoples, after years of Viking raids - but in the end, they gave their lives so that the United Kingdom would eventually come to be what it was centuries later . . . one of the world's greatest and most productive empires. How surprised they would have been to learn that their sacrifice was the foundation of so much more than what they could have imagined.
|The final battle, with the shield walls dividing enemies.|
The series is based upon the Saxon series of nine (so far) books, from renowned historical novelist Bernard Cornwell. The story follows the adventures of Uhtred of Bebbanburg, the son of a Saxon Northumbrian ealdorman (the precursor of an earl). When the Danes (Vikings) invade and kill his family, he is taken as a child slave into the Danish household of Danish warlord Ragnar, where due to his intelligence, loyalty and charm, he is eventually raised as a son. But fate is not kind to Uhtred, and a warring clan of Danes kills off his adoptive family as well. Uhtred is left without a country, rejected as a Saxon by Danes and a Viking by Saxons. He has to fight his way into acceptance by those he must trust - including the future King Alfred "the Great" of Wessex and later of all England - in order to gain back respect and his birthright. His story is told against the backdrop of the fierce wars of the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries of England against Danish invaders intent on making the British Isles part of a Scandinavian kingdom. This was a time when battle was eye-to-eye brutal, life was cheap and dearly won, and Pagan and Christian strove to coexist.
|Lord Guthrum of the Danes is baptized.|
|David Dawson's King Alfred battles for Wessex.|
Also excellent are David Dawson as King Alfred, Adrian Bower as the knight Leofric, Eliza Butterworth as Aelswith, Ian Hart as Father Beocca, Emily Cox as Brida, Harry MacEntire as Athelwold (a fan favorite, to be sure!), Charlie Murphy as Iseult, Rune Temte as Ubba, and many others.
|Wessex has finally won everything, while Uhtred has lost all.|
|Hild the Nun takes no prisoners.|
|Uhtred and his Danish brother "Young Ragnar" loyal enemies.|
But here, the screenwriters have rescued the story from one-dimensional Christian-bashing. In the final episodes, pagan Uhtred comes to reconcile the two philosophies in his own mind, Christian King Alfred comes to appreciate that his god may have a broader point of view than he originally thought, Father Beocca realizes that God works even through pagans, and - as happened in history - the leading warlord of the Danes, Guthrum, offers himself for baptism as part of a peace treaty. (In reality, Alfred stood as Guthum's godfather for baptism, and Guthrum took the Christian name Athelstan, after Alfred's deceased elder brother.) In the last minutes of the final episode, we have nuns and priests taking up the spear and raising the battle-cry for Wessex and rushing headlong into the battle - a scene which, given the politics of the moment in time, I agree is highly imaginable. Even the religious would have understood that the saving of a way of life demanded every heart and weapon available, and that defending one's life and land was a justification for war when the invaders were at one's doorstep.
As I watched this series, I was often moved not only by the story of Uhtred and his companions, but by the story of England's birth, and the comparisons in my own mind to our political struggles today. Surely the people of Wessex were increasingly frightened as the Viking menace first tickled their shores, and then made its way inland to kill and conquer. Perhaps at first they - preoccupied with everyday survival at their little farms and trades - would have heard stories of the pillaging and murdering and thought of it as a far-off thing, of not much consequence. They would not have understood that it was growing bigger, that it was a force that did not share the values they had embraced with Christianity, and would spare no one until they were all dead or subjected. Even good King Alfred imagined the Danes as people who would be reasonable, could be negotiated with and then trusted to obey a peace agreement. But he was wrong, and it is to England's luck that he learned it in time enough to get serious about defending his people.
Today we face a similar situation, as a force intent on the destruction of our way of life moves closer and grows larger, while still our leaders and a vast majority of our citizens play blithely along at their day-to-day pursuits, without understanding what is at stake and the choices we will have to make in a very near future. I wonder if we still - we peoples of the western world, who have built civilizations on a specific set of values and beliefs, whether we acknowledge that fact or not - possess the courage it will take to keep the right to decide our own path into the future.
As Uhtred told us in every episode of The Last Kingdom, "Destiny is all." In the Anglo-Saxon way of thinking, Destiny ("Wyrd") was a reality predetermined before one ever took a first breath. But they believed also that individual choices could affect destiny. Let's hope that our destiny is as hopeful and kind to us, as was that of the brave Anglo-Saxon men and women who won their future with blood.
Do yourself a favor and watch The Last Kingdom in its entirety. You'll get a great history lesson, a glimpse into the past of a great people and land, and a rollicking good time.
|Writer Bernard Cornwell with "Uhtred" Alexander Dreymon.|
Bernard Cornwell's series can be found at Amazon.com, at bookstores, and elsewhere all over the web. The popular books are well-researched and well-written, and I highly recommend them.
The Last Kingdom is currently finishing up its run in the UK and Europe, but is finished with the first season's run in the US. It can be purchased online as a DVD, or downloaded from Amazon or ITunes. If you are like me you will be watching each episode about four times.