By Muffet Jones
The first two episodes of BBC America’s drama The Last Kingdom based on the novels by Bernard Cornwell aired on Saturday night. They followed – roughly – the first half of the first book from which the series takes its name. I have waited for this show with great anticipation – this summer I read nothing but Cornwell, and I’m a great lover of all pop culture placed in anything resembling the Middle Ages, so this promised to be huge. Cornwell’s novel is set in 9th century England and, like all his books, gives you a rollicking adventure, great characters, and good history to boot. I was also a little trepidatious about the show – would the BBC version be true to the novel or just Game of Thrones lite? Based on last night’s episodes I have to say – a little of both, but definitely worth watching.
For those unfamiliar with the novel, The Last Kingdom, follows the life and times of Uhtred, Ealdorman of Bebbanburg, an impregnable fortress on the Northern coast of present-day Northumbria. The story opens (and spoiler alert from this point forward) with Danes coming ashore and Uhtred – or Osbert as he is originally called since it’s his older brother who is Uhtred, son of Uhtred – watching as his father sends his older brother to track the Danes and gathers his men to drive them out.
The Danes are led by Earl Ragnar, a fierce and successful Viking, but one who is more interested in occupying the rich farmland of Northumbria than taking its plunder (although he does that, too). Later that day Earl Ragnar and some of his men return to Bebbanburg on horseback to deliver the head of Uhtred’s older brother who had gotten too close and challenged them. Lord Uhtred, played by the ubiquitous but always welcome Matthew MacFadyen, tells his younger son that now he is Uhtred, son of Uhtred, and to please his Christian wife has the boy re-baptized. Ragnar’s Vikings have passed Bebbanburg by and moved on to Eoferwic, or present-day York, where a larger army of Danes have assembled under Ubba, a powerful and superstitious Dane.
When the scene shifts to the town, we see the name “Eoferwic” which then morfs into “York” – a very nice touch, I thought, since the opening pages of Cornwell’s books list the early place names and present-day equivalents. We then see the battle for Eoferwic with Lord Uhtred’s men alongside two of the other “kings” of Northumbria against Ubba’s army. It doesn’t go well for the Saxons, and young Uhtred ends up in the hands of Earl Ragnar. At first a slave in the household, Uhtred saves Ragnar’s daughter, Thyra, from an attack by Sven, the son of one of Ragnar’s men, inspiring Ragnar to take him as his own son, sealed with an unceremonious Viking “baptism” by tossing him off his horse into a river. Ragnar punishes Kjartan and his son Sven for Thyra’s ordeal by blinding Sven in one eye and banishing them from his lands. Uhtred’s “pagan childhood,” comes to an end when Kjartan and Sven take their revenge. Uhtred and Brida, another Saxon child who had grown up with Uhtred in Ragnar’s household and who is now his lover, are exiled into the world and finally driven to the court of Alfred of Wessex – the last English kingdom – to fight against the Danes.
The first two episodes telescope much of the action of the novel; events are presented in different order, and a number of scenes and events are included which are not in the novel at all. In the book Uhtred is only twelve when he loses his Danish family, but he grows up much more quickly in the series – no doubt in order to up the sex appeal quotient. And the casting is quite good. MacFadyen makes a good Lord Uhtred, remote and gruff but not as uncaring as his young son believed. Young Uhtred as played by Tom Taylor is really terrific – good child actors often have such intensity! – and Rutger Hauer is a fabulous Ravn, Ragnar’s blind father and the scald, scop, or bard of the house. The child Uhtred becomes Ravn’s eyes and Ravn educates Uhtred in all things Dane. Ian Hart’s Father Beocca is better looking in the series than he’s described in the book, but he delivers Beocca’s sense of caring and decency. I don’t think Ivar the Boneless made the show, but Ubba Is played to psychopathic perfection.
Cornwell is all about the battle scenes, so getting the shield wall right was crucial. When Lord Uhtred’s Saxons confront Earl Ragnar’s Danes we see the Saxons move forward warily, fearfully, as Cornwell has described ordinary men facing bloody hand-to-hand combat doing. And the forming of the Danish shield wall looks formidable. The two armies meet with enough brutal, up-close hacking and hewing to really illustrate what going all Medieval on someone’s head might really mean. In the novel the Saxons also know all about shield walls, but in the show when the Danes form up it seems to take them by surprise. No matter, the ensuing bloodbath was graphic enough for all.
The pacing is quite fast – a little too fast in some respects. We really don’t get much sense of an internal life from any of the characters, except possibly for young Uhtred. The novel tells the story in the first person from an older Uhtred’s perspective, but here we’re shown everything as if it is happening in real time. We’re introduced to characters and we see something of their character – Ragnar is a kind and loving father figure, but we don’t get close enough to really be moved by his death. We had an entire season to get to know and care about Sean Bean’s Ned Stark in Game of Thrones which made his ultimate end so much more affecting. Cornwell’s Uhtred isn’t terribly self-reflective, but somehow in the novel we feel like we know him anyway. I hope there will be a little more character development in episodes to come.
And that brings me to my biggest caveat – Uhtred himself. The actor, Alexander Dreymon, looks the part and is certainly picturesque enough to hold our interest, but he seems a little too sweet to be the Uhtred my mind had conjured from the books. He has an upper-class British accent – wouldn’t a Northumbrian burr have been a little grittier? – and came across as mild. In the second episode he’s charming, but still light weight somehow. He did have a moment, however, at the end of the first episode when he delivers the head of his uncle’s spy/assassin to the gates of Bebbanburg in exactly the same way that Ragnar had delivered the head of his older brother years before. He has a wolfish grin as he brandishes the head that promises a wilder Uhtred under the lairdish veneer we’ve been shown. I hope to see more of that guy in future episodes. In any case, as Cornwell always says at the end of his novels, Uhtred has many battles ahead of him and I’ll keep watching.
Muffet Jones is an art historian and teaches at Boise State University. You can follow her on Twitter @