Sunday, October 9, 2016

The October Sunday Corner with Lee Liberman THE LAST KINGDOM -- How England Was Made

"If you were alive in 880, the word 'England' would mean nothing," says Bernard Cornwell, author of "The Last Kingdom," his chronicles of Saxon history and the basis for the TV series from BBC now streaming on Netflix. After Rome fell, England splintered into unaffiliated fiefdoms; King Arthur, his Knights, and Tristan and Isolde made it out alive in our imaginations from the dark of ancient Briton. Various Germanic tribes called Saxons invaded in the 5th century. By the 9th, when the story of Uhtred the warrior (above) and King Alfred begins, the Viking Danes had moved in on the Saxon kingdoms and were picking them off -- all except Alfred's in Wessex, where brawn would be outmaneuvered by brains.

Early in that war the Danes had Alfred pinned down in several square miles of swamp until 878 when he called up swords from all over England and inflicted a decisive defeat on joint Danish armies. Alfred's descendants regained the 3 Northern kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia, and Northumbria, fulfilling his dream of uniting England under one king (and one God -- Alfred was pious). His foresight and strategic win in 878 (Season 1's conclusion) led historians of the 1500's to call him "the Great". Without Alfred, England might now be Daneland and Danish our mother tongue.

Cornwell (shown below) uses his Saxon adventures to tell the "incredibly untaught " story of how England was won, and he spins good hero in the vein of Horatio Hornblower or loose-cannon Richard Sharpe. (His many historical novels include the Napoleonic era Sharpe tales starring Sean Bean in a lengthy PBS film series.) Cornwell's Saxon chronicles are masterful water and land battle epics -- though you have to dig out from under sword and shield to piece together historical narrative or gain context. Still, it's for exposure to King Alfred and his constructs of civilian order that the TV series has food value, unless gritty battlefield action and strategy is your thing. Then the novels and TV series are total feasts. Season 2 of "The Last Kingdom" is filming now (Series 1 filmed in Wales, Denmark, and Hungary). It contains characters who were real contemporaries of Alfred -- a game of thrones anchored more in history than white-walkers and dragons.

Cornwell's birth father, William Oughtred, dated his lineage back to Northumbria, whence comes our fictional hero Uhtred (Alexander Dreymon, American Horror Story alum), a swaggering, insolent hero born Saxon, bred Dane, accepted nowhere. Through Uhtred the warrior we come to know Alfred's life and his descendants' effort to unite England. Uhtred is a Saxon nobleman's young boy when the Danes capture his homeland of Northumbria; Uhtred Sr. is killed by Dane Earl Ragnar and the boy is taken and raised happily by Ragnar (Peter Gantzler, below, with young Uhtred). Uhtred asks Ragnar why the Danes keep coming to Britain. Ragnar explains that Denmark is wet, harsh, and the ground is so flat and sandy you can't grow a fart. We are here to grow. If you want land and wealth, you have to take it.

As he nears maturity, Uhtred sees his Danish home upended by the murder of Ragnar's family, leaving him and Brida (Emily Cox), a Saxon girl also raised with Uhtred, on the run from Danes who blame him for the murders. The pair make their way to Ubba, a menacing Viking wild man (Norwegian Rune Temte, below) to find that Uhtred's rumored infamy had reached Ubba's ears, making him their mortal enemy. They stay on the run.

Uhtred and Brida head south to Wessex, the only kingdom that remains in Saxon hands. Uhtred wants to recoup his Northumbrian ancestral home and title from the invaders but as a youth he is, in his own words, arrogant and stupid, incapable of ingratiating himself with Alfred (the competent David Dawson, below). Alfred, however, sees a resource in him to learn the ways of the Danes -- they intend to use each other.

When Uhtred and Brida meet the soft-spoken but ruthless leader, we and they get our first glimpse of Alfred's power -- his use of the written word. ("When a man dies, if nothing is written, he is soon forgotten.") His inner sanctum (below) is filled top to bottom with handwritten scrolls describing his actions, findings, translations, and scholarship. (Later Guthrum, a Danish occupier, brandishes one of Alfred's scrolls: "This magic is words without sound -- voices without people; I am going to learn how to use this magic.") Alfred is driven by the order he finds in ancient scholarship, the church, and the law. Uhtred could care less; he thinks Alfred is a pious weakling. But by watching the relationship develop between the paganized Saxon action man and the devout, intellectual king until Uhtred becomes strategist and military leader, you gain the essence of the story.

Cornwell is described by peers as a brilliant writer of battles with "an unflinching approach to bloodshed" (Daily Mail), but domestic relations is not his thing. The TV series succeeds better than Cornwell's first two books in investing the saga with relationships that make you halfway care, while providing tension between Christian and pagan. Aelswith, Alfred's whiny Queen (Eliza Butterworth, below) never stops whispering to Alfred that Uhtred must die because of his heathen ways.

Uhtred has two lovers and a wife in the first season and his women make their mark. Awesome Brida is a brazen warrior and prickly fem; Charlie Murphy's Iseult (below) mesmerizes Uhtred and the camera with a quiet intensity that she also brings to Rebellion, a 4-parter about the Irish Easter Uprising in 1916 (also streaming on Netflix).

The BBC series is executive-produced by two familiars --Gareth Neame and Nigel Marchant of Downton Abbey. A third carry-over is composer John Lunn whose score for Kingdom is unimaginably different from DA; Faroese musician Eivor adds unearthly vocals that get one's pagan up. (She hales from the Danish Faroe Islands which have old folk traditions.)

Although Cornwell's novels and the series introduce King Alfred as the foil to the warrior's ambition to recover his birthright, it is Dreymon's handsome Uhtred whose life-force drives the action. We are due for a full-on treatment of Alfred because his achievements were so foundational to modern civics. Alfred created defense and tax systems, borough organization, representative rule, a legal code; his center of scholarship in Oxford became Oxford University. Many millennia and despotic kings later, his organizational achievements became touchstones during the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Victorian era and onward to the present. Perhaps Alfred's good governing will make it into the TV series if renewals are forthcoming, but for now one hopes that Uhtred gets his land back and hangs up his sword.

Note: the Scandinavian seafaring pirates were called Vikings but were referred to as Danes when living in England.

The above post was written by Lee Liberman, 
our greatly valued, monthly correspondent

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