The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell: A review

In the middle of the ninth century, the prayers of the English routinely contained the line, "From the fury of the Northmen, good Lord, deliver us." It was a time when the fierce Danes came down on British soil like the wolf on the fold. They were hungry for spoils and conquest. They raped and killed and took everything that wasn't nailed down and some things that were, leaving a wasteland and a destitute people in their path. It's a period of history that seems made for the story-telling talents of Bernard Cornwell and he doesn't disappoint. He has created a rousing epic adventure, as told by a young warrior who had intimate familiarity with both sides in the struggle.

As a young lad in 866, our narrator was the second son of a lord of Northumbria named Uhtred. When the older son of the lord, who was also named Uhtred, was killed, beheaded by the Danes, the family name was passed on to the second son. He became Uhtred son of Uhtred. Still a child, he went with his father and his army to fight against the Danes who were ravaging the countryside. His father was killed and Uhtred the son threw himself in fury against the leader of the Danes, Ragmar Ragnar. Instead of killing the boy as would have been expected and accepted, Ragnar honored his courage and took him as a prisoner. He was raised in Ragnar's household where he found more love and acceptance than he ever had in his own family. He learned to be a warrior and he was happy.

One by one, the various kingdoms of England fell to the Danes and Uhtred was witness to it all. Finally, only one kingdom remained - that of Alfred in West Saxon. Alfred was an unprepossessing man, often sick with some kind of intestinal ailment. (Medical historians believe it may have been Crohn's Disease.) He was extremely pious and could often be found on his knees, praying. He was also extremely intelligent, a thinker and planner, and he was stubborn.

In time, fate took Uhtred from the life he loved with Ragnar and deposited him in the household of Alfred. He found little to like about this pious king, but he gave him the chance to be a warrior and that is all that Uhtred ever really wanted. He also insisted that Uhtred learn to read and write, which seemed a waste of time to him, but the king demanded that the leaders of his army be literate and so Uhtred learned.

The king also arranged a marriage for Uhtred - a completely unwanted marriage and yet as sometimes happened, that arranged marriage turned out to be a blessing for him.

This is the first in Cornwell's series "The Saxon Stories" and it is a rousing tale of blood and guts and incredible cruelty. It is a tale in which women are almost entirely absent except as helpless victims of rape or sour, pinch-faced wives of lords and kings. One exception is Brida, who, like Uhtred, grew up with the Danes, learned to be a warrior and was his companion and lover as he was growing up. Another exception may be Mildrith, the wife in Uhtred's arranged marriage. We don't get to know her very well here, but she may prove an interesting character in later books.

Primarily though, this is a book that is focused on the masculine and the hard life of ninth century England is seen almost entirely through masculine eyes. Teenage boys would probably love this book if they could be coaxed from their video games to read it. If they imbibe a bit of history along with the action - and it is well-researched - then so much the better.


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