As the BBC are about to be showing the new televised series of these novels in the UK, I thought it would be a good time to discuss these books. For those of you who live outside of the UK, I have no idea whether you’ll be able to watch it or not, but in this day of cable TV and the internet, I’m sure it won’t be hard to find somewhere. What is clear, is that the television series has a lot to live up to regardless.
Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon tales, also known as The Last Kingdom series, begins with the novel of the same name. It covers the breathtakingly exciting period of history of the ninth century when the Vikings were a scourge on England’s shores. The English Saxon Kingdoms began to fall to the Danish invaders, one by one, and the large kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and Kent are all soon overwhelmed. But just as all seems lost, one last kingdom stands strong, the Kingdom of Wessex, ruled by the now legendary Alfred the Great. Alfred turns back the pagan incursion and keeps the light of God and Saxon England burning strongly in England’s shores.
The story is told through Uhtred, a man born to English aristocracy, but who is raised and brought up by a Viking chieftain, after his own family is killed in horrific circumstances. Uhtred’s background divides his loyalties, but ultimately he goes on to become Alfred’s chief Warlord. Uhtred is an inspired choice of character for Cornwell to use to tell the tale, because he is in a unique position to tell both sides of the story. These books don’t glorify the brave English defenders against an evil invader, or conversely portray the English in a cowardly light against the burly brave Vikings. Instead they give a balanced – but no less exciting – story of one people desperately trying to preserve their way of life, as they are opposed by an equally determined foe to carve out a life for themselves in this new land that was so much more fertile than their own stony shores.
I really enjoyed this series, not least because a lot of it is set on the beautiful Northumbrian coast that I know so well, and I loved being transported to a time when the land was so wild and uncertain. Strangely enough, what struck me about this story, and why the Vikings were such a difficult foe to oppose was the lack of communication between the various communities of the dark ages. It is difficult for us to really appreciate in our age of instant communication and knowledge, but Cornwell does a brilliant job in demonstrating how misinformed a group of warriors could be. Warriors could be away for weeks, guarding a coastline to protect their village or villages, without realising those same settlements may have already been destroyed. Groups of Vikings could also be completely oblivious to the fact that their side had lost a major battle in the region days past and were now in dire peril.
The story ebbs and flows through the monumental struggle between the sides, and the story is enhanced by the difficult relationship between the strong willed Uhtred, and the determined and brilliant, but pious Alfred. The Television series has its work cut out to capture half the sense of drama and excitement bound up in these novels, but I look forward to finding out how successful they’ve been.
You can buy the first of these novels, The Last Kingdom, on Amazon here.