The Last Kingdom, Bernard Cornwell. New York: Harper C0llins, 2006.
Summary: This first of the Saxon tales tells the story of the invasion of England by the Danes and the fierce resistance led by Alfred the Great, all through the eyes of a boy turned warrior who at different times fights first for the Danes, then for Alfred.
Uhtred, son of Uhtred, Earl of Bebbanburg witnesses the coming of the Danes, the death of his brother and father and is taken captive by Ragnar, who led the Danes in the victories resulting in these deaths. He loses Bebbanburg to a rival who bows to the Danes, and he himself is raised as Ragnar’s more or less adopted son, learning from an early age the deadly arts of war, the fearsome thing known as the shield wall, and the strange joy of battle.
Uhtred matures as he witnesses one kingdom after another within England fall to the forces of the Danes. He repudiates the Christianity of the youth for the pagan warrior gods of the Danes. And the gods seem to favor them until they encounter Alfred, King of Wessex who is sufficiently successful to win a truce for a time. Uhtred and Brida, another captive, who becomes his lover and constant companion settle down in the beautiful country while they await the next attempt to defeat Alfred, little aware of the treachery of Kjartan, who is plotting against Ragnar, and indeed Uhtred himself. Uhtred and Brida alone escape a slaughter, which sends them to seek shelter, first with English relatives, and then in Alfred’s court, to fight for Alfred against the Danes, and to harbor the hope of recovery Bebbanburg one day.
Cornwell not only captures the fearsome character of warfare at the shield wall, where it is kill or be killed, in brutal combat. He also captures the beauty of the land, which the Danes wished to gain and the Anglo-Saxons wished to hold. And he sketches a portrait of Alfred, who genuinely fears God yet struggles to rein in his lusts, who is tormented by intestinal disorders and hemorrhoids, and yet can inspire men to fight and resist and entertains a vision of not only holding Wessex, but of extending his rule throughout England, even in the face of the Danes.
In the concluding part of the book things come to a head as Uhtred must face those he once fought with, as he fights now under Alfred, and as a confrontation looms that could destroy the last kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. Cornwell brings this history to life, and as he does so, helps us understand why this was fought-over land. While doing so, he draws characters, both real and fictional who evoke strong emotions of affection or disdain, but never “just another Dane or Saxon.”
Having thoroughly enjoyed his Agincourt last fall and the first of these tales, I think I just might go on and read some more!