I haven’t read too much historical fiction, but I’ve been a fan of History Channel’s Vikings since its first season aired. When I began noticing advertisements a few years back for The Last Kingdom, I quickly dismissed it as a cheap Vikings knock-off, not realizing that the show was based on the novel and series of the same name by Bernard Cornwell. To make matters worse, my wife taught The Last Kingdom to her high school students last year, and we would often have conversations that went like this:
“If you like The Last Kingdom,” I’d say, “you should really watch Vikings.”
“I would love to. You should read The Last Kingdom,” she’d reply. “It’s probably more historically accurate than Vikings and it’s such a good story.”
“Yeah, maybe someday,” would be my response, knowing in my heart that there could be nothing as good as Vikings.
Suffice it to say, I wasn’t that interested. Well, I’m not sure what caused me to give in, but I did. Perhaps it was the fact that my wife had an audio version available and we were out of Audible credits; or, as Uhtred of Bebbanburg would surmise, maybe it was simply destiny – the three spinners of fate intricately weaving together the grand tapestry of my life in a way that placed me in the direction of The Last Kingdom; whatever the reason may be, I can’t believe I waited this long. My wife was right: it is such a good story.
“Destiny is all, Ravn liked to tell me, destiny is everything.”
Taken by the very Danes who murdered his family, Uhtred is quickly thrust into an unknown world of warriors and gods; of loyalty and betrayal; and of loneliness and destiny. Trapped between two very different cultures – as an English nobleman and Danish warrior – Uhtred must not only deal with warring people, but a warring understanding of the world and of himself.
The majority of The Last Kingdom takes place during Uhtred’s adolescence – a true coming-of-age tale with a theme that rings true for so many: who am I and where do I belong? And these are questions that aren’t easily answered. Uhtred as an older man narrates the novel, telling his tales as he remembers them. It is this very aspect of Cornwell’s writing that I find so fascinating: older Uhtred recounting the story of his younger years, from the perspective of his younger self. As a boy, he doesn’t understand much of anything that is going on around him, and as an adult, he ruminates on the actions and choices made in his past and how they had impacted him as he grew. This is superb storytelling and beautiful characterization.
The Last Kingdom’s plot includes three main aspects of life that Uhtred must learn to maneuver: political intrigue (between the Danes and the English, the Danes and the Danes, and the English and the English); religion (the inner-workings of Christianity and the Norse gods, as well as the conflict between those who follow either); and war (a whole lot of war). Cornwell does an incredible job at highlighting each, while at the same time, focusing on how all three dance through the world, hand-in-hand.
In the end, Uhtred’s tale is one of belonging, or more aptly put, a longing to belong. To whom does he truly belong––the men and women of England whom he spent learning from during his formative years, or the men and women of Danish descent, who raised him to not just survive, but to live––or neither? One thing is for certain: Uhtred’s tale is not yet finished (it’s a long series), and – my wife will probably laugh when she reads this – I’m invested. The Danes stole Uhtred and Uhtred stole my heart.