Hopefully by now, many people have already seen the first few episodes of BBC’s The Last Kingdom series. If you have not seen it yet, please go find it and watch! I did an initial review after the first episode premiered a few weeks ago and promised to give added thoughts after more people had a chance to view it. We are now up to episode 3 here in the states so I am going to give my thoughts on it up through that episode. Please be advised and warned that I will be including spoilers in this review! There is also some comparison and reference to the book series by Bernard Cornwell.
First of all before we go any further, I want to address the continuing comparisons to Game of Thrones. This is not GOT, this is not fantasy and should not be compared as such. This show is historical fiction/drama but by no means should it be considered and some sort of fantasy genre. Nor is it all about graphic sex for ratings. This is a dirty, grim, and often harsh look at history and life during the time of Alfred’s reign and the Great Heathen armies conquest of England. I have read some reviews in which the viewers complained that it felt dated and low budget as compared to some other shows. I completely disagree in that regard. As I mentioned, what it is, is a more realistic presentation showing the conditions that many- most people lived in during that time.
Are there some historical inaccuracies, of course there are- nothing is perfect and I don’t expect 100% historical authenticity or accuracy… if I did, I would refrain from television or fiction at all and read only text books about the events- and even then, I would never get exact because even text books make mistakes. I am far more interested in the story that is being told here and that story is keeping me interested and waiting for each new episode. If you have read the books, yes there are deviations and changes so I suppose that if you are book purist, this may cause you some frustration, annoyance or irritation. I appreciate the changes that have been made to make this story work in the compacted visual version that the creators are limited to. As far as I can see, the story is still falling into place and following a similar path as the books did, just getting there in a slightly different manner.
In my previous initial review, I did go over the highlights of episode 1. I am not going to repeat that here, you can read my previous review here:
For those who have read the books, the first episode followed closely along the lines of the book. It included many of the important events and highlights of the book. Please keep in mind that this initial season is only 8 episodes and is trying to compact the events of two books into these 8 episodes. I do say initial season because from what I have read, if this season is successful, there are already plans for additional seasons! Obviously there is no way they can include every event that each reader might deem important in the filming of the show. While I do wish that we could have seen more of Uhtred’s early years with Ragnar and his family, I understand completely why they chose to present it the way they did. As an introduction to Uhtred’s adult life, the initial episode worked the way it was supposed to. It gave us that introduction to him, his life and the events that would shape his future. We saw the child Uhtred, heir to Bebbenburg, watch the Danes arrive. We watched with Uhtred, the battle between the Danes and the Northumbrians that destroyed Northumbria as a Saxon Kingdom and killed Uhtred’s Father. We were provided with the details of Uhtred’s Uncle’s treachery and deception to take Bebbenburg from Uhtred. Then we also saw Uhtred’s capture by the Danes along with his remaining childhood spent living with them, becoming for the most part a Dane himself. That first episode provided us with the conspiracies and treasons between the Danes. It included the treachery of a family against Uhtred and his Danish family that will last long into the future. Events such as the actions of young Sven against Thyra, Ragnar’s retaliation, then the later hall burning and kidnapping of Thyra by Kjartin and Sven as well as their blaming of Uhtred for the event; those events are by far the most important parts of the initial story that will continue to haunt Uhtred and shape his path throughout the future.
With episode 2, book readers will see a change in the storyline and of course some may be critical of these changes. I have to say that I am not one of those critical people. I was highly impressed with the episode and the additional history/background it provided. In episode 2, Uhtred and Brida fled Northumbria and headed for the supposedly safer kingdom of Wessex and the one person whom Uhtred thought might be able to help achieve his goal of reclaiming his birthright of Bebbenburg. Uhtred’s one goal in life right now is claiming his rightful title and his lands from his traitorous Uncle. Uhtred is young, brash and rash in his actions and thoughts, but he does clearly understand one thing… even were the Danes not against him at the moment because of their belief that he turned on his Danish family, they would not allow him to be the clear owner and ruler of Bebbenburg. The Danes might eventually help him to gain it, but it would forever be for their own purpose. They made that quite clear with their installation of Echbert, “King of Nothing”. They might allow someone to rule or hold a title, but they would be the ones in control of that person. Uhtred pins his hopes on the leaders of Wessex being willing or able to help him.
In episode 2, we see Uhtred and Brida coming into their own beliefs and ideas as young adults on their perilous adventure to what they hope is some safety. We see them enjoying life but we also see both of them beginning to question the world around them and take steps towards the beliefs that will shape all of their future life decisions. Uhtred insists that their safety lies with Wessex for the time being but Brida is not so sure. The one thing they are sure about is that they are not safe with the Danes until they can find some way of proving their innocence in the murder of Ragnar and their family. They have lost everything except the wealth of Ragnar’s hoard and Uhtred is realistic when he tells Brida that they have no other option but Wessex for the time being… whether Brida likes it or not, they can no longer be Dane- they must be Saxons.
During their journey to Wessex, Uhtred purchases what will become his lifelong companion, possibly more important to him than anything else even Bebbenburg. Uhtred’s sword, Serpent Breath is born and is hungry for blood. Uhtred quickly begins to feed his sword’s thirst for blood as he and Brida are besieged and attacked Danes and Saxons both who are hunting for him.
What Uhtred discovers in Wessex is that Alfred, brother to King Athelred, already knows well of Uhtred and the events of Northumbria. As Alfred later tells Uhtred, “I have ears and eyes everywhere in every Kingdom.” Uhtred also discovers his childhood tutor and protector, Father Beocca is in Wessex as Alfred’s close advisor and priest. Father Beocca will forever be Uhtred’s friend, advisor, and in many ways, a Father figure for Uhtred whether he wants to adimit it or not. Beocca will eventually often become Uhtred’s inner voice of conscience and reason much as he is for Alfred. We see the beginning of this long relationship between the three men as Beocca introduces Uhtred to Alfred, makes attempts to defend Uhtred and makes no bones about reprimanding Uhtred for his misguided thinking. Beocca possibly knows Uhtred better than Uhtred knows himself and he stands firm in his belief in Uhtred despite Alfred’s doubts, misgivings and rightful mistrust of this adult man who as he puts it, is no longer a child but a man- a man who is selfish “soul-less” and without principle or solid belief. In many ways, Alfred’s current initial assumptions about Uhtred are correct whether we want to admit this of our hero or not.
Uhtred is young, stubborn and strong willed. His thoughts are basic and primary during this time. He is guided by his lust for life, his need for revenge and his desire for what he believes is his rightful title and land. Uhtred must often be reminded of the bigger picture, of the realities and common sense reasonings by Brida, Beocca and by Alfred. We do see the beginnings of that inner character, that inner man that he will become- the one that Beocca sees.
I mentioned earlier that the show takes a slightly different historical path than the books beginning in episode 2. While it takes a slightly different path, it works well toward taking us to the same events and ideas of the books.
One of the most interesting smaller details that people should pay close attention to is Uhtred’s initial reaction to the buildings of Alfred’s domain. It is in this short scene that we see a glimpse of what will be Uhtred’s life long fascination, appreciation and love of building- and all things of that ancient Roman past that is deteriorating around them. This is actually very important because it sets up Uhtred’s view that the world is falling into the darkness and chaos of the Dane belief in Ragnarok. Throughout Uhtred’s life he will look at the Roman wonders and ruins around him, see the loss of that greatness and compare it to the desolation and chaos of his time. He will see it as that comparison to Ragnarok, the end of time. This deep seated belief in the Old Gods, in the coming of Ragnarok, and in fate or destiny will remain with Uhtred throughout his life even as he makes the decisions to fight for the Saxons, the Christian Nailed God.
Ragnarök was the doom of the gods and men, and heralded the destruction of the Nine Worlds. Nothing will escape the coming destruction, whether you live in heaven and on earth. The war will be wage between the goods and the evils. The goods were the Aesir, led by Odin, ruler of the gods. The evils, were the giants and monsters, led by Loki. Yet the strangest things about Ragnarök was that the gods already knew what was going to happen through the prophecy: who will be killed and by whom, who would survive, what happen to those in the other world and so forth. Despite, knowing their fates, the gods will still defiantly face their destiny, as brave as any hero in a saga. The Norse gods knew what was to come, and knew they could not do anything to prevent prophecy coming to pass.
Episode 2 introduces us to the leaders and followers of Wessex, to their personal conflicts and to their flaws. We see Athelred as a King trying to hold on to his kingdom and we see the problem he faces with a son that he deems as unqualified and unfit to inherit the rule of Wessex in this most dire time. In history, Athelred did have two sons who should have been next in line to rule but a decision was made to place his adult brother Alfred on the throne instead. It is generally assumed that the decision was made because the boys were too young to rule and as an adult already proven in battle, Alfred would be the better choice to rule in such difficult times. We are introduced to Althelred’s son who does not show much capability to rule… Athelred’s doubts about him are apparent when he makes the comment, “I can not believe he is my son… if his Mother were not dead already, I would have her killed for adultery”
We see that Alfred has doubts about his own ability to rule because of his personal failures and sins. Alfred is tempted by sins of the flesh and Father Beocca advises him that this temptation is a sign, a test from God and he must put temptation in his midst so that he can ever be reminded of it and resist it… as a result, his temptation of the flesh is made a part of his household servants and we will eventually see that Alfred does not fare well in resisting it. Alfred’s foretelling and prophetic comment regarding his brother and kingship is, “Pray God that my brother does not die soon, for what kind of King would I be, sinner that I am!”
We also see Aflred’s other weakness, his very real physical weakness- the ailment and illness that will follow him throughout his life.
But, aside from his temptations and his physical weakness, we are introduced to Alfred’s mind, his thought process and his unwavering belief in an idea of One united Kingdom of England. Alfred is intelligent, well studied in strategies of war, cunning and ruthless if he needs to be in order to survive this onslaught from the Danes. Uhtred is advised again and again not to underestimate Alfred. Brida wisely tells Uhtred not to trust him and Beocca warns him against thinking he can outsmart or outthink Alfred. Uhtred is stubborn and refuses to listen to either of them…
What we also see in episode 2 is the Dane side of events. We are given a better feeling and understanding of Ubba and of Guthrum, the two major leaders of the Dane army at this time. The massacre of King Edmund of East Anglia was presented in a gruesome segment that tells the story of that massacre and gives some insight to the mindset and thoughts of Guthrum and of Ubba. It is also the defining moment where Uhtred and Brida realize how impossible is for them to try to prove their innocence to the Danes. Ubba is the leader of the Danes and his mind is set against them, to him they are traitors of the worst sort.
It is during this segment though that we see Ubba’s one weakness.. his complete and unquestioning devotion and belief in his sorcerer, Storrie. Ubba will base all of his decisions on what his sorcerer tells him. If you watch the segment closely, you will also see the beginnings of some inner questions or doubts in Guthrum’s mind. It seems that Guthrum is merely amusing himself and others with his questions to Edmund about religion and this so called true God, but could be looked at as some foretelling of a distant future in which Guthrum did indeed accept Christianity, at least on the surface. What it does foretell is a different mindset and thinking between these two leaders- one which will become more apparent as you see their differences take shape in episode 3.
In history, Edmund of East Anglia was was king of East Anglia from about 855 until his death in 869. In 869, the Great Heathen Army advanced on East Anglia and killed Edmund. He may have been slain by the Danes in battle, but by tradition he met his death at an unidentified place known as Haegelisdun, after he refused the Danes’ demand that he renounce Christ: the Danes beat him, shot him with arrows and then beheaded him, on the orders of Ivar the Boneless and his brother Ubba. According to one legend, his head was then thrown into the forest, but was found safe by searchers after following the cries of a wolf that was calling, “Hic, Hic, Hic” – “Here, Here, Here”. Commentators have noted how Edmund’s death bears resemblance to the fate suffered by St Sebastian, St Denis and St Mary of Egypt.
Uhtred’s and Brida’s escape from Ubba and Gutrum is managed only by their taking of Ubba’s sorcerer, Storri as hostage. Ubba is so fearful of losing his sorcerer that he allows Uhtred to leave but with a last warning that, “One day I will kill you”.
While on the surface, Brida’s treatment of Storri the sorcerer is humorous and shows her own warrior side, it also shows her deeper future path as a seer in her own right. It gives us an insight to her own personal beliefs that are in some ways, far stronger than Uhtred’s. This side of Brida had not really been addressed until this event where she mentions that he cursed her and she was simply stopping the curse. She does not mention what the curse was so she is beginning to keep her own counsel, her own secrets from Uhtred- which will also come into importance in episode 3.
It is towards the end of episode 2 that we see how serious Alfred is about his convictions and about his mistrust or doubts of Uhtred. We also see Uhtred begin to understand the warnings of both Brida and Father Beocca. Uhtred mistakenly believes that he can easily gain Alfred’s trust by going against all of those warnings, by going behind Alfred’s back to gain his own information on the Danes. He assumes that Alfred and the others will accept him, his words and predictions and that he will be rewarded for his actions. Alfred is not swayed by this action which he very realistically points out to Uhtred could very easily be just another trap by the Danes. How do they know for certain that Uhtred is not working for the Danes and that this is a ploy to send them all to defeat and death? Alfred is determined to keep Uhtred and Brida contained until the outcome of this battle is certain. If the Saxons are being set up and will meet their demise at this battle, then so shall Uhtred meet his own end as will Brida. Alfred is nobody’s fool and Uhtred would be wise to keep this in mind should he survive!
Alfred chose to teach Pagan Uhtred a lesson in humility and show him that he is not in charge or in control of dealings with Alfred. Alfred then headed into the battle with his own plan but probably the ideas and thoughts of Uhtred as well.
The battle that Alfred and his brother were headed to was one at a place that Alfred referred to as Asec’s hill… this corresponds to ‘Æscesdūn’ or Ashdown which is generally thought to be an ancient name for the whole of the Berkshire Downs. It is not known exactly where the two armies met, though it was around a lone thorn tree. Thorn Down at Compton, near East Ilsley — meaning Place of Conflict — is therefore a popular contender. Modern investigation suggests a site on the Ridgeway between Aldworth and the Astons.
In late 870, King Ethelred led the army of Wessex against the Danes in their stronghold at Reading. The attack failed, and the Anglo-Saxons were forced to retreat while the Danes pursued. The Danish armies caught up with the Anglo-Saxons on the field of Ashdown, located somewhere near the border of Oxfordshire and Berkshire (the precise location is unknown). It was January 8, 871. The weather was cold and damp, and the Berkshire Downs were soaked and boggy. King Ethelred divided his army in two, positioning the halves on either side of a ridgeway. Ethelred commanded one side, Alfred the other. As the Danes approached, they also split their army.
Alfred watched as the Danes drew nearer, waiting for the order to charge. However, his brother Ethelred had decided that he must pray before the battle and refused to advance until his prayer service was complete. Seeing that the Danish movement would cost him the advantage of high ground, Alfred decided to attack without help from his brother. The Anglo-Saxons’ charged on the Danes on their side of the ridgeway. Although nothing specific is known about the fighting, it is likely that both sides employed shieldwalls from which to push and batter against each other. Eventually the Danes broke and fled across the downs.
Only later did Ethelred launch his own troops into the attack. After more heavy fighting, his side was also victorious.
The West Saxons had a slight advantage in numbers (around 800 to 1,000 men), but the Danes held the high ground. The battle, little more than a great clash of shield walls, resulted in a victory for Alfred. The battle, however, was not decisive. This was a pyrrhic victory, for a great many lives were lost on each side and the Danes were subsequently able to win several battles after receiving reinforcements. Nevertheless, the hard fighting may have made the Danes more cautious in their raids into Wessex, preferring easier targets.
Historically, Athelred would actually die sometime later after the battle of Marton. The Battle of Marton or Meretum took place on 22 March 871 at a place recorded as Marton, perhaps in Wiltshire or Dorset, after Æthelred of Wessex, forced (along with his brother Alfred) into flight following their costly victory against an army of Danish invaders at the Battle of Ashdown, had retreated to Basing (in Hampshire), where he was again defeated by the forces of Ivar the Boneless.
It was the last of eight battles known to be fought by Æthelred against the Danes that year, and the defeated King is reported to have died on 15 April 871. Whether he died in battle, or as a result of wounds suffered in battle is unclear. The site of the battle is unknown. Suggestions include the borders of the London Borough of Merton, Merton in Oxfordshire, Marden in Wiltshire or Martin in Dorset. The more westerly locations tend to be favoured because King Ethelred was buried in Wimborne Minster in Dorset shortly afterwards.
There are just a few last relationships to the book that I want to bring up right now. The first is Leofic because the character is introduced in episode 2 and will play an important part in Uhtred’s life in the future. In episode 2, we meet Leofric who, though he is introduced in a different way than the book format, still will become a friend to Uhtred. In episode 2, we see him as one of the warriors/guards of Wessex and he does not hold Uhtred in much high regard. We will see the friendship develop more in episode 3.
We also meet Odda the elder and his son, Odda the younger, who both will be important to events in future episodes. Odda the elder is a well trusted and honorable landholder in Wessex, much as in the books.
Odda the younger… not so much, just as in the books as well! Their interactions and relationships with Uhtred will most likely play out in a similar fashion as the books. You should pay attention to them because I believe they will both important in the storyline being mapped and planned as the show continues.