Last August, my Mother told some of her friends in Pennsylvania that I was hired as an Adjunct Professor at Monmouth University. These lovely folks were glad to hear it and gave me one of the best gifts that one can receive – a book! This book, The Last Kingdom by Bernard Cornwell, is a historical fiction…and it was an amazing read!
For some perspective – I haven’t really had a chance to read too many books since I started teaching part-time. It’s just tough to read the material for the course, prepare the PowerPoints and handouts for the course, and keep-up with some of my freelance reading choices. However, since class officially ended, I returned from my Miami trip, and the Christmas season came to an end I’ve had some free time to begin reading my own choices again. It took me less than a week to rip through The Last Kingdom – it’s a hard book to put down!
This historical fiction is a story about Uhtred, son of Uhtred, who was also son of Uhtred, etc. His land is usurped from him by his uncle and he is taken captive by the marauding Danes at the tender age of 10. This story is set during the late 800’s AD when England was being ransacked by what we would call “Vikings” today. Cornwell sticks to historical facts when he calls them Danes instead of Vikings since during the time of the story “to vike” was a verb and not a noun. Anyway, Uhtred is taken captive as a young boy as his father dies in battle defending their family’s land.
The Danes raise him and one Dane in particular, Ragnar, essentially adopts Uhtred as his own. This affords Uhtred a great deal of protection and a great source of knowledge on many topics – the most important of which is combat. As he grows up, he begins raiding English territories with the Danish fighters. Remember, now, Uhtred is an Englishman…yet he still goes ahead and raids his homeland’s territories.
Cornwell moves the story along at the perfect pace and the reader is shown Uhtred’s thoughts as he moves through the various stages of becoming a man in a war-torn land. His inner conflict is very well written; Uhtred’s inner discussions regarding with whether or not he should be fighting with the Danes or with the English is particularly well done. Ultimately, he goes back to his people though there are various reasons that lead him to that end. Uhtred, though, begins to believe that he ends up fighting for the English because of fate.
The concept of fate and whether or not a man has free will is explored at different points of the story. Uhtred is first a young by being taught the ways of Catholicism through the local priests (in spite of his family’s history being intertwined with the pagan gods). The Danes worship Thor and his set of gods and Uhtred begins to follow and believe in that religion. The compelling argument that changes his mind is the usefulness of one God versus many gods. In other words, Ragnar and the Danes ask how the Catholic God could be worth worshiping if he does not bring victory to his followers. For the young Uhtred, he sees the simplistic logic in this argument and agrees.
One of the best parts of the religious overtones in this book is how, later in the book, Uhtred is forced to wonder about some of the basic teachings of his pagan faith. Once the English begin to fight back and win battles against the Danish warriors, Uhtred wonders if the pagan religion is really the better of the two? Are the three spinners – who the Danes believe write the story of the world and thus assign everyone their fate – really spinning their webs? Or is the one God of Catholicism really mightier than the aggregated power of the pagan gods? Personally, I enjoyed this little bit of give and take that was more subliminal than written.
The novel has a great climatic scene where a great Danish warrior is defeated by the hand of Uhtred. This is one of the best written battle scenes that I’ve ever read. It seems as though describing the motions and situations of the shield walls and various battles are second nature to Cornwell. This is a testament to his comfort level when writing this historical fiction.
If it’s not obvious by this point, I highly recommend grabbing a copy of The Last Kingdom. This is the first in “The Saxon Novels” series by Cornwell. I’ve already gone out and purchased two more Cornwell books – the next in the Saxon Novels and the first in a different series. Go out and grab a copy if you can; Christmas may be over, but this book still makes a great gift!