“I am Uhtred, son of Uthred…”
So begins each episode of The Last Kingdom, the BBC’s adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Saxon’ novels which has deservedly returned for a second series. In this, the real-life struggle of Alfred the Great’s Wessex (the kingdom of the title, it being the only one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms that hasn’t fallen to the marauding invaders from Scandinavia) is intertwined with the adventures of the fictional Uhtred, a warrior whose life’s ambition – to retake the northern coastal stronghold of Bebbanburg which is his by right but his villainous uncle’s by possession – is frequently put on hold so that he can either fight for Alfred or chase after women. He’s the one saying that he’s Uhtred, son of Uhtred, of course – although I cannot for the life of me figure out what accent he’s saying it in (the actor who plays him, Alexander Dreymon, was born in Germany and has appeared on stage in Paris and London but knowing that doesn’t leave me any the wiser; but hey, at least he’s well-spoken).
In a world of sharply-defined loyalties – for late ninth-century Britain, it’s generally Christian Anglo-Saxons versus pagan Vikings – Uhtred is a curious mixture of the lot; a Saxon raised by Vikings and a pagan who, as he reminds us at some point, has been baptised not once but twice. His enemies fear him, while his allies are somewhat wary of him as they can never be entirely sure of his loyalty. His weakness (or, if we’re using a fictional warrior analogy, his Achilles heel) is women; were he to put them from his mind, or at least stop trying to sleep with every other one that he encounters, he would probably be warming himself in front of the fire with a flagon of ale in his hand following a slap-up feast for himself and his motley band of followers in Bebbanburg’s great hall by now.
At the end of the first series, having helped Alfred secure his great victory at Ethandun, Uhtred rode north to retake Bebbanburg. However, we weren’t that long into the first episode of the new series when he’d been easily distracted from this ambition that he keeps going on about, not even making it half-way through Mercia before a woman with whom he had shared a one-night stand tried to make off with his money and his sword, only to be thwarted by Hild, the nun-who-wants-to-be-a-warrior (her reward was to have Uhtred try to look at her while she was washing herself in a river). As Father Beocca wisely noted, Uhtred would probably fancy a goat if someone put it in a skirt.
Back down south, Alfred was busy thinking of the future – for it is he who is laying the foundations of what will become England. His latest plan is for an alliance with Mercia (the kingdom to the north of Wessex) by way of marrying off his daughter, Aethelflaed, to a Mercian noblemen. Watch out for her; the Lady of the Mercians, as she is known to history (although she has tended to get airbrushed out of some accounts of the creation of England), is going to matter a big deal as this series progresses.
Next up for Uhtred, however, was a madcap scheme to turn Guthred the slave into a king, which was actually going rather well until Uhtred slept with Guthred’s sister Gisela; for this, he was sold into slavery and ended up on the rowing-deck of a galley bound for Iceland. He was released thanks to his foster-brother Ragnar (son of Ragnar) and Hild, the latter of whom had to remind him that he was indeed Uhtred, son of Uhtred (since some people had started referring to him as Osbert, which was his original name, perhaps he needed reassuring). Our hero then managed to make a rod for his own back by killing the evil Abbot Eadred – over Gisela, of course – which ultimately gave him no option but to swear an oath to fight for Alfred once again in order to avoid facing trial for killing a priest in a church. Bebbanburg, it seems, can wait (and it’ll have to, for the TV series is only on the third novel of Cornwell’s series; there are now ten, with the latest – published late last year – focussing on, you’ve guessed it, a much older Uhtred’s continuing ambition to capture the place).
It’s been noted by various critics that this show – what with the muddy fight scenes, men with beards claiming to be kings, regular killings-off of characters and all that – is very much a British version of Game of Thrones; the same idea but done on a smaller scale, with less overtly naughty stuff (swearing, nudity, etc). That’s as maybe, but what that somewhat easy analysis overlooks is that The Last Kingdom is no fantasy epic – this is historical drama, based on a series of novels which are themselves about stuff that (mostly) really happened. It’s very well acted, with – get this – Scandinavian actors having been cast in the Viking roles, and I’m prepared to forgive the whole thing about what accent Uhtred’s speaking with as there have been far worse accent-related transgressions on the box; at least the viewer can clearly understand Mr Dreymon even in the fight scenes!