Bernard Cornwell is one of today’s greatest historical fiction storytellers. Cornwell initially came to my attention through his Sharpe television series, which is based on his writings and takes place around the Napoleonic Wars (when the show first aired–this probably ages me). Sean Bean portrayed the main character, and after watching the first episode, I was captivated. I watched the entire series and then read Cornwell’s books. I began reading THE LAST KINGDOM when I found out he was writing a book on the development of a unified Anglo-Saxon England in the 9th century, and I’ve been following up with the series ever since.
Imagine my delight when I found that these books had also been adapted into a TV series.
“This is the thrilling little-understood story of England’s founding in the 9th and 10th centuries, the times in which King Alfred the Great, his son, and grandson overcame the Danish Vikings who had invaded and occupied three of England’s four kingdoms,” according to Amazon.com. The narrative is told through the perspective of Uhtred, a dispossessed nobleman. He is kidnapped by the Danes as a child and nurtured by them to the point where, by the time the Northmen attack Wessex (Alfred’s realm and the last English area), Uhtred practically considers himself a Dane.
He has no affection for Alfred, whom he regards as a religious coward who is no challenge for Viking cruelty, but when Alfred surprisingly defeats the Danes and turns on Uhtred, he is compelled to pick sides. He’s a young man now, in love, prepared to battle, and ready to take his position in the terrible shield wall. Above all, he aspires to reclaim his father’s estate, the magnificent fort of Bebbanburg on the wild northern sea.”
Although the Saxon Tales series is not fantasy, it contains many themes that initially drew me to fantasy novels: horses, swords, romance, castles, woods, conflict, and all that excellent stuff. Cornwell is a skilled storyteller who not only transports his readers to another time and place but also captivates us with real and fictional characters.
The most pleasing aspect of the book is Uhtred himself; despite or because of his flaws, he’s easy to admire. He’s ambitious, brave, and eager to learn. As the book proceeds, we see Uhtred’s steep learning curve as he discovers men’s (and women’s) intentions and the dreadful consequences that follow. His reckless naiveté and taunting frequently get him in hot water. But it’s a lot of fun to watch, and now we can do it on TV. Although Uhtred is not a historical figure like the other characters in the story, he plays an essential role. Alexander Dreymon portrays Uhtred, and he looks, sounds, and swaggers precisely as I imagined him in the books… So now I hear his voice when I read the books (yeah, I’ve read plenty of you critics who believe he’s miscast, but I think you’re incorrect). The casting, for the most part, is excellent. The screenplay is faithfully translated from the books, which aids our understanding of the characters in the way that conversation should.
Cornwell has perfected the craft of battlefield storytelling due to writing a lot of historical fiction during the conflict. More fantasy writers should study his work for inspiration. I enjoy the information, explanations, and experiences that Uhtred provides about the battles he participates in and observes. He imbues these settings with a sense of time and location that is neither dazzling nor overbearing. The TV show brings the minutiae of Cornwell’s writing to life in a way that makes how they fought and lived to feel real, and the images help to establish a feeling of time and location.
Cornwell’s writing is halfway between functional and exquisite, which helps. You’re so engaged in Uhtred’s actions and the surrounding countryside that you don’t even notice it. Cornwell gives just enough information to immerse readers in the time and location without resorting to unnecessary world-building explanations, descriptions, or analogies. His style isn’t very fancy, which is fine; it makes the book simple to read. I enjoy the wit and candor of Uhtred’s views. Cornwall’s writing style makes it simple to adapt the series to the screen, with no need for voiceovers or history. It’s a straightforward narrative.
When it comes to politics, I’m a dreadful reader. One of the things that concerned me the most with LARCOUT (EBR review) was how convoluted the politics were. With the Saxon Tales volumes, though, I don’t have the same issue. Sure, politics are there in the series, but from Uhtred’s perspective, politics become more about personal reasons and actions. I see your point. The series’ soundtrack is a blend of electro contemporary (synthesizer) and eerie voices that give the environment a distinct tone. It reminds me of the soundtrack from the film Ladyhawke; some found it strange, but I like it. However, we have the extra benefit of Rutger Hauer appearing in both the film and the television series. The fact that Rutger Hauer appears in both the movie and the first episode is a bonus.
However, the TV show isn’t without flaws. Historical specialists will have issues with the creation and how armor, weaponry, terminology, and other items are used. The novels don’t precisely match history (Cornwell acknowledges as much), and the TV show takes even more liberties with history and the books due to attempting to cover too much ground in too little time. These are the same issues that any adaptation to the film faces, and some fans of the series may be irritated. I say celebrate the fact that it’s on television at all and that it’s an original narrative done long before Game of Thrones or Vikings.
I’m sure you’d enjoy the show without reading the books, but the books are also worth it, maybe more so.