Bob Carr and Greg Sheridan, together on the same page in today’s Australian (30/6/18), both make the case for the structured reading of the great books of the Western Canon. Homer’s Iliad and its sequel, The Odyssey, are widely accepted as being the very first of these. We should look at them in a new light when it comes to Netflix’s The Last Kingdom during these winter nights of immersion in streamed entertainments.
What an eye-opener these two ancient poetic books are. The gods pitch into the battles of Agamemnon and Achilles in the great ten-year Trojan wars, taking sides in human affairs, even fighting amongst themselves in Olympus over the rights and wrongs of the protagonists they support and the women over whom both heroes and gods battle. Betwixt and between times, and after it all, Odysseus/Ulysses meanders his slow way to Ithaca’s home shores, back to the women and slaves he left on his warlord estate to keep the home fires burning. Ever it was thus, as religion intrudes into the battle sphere and warrior lords gather their fighters, even from the farms, for mighty conflicts where women and treasure are the prizes, deals are sealed and the gods retire happy until the next time.
Among the inheritors of all of this drama are TV’s hugely popular Vikings series and, more recently, BBC America’s The Last Kingdom (with a third season to be released later this year), both of which titles draw those who’ve never heard of Homer right onto the battlefields and emotional concerns of Europe’s ancient Indo-European warrior culture. For this was still the way of things in outer north-western Europe, ever beyond Roman reach, after that period when Rome, beset with its own concerns, had bequeathed only a very shaky Christian civilization to Britain.
So down come the Viking, burning up the map from the north-east as in the opening titles of The Last Kingdom, Gareth Neame’s and Nigel Marchant’s (producers of Downton Abbey) series about a battle culture where men rely on their gods in the days of King Alfred of Wessex, the Saxon southern kingdom that fought the Viking onslaught and led to the eventual creation of England. After Alfred, who is the only British king ever declared ‘Great’, history’s warrior barons now had to contend with the developing ‘right’ of religiously anointed inherited royalty; hence Magna Carta, the Wars of the Roses and its fantasy spin-off in Game of Thrones.
The Last Kingdom is the fictionalised epic of ninth century King Alfred’s real historical vision of Christian literacy for his people, of protective linked defensive burghs and an ocean fleet, of an end to internecine warfare, and of Romanitas for his and neighbouring kingdoms: bringing Angles and Saxons together into the civilizational culture of Rome and securing their trading future with a Europe that was now also Christian. This is the The Last Kingdom‘s context, which is depicted poorly in many of its aspects, but is broadly true in its outlines. Unlike Game of Thrones it contains no fantasy nonsense and is all the more enjoyable for the absence of dragons and ice-blooded zombies. Alfred, the visionary leader, is extraordinarily well-played — a tour-de-force of calmly charismatic, calculatingly cold iron-fistedness, holding back from the old Indo-European impulsiveness in order to apply a considered reason to his plans, rather than thoughtlessly jumping to sword and battle axe as the only instruments of honour. That holding back was test enough for Alfred, although viewers are left in no doubt that Alfred’s Saxons were killers too.
With a pacey, well-written script, pushed along by a haunting musical wail at moments of intense drama or poignant fate, as a contrast to Alfred we see another form of leadership: that of Uhtred, a motif mosaic figure originally Saxon but stolen in a raid and raised as a Danish warrior, made kin to the attackers, cruel torturers of his natal Christian family, but now himself a heathen. As a Saxon-born earl he wants his northern lands and title back, and joins with Alfred as a bonded warrior bestowing useful insight into the ways of the Danes. A conflicted man finding his own way in difficult times, his leadership is the stuff of rippling muscles and a highly-trained sword arm, but it is more than that. It exudes male power, appealing directly to the instinct for male bonding — the antithesis of Alfred’s style. Men trust Uhtred on his word and women fall for him in droves, their loving lusts matching Uhtred’s and filmed fairly explicitly as is today’s wont.
The playing out of these two styles of leadership, both important, forms the structure for the two series of ‘The Last Kingdom’, each season as good as the other in my opinion, as far as swashbuckling tales of derring-do and fair maidens go. The superb acting of these two main characters, and the excellent characterization of a passing parade of supporting ones, holds it all together very satisfactorily (with shades of Downton in that everyone then has their favorites, some of whom sadly drop off early). To keep us balanced in our likings, the marauding Danes are hinted as beginning, albeit slowly, to appreciate the method and value, of Alfred’s approach, and we grasp their awe of writing (how can such marks speak?).
Additionally, a completely bowdlerized account of the historical Ethelfled (Aethelflaed), Alfred’s daughter, known to history as The Lady of Mercia, is used to show that Danes, too, can be overwhelmed by the civilizing power of gentleness and love. We know these Danes will be settling down soon, land-hungry immigrants, on farms with wives and herds, like Ulysses returning to his Penelope, and marrying their Anglo-Saxon neighbours. In history’s good time their descendants, give or take a Norman or three and the odd civil war, will become Downton’s Earl of Grantham and his daughter, Lady Mary.
Meantime, where Alfred proclaims peace, Uhtred proclaims destiny. ‘Destiny is all’, he says at the end of each episode’s short review of the one just past, inflecting the ancient Indo-European gods of fate in contrast to Alfred’s god of redemption, as the two faiths clash and Uhtred is caught between their two worlds.
For the rest, the production values are excellent, the styles of both cultures exaggerated but still embracing a degree of verisimilitude and the storylines are half-way believable. Both series have been highly praised; reviews reach into the 9.5s out of ten. Some viewers complain the storylines and characters don’t stick to Bernard Cornwell’s books, The Saxon Stories, but that matters little in my view. The shuffling, close-up camerawork on the choreographed fighting scenes, of which there are many, and the pitch battles bring the action bloodily home. True to the internecine nature of such conflicts in that era, the ‘armies’ are kept to a realistic size — anything from 30 to 300 men. Alfred at the head of a whole Fyrd (a county) of 1000 men was unusually impressive and a make-or-break action.
Light the fire, mull the wine and settle back. The Last Kingdom is on Netflix and it’s a treat.