Cornwell, Bernard. The Last Kingdom.

NY: HarperCollins, 2005.

They mostly won’t admit it (because it sounds unprofessional), but in studying two cultures who come into conflict in the past, even historians have their personal favorites, like anyone else. Not the “best” side, simply the side they unconsciously root for. I tend to favor the barbarians. Of course, one generation’s long-haired invaders are the next generation’s defenders of civilization against the subsequent round of newcomers. To the Romanized Britons, the Saxons were the interlopers. To the Anglo-Saxons a few centuries later, it was the Danes. Cornwell, one of the best writers of military historical novels in the business, makes a very convincing case for the warrior culture of the Danish invaders of the 9th century as the superior side, though they aren’t really that different from the Anglo-Saxons, aside from the addition of Christianity.

It’s A.D. 866 and Uhtred, younger son of the Anglo-Saxon lord of Bamburgh Castle in Northumbria, is ten years old when his older brother is killed by a Danish raiding party. But the Danes aren’t just going a-viking this time. Led by the three sons of the late Ragnar Lothbrok (who is only mentioned once or twice, actually) they’re there for revenge, and to capture the four kingdoms of England and settle in. Then Uhtred’s father dies in battle and the boy himself is captured, to be adopted and raised by Jarl Ragnar, who treats him like another son. Before long, Uhtred is more Danish than Saxon — a division of loyalties that will follow him the rest of his life. The story follows the progress of the Danish invasion, as seen through Uhtred’s eyes as he grows up, and the defeat of three of the four kingdoms, until only Wessex is left. And Alfred is the new king of Wessex. He will become the only English monarch ever to be called “the Great,” but Cornwell’s portrait is of a prim, sickly, God-bothered king who believes all it will take to defeat his pagan enemies is enough prayer. He will eventually learn differently, of course, but the more realistic of his supporters will suffer in the meantime. Uhtred can’t stand his pious obsequies and his bowing to the venality of the priests and bishops. In fact, even though one can’t assume one knows the social or moral position of an author by reading the opinions of his characters (a favorite fundamentalist failing, in fact, regarding books they don’t approve of), I think it’s pretty clear that Cornwell is extremely skeptical of the supposed good the Christian church has done in English history. Quite aside from that issue, however, the author’s well honed descriptive powers are at their peak in describing the nature of the Scandinavian culture when it comes to diffuse leadership, polytheism, attitudes toward battle and death, and the larger world views of the antagonists. As always, the accuracy of his take on the physical culture of the world he depicts is very high — no winged helmets here — and the character and emotional development of the young, arrogant Uhtred is explored in many dimensions. I found him fascinating and entirely believable. Best of all, this is only the first volume of a series.

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