Vikings, in spite of abundant research, remain largely an enigma. We know how they lived, what they ate, which gods they prayed to – thanks primarily to the discovery of Viking-age artefacts and their interaction with the Europeans (especially Saxons) in literature and other written accounts. But we don’t know the answers to the whys of any of these questions, except for some conjectures. In many ways, Vikings remain an unknown people.
Simply put, Vikings were Scandinavian (Scandinavia constitutes what are now known as Norway, Denmark and Sweden) seafarers who raided the coasts of European countries from 7th to 11th centuries using the hit and run method (an old joke goes that Vikings invented surprise parties). They worshipped gods belonging to Norse pantheon: Thor, Odin, Freya, and so on.
I have been fascinated by Vikings and their gods since I was a kid, and my ears still perk up like a cat whenever I hear the very word. My adventures with Vikings have ranged with Disney’s horned-helmeted noble savages to kind, brave men of How To Train Your Dragon to the History Channel TV series Vikings.
BBC’s The Last Kingdom, based on British historical fiction author Bernard Cornwell’s book series The Saxon Stories, is not specifically about Vikings, and in fact the central character is a Saxon, who were Vikings’ enemies in what later became England. However, it manages to get across some sense of the utterly alien mindset of these people like few other stories do.
After a 9th century invasion of Northumbria (North England) by the Great Heathen Army, Lord Uhtred of Bebbanburg and several of his nobles are killed, and his son and heir, also called Uhtred, is kidnapped by a Danish family. He grows up among the Danes and is something of a pariah among members of both the communities — Danish and Saxon.
The title of the series is an allusion to the southwestern kingdom of Wessex that was literally the last Anglo-Saxon kingdom that held out after every other had yielded against the might and ferocity of the Viking hordes. The armies of Wessex overcame the astonished Danes repeatedly and the credit for those remarkable victories is usually given to the strategic brilliance of Alfred the Great: the then king of Wessex. But in Bernard Cornwell’s world, Alfred shares the credit of Wessex’s deliverance with Uhtred.
He envisions all the disparate Saxon kingdoms united as one country: England.
While Uhtred grows up a Dane through and through, he also yearns for his ancestral castle, his birthright: the castle of Bebbanburg. Now held by his treacherous uncle, Ælfric, who would not stop until he has removed the final threat to his claim, Uhtred’s adopted family is murdered and he is forced to flee to Wessex for the fear of reprisals by Danes who may consider him the murderer. He joins the service of Alfred, then the king of Wessex’s younger brother, and soon to become king. He is helped by his childhood teacher and priest, Father Beocca, who now serves Alfred, and agrees to fight the Danes on Alfred’s assurance that he would help him in reclaiming Bebbanburg. It is that assurance that binds him to the Saxons and forces him to take up arms against the very people he had grown up among.
The glory of Uhtred’s character is his dilemma. A Dane by soul, a Saxon by birth, he is perpetually torn between the two disparate cultures and peoples having their own customs, gods, laws and culture. He likes Danes for their happy-go-lucky lives. Among them, he observes, everyone is free to do anything without the fear of being branded a sinner. They love fighting, women, noise, and plunder, but most of all, they love life and embrace it. But among the Saxons, one has to follow the strict, oppressive Christian ways. You go against the grain, you are branded a sinner, the punishments of which range from public humiliations to death.
Thus, Uhtred comes to detest the Saxons, but he develops a bond with some of their kind too, which confounds his situation all the more. Adding to the quandary, he has no choice but to eschew the Danes and live among the infuriatingly pious Saxons if he wants to give himself even a remote chance to reclaim his ancestral fortress.
The show grabs attention right from its title sequence. A map of England (or the land that came to be known as England, as there was no such country back then) shows fires of Danes enveloping the region and halting just before Wessex. There is a wailing music, common to Celtic music traditions, in the background, which always somehow sounds absurdly pleasing.
The show is refreshingly faithful with the books, not only plot-wise but also in terms of tone, with only a few minor plot and technical adjustments here and there, probably owing to budget constraints. The humour is dark and irreverent and involves ridicule of deities, Christian and pagan alike, and a frivolous tone throughout.
The battles are sort of smaller-scale, with only a handful of rows of warriors on either side, putting a sharp focus on the limited budget. But thankfully, none of it kills the overall experience as the show gets the basics right: writing, direction and acting.
Also, if you are a Game of Thrones fan, and were disappointed by the way it ended , The Last Kingdom serves as a perfectly good alternative. It has political intrigue, violence, good production values, world-building, well-staged action and pretty much you would want from a costumed, quasi-mediaeval historical fiction TV series.
The Last Kingdom is available to watch on Netflix.
Under the Radar is a weekly series that talks about one great movie or TV series that for some reason slipped most people’s attention — flew under the radar, so to speak — and is certainly worth checking out.