Jay's Wargaming Blog

November 7, 2015

Never Fight Ubba!

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jay @ 6:49 am

The Last Kingdom

I’ve just caught up with the latest episode of The Last Kingdom, the BBC’s adaptation of the first two books of Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Saxon’ series. I’ve got mixed feelings about it so far. On the plus side, it’s a well-made adaptation with fairly decent cast, scripts and production values – and it covers a period of history which is rarely seen on the telly. On the down side, truncating the books into such a short series (eight episodes in all) necessarily results in sacrificing detail to pace, with some questionable changes to the plot-line as a result.

It has other disadvantages too. Uhtred’s character is under-developed, and his choices (in his shifting allegiance between Saxons and Danes) come across as perfunctory and capricious. While the books are a good read they’re not Cornwell’s best work – for that I would recommend his Arthurian trilogy – and the story suffers further in its abbreviated treatment here. The link between Uhtred’s story and Alfred’s rise to preeminence seems tenuous at times, at least in these early episodes. Moreover Cornwell’s sympathetic treatment of paganism, and his virulent hostility to Christianity, have been written out of the adaptation – presumably because it’s aimed at an American market which would find Cornwell’s attitude unpalatable in the extreme.

There are also, predictably, some historical oddities. A couple of examples from the latest episode will suffice to make the point. In an important scene, Uhtred is shown training the Saxons to improve their fighting technique, by showing them how to use the  apparently alien – and, by implication, quintessentially Danish – tactic of forming a shield wall. As far as I’m aware, this was pretty much standard practice for Saxon armies by the time of the period covered here, so what we’re shown is  something of an anomaly. Again, in the same scene, the Saxons are shown using oblong rather than round shields – a form of protection more usually associated with the Rus, but presumably adopted here so that the Saxons can be distinguished  from their Danish enemies in future battle scenes. Still, at least the Vikings don’t wear horned helmets, so it could have been worse!

On the other hand, the series is fun to watch, and there are some standout performances – particularly from David Dawson as Alfred and Ian Hart (always excellent) as Beocca. And there’s the rub – whatever my criticisms might be, I know I’ll keep right on watching. Purely as entertainment, The Last Kingdom is easy on the eye and holds the attention.

Naturally enough, all of this reminded me of the solo scenario I wrote a couple of years ago based on the same novels. It covers the battle of Ethandun, and is split into two parts. Click on the links below to go straight to the relevant page. And if you do decide to go into battle, don’t forget to keep your shield wall nice and tight – whatever shape your shields are!





  1. “Still, at least the Vikings don’t wear horned helmets, so it could have been worse!” .. but they do have cow horns attached to face masks on their horses!
    It wouldn’t have done any harm to make an effort with historically appropriate costume (the makers of Arne managed it) but as it is it is just a New Age revel. I keep expecting to spot a ratty VW camper van parked up in the woods.

    Comment by nobby531 — November 7, 2015 @ 7:32 am

    • I like the idea of the VW camper – a Norse chariot, perchance?

      Comment by Jay — November 7, 2015 @ 8:26 am

  2. Oh, and the rolls of chain mail around their necks? Reach into the wardrobe department for what ever is available.
    For what it is worth the bloke playing Arthur is doing a reasonable job but even for that I won’t be buying the dvd – the books are far better and look like stretching to 10 without serious plot malfunctions.

    Comment by nobby531 — November 7, 2015 @ 7:36 am

    • “…the bloke playing Arthur is doing a reasonable job” – Alfred, surely?!? Unless it’s Arthur Dailey. I’d pay good money to see that!

      Comment by Jay — November 7, 2015 @ 8:27 am

      • Oops! Alf, of course :0)
        Arthur Dailey as King Alfred and Terry as Uhtred and Derek Nimmo as the priest. That’d work for me.
        ps I’ve only just discovered your Ethandun posts. Very good. More Cornwellian versions of Dark Age history, please!

        Comment by nobby531 — November 7, 2015 @ 8:52 am

  3. Cheers Nobby :o)

    Comment by Jay — November 8, 2015 @ 11:55 am

  4. The series only covers the first two books… the books are better,the series is a bit too “clean”… like one of those fifties Hollywood Robin Hood’s

    Comment by stevethewargamer — November 8, 2015 @ 3:52 pm

    • Hi Steve, yep, I mentioned that it only covers the first two books at the start of my post. I didn’t think it was that “clean” myself, in its production values, but rather in the sense that it “cleans up” Cornwell’s anti-Christian agenda (which I find entertaining in the books, and which I have some sympathy with – but I suppose a lot of US viewers might be offended to see on screen). Anyway, TBH I’ll carry on watching it as it’s fun :O)

      Comment by Jay — November 9, 2015 @ 5:39 pm

  5. That’s an interesting remark. I hadn’t noticed that Cornwell had an anti Christian agenda, and when I think about the stories i don’t think there is an anti Christian message out of context of the time he is writing about.
    Does he think the wrong side won, I wonder? If he does book 10 is going to be difficult to write within a historical framework. 🙂

    Comment by nobby531 — November 9, 2015 @ 6:24 pm

  6. Ah – I haven’t read the latest book yet Nobby – don’t tell me what happens!
    But yeah, I think there is that agenda in these books and – in a more thoughtful way – in the Arthur trilogy as well. I have some sympathy with his position that “the wrong side won” – I think he DOES imply that, though I suspect he might deny it – but I think he sometimes caricatures the early church in a pretty crude way. For myself, I think that historically it would be interesting to think what might have happened if the early neo-Platonists and perhaps the Xtian gnostics had won the historical struggle, but I reckon that Xtianity was a much more useful tool for the Roman empire…

    Comment by Jay — November 9, 2015 @ 6:33 pm

    • Well, maybe; t’s an interesting idea but I think you are reading too much into it myself.
      His caricature of the pagans is fairly crude as well but he is only a teller of tales seeking to entertain and sell books, and he does it so much better than George Martin and Conn Iggulden to my mind.
      Without Christianity there would be no England as Alfred may never have said.
      My lips are sealed regarding book 9. For the time being anyway. Some of us Christians struggle with meek and mild :0)

      Comment by nobby531 — November 9, 2015 @ 6:47 pm

      • “I think you are reading too much into it myself.” – I often do! As Adrian Mole once said “I’m an intellectual – but I’m not very clever”. It’s really interesting to hear your comments on this, btw.
        “Some of us Christians struggle with meek and mild :0)” – fair enough, me too mate! ;o)

        Comment by Jay — November 9, 2015 @ 6:50 pm

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