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!