Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Last Kingdom - a film review

Gentlemen of the Saxon and Viking Reenactment
Society of East Anglia
Sometime in the early 400s, C. E., we can imagine Romans living in places like Londinium, Eboracum or Mancunium (London, York or Manchester) in Provincia Brittania, taking note of the arrival of Saxons and Angles and Jutes from across the Oceanus Germanicus (North Sea). 

Whether these were invaders or simply folks looking for some greener pastures is actually still a contested issue, believe it or not.  In any case, they had come to stay and a Roman-controlled Celtic (Briton) Britain gave way to a Germanic Britain.  To complicate matters, the Britons gave their name to Brittany in France, which some of them fled to.  The Celts retreated to Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland.  Those who didn’t stay and make babies with the new occupiers of Germanic Britain, that is.  From the Angles, we get the name of England and the English language, although at the time, locals pretty much referred to all three groups as “Saxons.”  To this day, the Scottish Gaelic name for England is Sasainn, and the people of England are Sassunach.  In Ireland, it’s Sasana and Sasanach, respectively.*

By the time the Vikings began raiding Britain, a few centuries later, the Saxons had become a distinct race of people.  I’m using “race” in the social-cultural sense, the way Hispanics use “La Raza”.  Genetically, of course, they were still the same people as the Vikings now come to bop them on the head and take their things.  Linguistically, too, the two groups probably had a large degree of mutual intelligibility, kind of like German and Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese, or Russian and Polish.

If you grow up with an interest in English history, you know of King Alfred the Great.  Have always loved his name.   If you know German, you know that “Rat” (old spelling: Rath) means council.  Rathaus, I learned as a kid, is not a house for rats, but rather “council house,” the German word for “city hall.”  “Red” is just another Germanic variation on “rath,” and has taken on the meaning of “wise man.”  Alfred was small in stature, evidently (I’m guessing), and probably suffered from Crohn’s disease, and that may have made him a tad bookish.  In any case, he was known as “the wise elf.”

But I digress.  I was getting to the BBC television series known as The Last Kingdom, which I have just finished binge-watching.  The Last Kingdom refers to Alfred’s kingdom.  At some point, the Vikings, or “Danes” (just as Angles and Jutes were subsumed under Saxons, Norwegians were subsumed, as well, this time under “the Danes.”) had landed in East Anglia and pretty much occupied three of the English kingdoms – Northumberland in the North, Mercia in the Center, East Anglia in the East.  Only the West Saxon (i.e., Wessex) kingdom remained in Saxon hands under Alfred.  Map is available here

Now imagine the drama you can squeeze out of this history.  Imagine a boy from up North, in Northumberland, say, in the year 866 and follow his life for ten years or so.   Let’s call the boy Uhtred (he too, please note, can also be “wise”), using a real character from later years, but stick him into this time period and make a hero out of him.  Have his father, the original Uhtred, killed by an invading Dane, an earl named Ragnar, and have Uhtred the younger enslaved and raised by the Danes.  Great material for some pre-modern identity politics – Dane vs. Saxon, fun-loving marauder vs. pious Christian, outsider vs. insider. 

Bernard Cornwell, a prolific writer of historical novels, has written a series he calls The Saxon Stories.  The first couple of these novels was the basis for The Last Kingdom, an eight-part television series produced by BBC and aired in October of last year.  The story I’ve sketched out is the TV version, not Cornwell’s original.  The screenwriters have tinkered with Cornwell’s details, one has to assume, for dramatic effect.  It caught my eye when Netflix announced it was available for streaming in the United States and in Britain.  A second series is in production and expected to air later in this year.  Plot summary is available here

Uhtred develops a strong affectional relationship with Earl Ragnar, his Danish father, despite the fact it was Ragnar who killed his Saxon father, and struggles over whether to define himself as Saxon or Dane.  Uhtred is driven by two overriding desires: the Saxon in him leads him to seek the help of Alfred to regain his rightful place as ealdorman (think “duke” – the Latin translation is “dux”) of Bebbanburg (today’s Bamburgh) in the North.  The Dane in him burns with loyalty to his Danish brother, Ragnar “the fearless”, together with whom he hopes to avenge the death of their Danish father, Ragnar the Elder.  Throw in a bunch of other life companions – Brita, a Saxon girl taken at the same time as Uhtred as a slave by the Danes; Thyra, Earl Ragnar’s daughter (and therefore sister to Ragnar junior and to Uhtred, as well); Kjartan, Ragnar’s shipbuilder, and Kjartan’s son Sven, a thoroughly despicable sort and a couple of Superman-type other Danish kings/generals (there’s no difference in this day and age) like Guthrum and Ubba, and you’ve got yourself a TV series that goes and goes and goes.  I believe the customary adjective for such productions is “rollicking.”  It doesn’t hurt that Uhtred, Ragnar, Guthrum and Ubba are all actual historic figures.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of the characters in this saga.  Uhtred’s love interests are notable.  So too are the efforts of the priests who play a role in stressing the main cultural distinction between the Danes and the Saxons.  The Danes are disparaged as “pagans,” and given to partying hard in the here and now; the Saxons are handicapped by needing to be guided by an external code of behavior including self-denial (mis?)taken for virtue – and no small amount of hypocrisy.  Uhtred, although baptized as a child, rejects Christianity, yet is the model of a man whose word is sacred.  In contrast to Skorpa, for example, the quintessential Viking marauder, a cruel, deceitful and sadistic barbarian.

It’s these contrasts that make the characters so lively.  The endless clashing of swords gets tiresome, and the violence is pretty graphic.  So is the wretchedness of life in the first half of the first millenium at a time of endless war, the mud, the pigs and the chickens who invade your living space when you can get them, the diet of vegetable broth when you cannot.  Apparently there is no way to keep your fingernails clean.

Historically, of course, Alfred was known as “the Great” because he eventually had considerable success in driving out the Danes, and negotiating a peace with those who remained.  Guthrum converted to Christianity, for example, and Alfred is today venerated by the Anglican Church as a Christian hero with his own feast day, October 26.  (The pope wouldn’t canonize him, but this is probably the next-best thing).  It’s not giving the plot away, I hope, to tell you the story of Alfred’s accomplishments are not central – the main character of The Last Kingdom is Uhtred, after all.  And this season stops short of telling you whether Uhtred made it home to achieve his goal of reclaiming Bebbanburg.  Nonetheless, the yearning for home is palpable, and gives the story a driving force.

Inevitable, I suppose, with history-for-television is historical inaccuracy and ambiguity.  What parts of the story correspond to actual historical events – Alfred’s grand stand at the battle of Edington in 878, for example, where the combined forces of the Saxons under Alfred defeat Guthrum and the “Great Heathen Army” – and what parts are fictionalized are not always evident.  Nor do they matter, of course, to most people, I suspect, who will watch the story for its romance and its adventure, and see historical reality as little more than icing on the cake. 

The acting is excellent.  It helps that the series has a whole host of experienced talented actors, many of them familiar faces, including Matthew Macfadyen, who plays a cameo role at the beginning as Uhtred Senior, and the noted Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, who plays Ravn, the father of Earl Ragnar (also a minor role).  The lead role of Uhtred is played by German actor, Alexander Dreymon (born Alexander Doetsch), who grew up in France, Switzerland, Germany and the United States and speaks English with a British accent in real life, for some reason.  Several Swedish actors are involved, including Thomas Gabrielsson, who plays Guthrum and Jonas Malmsjö, who plays a terrifying Skorpa.  Actual Viking actors, in other words.  And let’s not forget Rune Temte, the Norwegian actor who plays the other Viking warlord Ubba.  Brilliant idea, don’t you think, getting modern-day descendants of Saxons to play Saxons and descendants of Vikings to play Vikings? The role of another Saxon-turned-Dane Brida, Uhtred’s fellow slave, and first love, is played by Austrian actress Emily Cox.  Mildrith, Uhtred’s (Saxon) wife, is played by British actress, Amy Wren.  Other notables are the Shakespearean actor David Dawson as Alfred and Adrian Bower, also British, plays Leofric, Uhtred’s loyal friend he is forced to engage in a battle to the death with.

The production was filmed in Hungary, for affordability.  Since there are no structures still standing from those days, entire villages – including the town of Winchester – had to be built from scratch.  Great detail was given to costuming, getting the homespun just right, and other details right down to face-painting.  A minor liberty was taken with the wooden shields.  They were modified in shape so you can distinguish between the opposing armies.

Jolly good history.  It will send you to Wikipedia to read up on the Danelaw.  Or maybe cause you to reflect on the notion of immigration to Britain.  First Romans moving in on the Celts/Britons, then Saxons, then Danes, then Britons from France in 1066 whose ancestors were Celts. Some sort of cosmic justice, maybe, watching the Celts-turned-French now getting control of their land back. And, of course, in the end, nobody actually displaces anybody.  Mostly they all hop into bed and make new races of folk every so often.

Tell the history by means of giant blonde men with face tattoos busting in and looking for the family silver and you’ve got a rollicking good binge-watch in store.  Keep your Netflix streaming current. Positively rollicking.

*Note that while in Britain “Saxon” (to the Celts) means English, on the continent it means German.  The Finnish word for Germany is Saksa.  In Estonian, it’s Saksamaa.  The Romani (Gypsies) call Germans Ssassitko temm.
**Here it’s the Danes who have tattooed faces and bodies.  It’s worth noting, I think, that the word “Briton” seems to have originated from the Greek Prittanoi, their word for the Celts, from the Celtic word to cut or carve, i.e. tattoo. 

photo credit: Please note that none of the folks in this photo have anything to do with the TV series, The Last Kingdom, as far as I know.  But I'll wager they've stopped frolicking on the beach at Norfolk long enough to rollick with the rest of us.

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