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Book Review: “The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell

March 16, 2011

I read my first (and then second through fourth) Bernard Cornwell novels over Christmas break when I was looking for something light and entertaining to read. His most famous “Sharpe” series of books were only $5 apiece on Kindle, and they were very entertaining.

I’ve also been attempting to utilize the public library recently due to a lack of funds for books (I have a new baby on the way). I noticed some books by Cornwell and decided to check them out. The Last Kingdom was one of those missed opportunity moments, one of my many book ideas had been a series of novels about Alfred the Great, and Cornwell beat me to the punch. I have finished the first two novels in the series, and, like the Sharpe novels, they are good. Cornwell isn’t winning a Pulitzer anytime soon, but his writing is a notch above typical popular fiction.

What bothered me about this series is the portrayal of Alfred and the Christian Saxons. It’s not that they are fake Christians…they are portrayed as very devout, but the main character and hero is a Pagan Saxon who refuses to become a Christian even though he fights for Alfred, named Uthred, and his perception of the Christians becomes the readers perception.

For the most part the novels are cynical about the Christian God and about Alfred, but they are also cynical about the Pagan gods. It is a typical humanist take on traditional religion. There are good and bad men and women on both sides and religion is primarily a tool for controlling people and getting what a person wants. There is a leveling of the fields, where the pagan Vikings are idealized and the Christian Saxons are made out to be just as barbarous as the Saxons. Cornwell is also cynical about Alfred himself. While Alfred is devout, he is also fickle and sermonizing and a less than capable warrior because of his devotion to the Christian God. The pagan Uthred is the best warrior because he is pagan, and the Saxons fight best when they forget their God and fight like pagans.

This picture is typical of modern history and historical fiction, but is simply not accurate. Christianity mattered a great deal to the men and women of Wessex, and particularly Alfred. It made a difference in their laws, their politics and warfare. The men in the sheild wall fought for God and country, and Alfred heroically fought side by side in the shield wall, often helping to turn the tide of battles himself. There wasn’t too much to admire about the Vikings. They weren’t noble savages, but ruthless, money hungry pagans who raped, murdered and stole their way through England until Alfred punched them in the mouth and later brought many of them to Christ, including Guthrum.

The one thing I will say about the books is that Uthred seems to be realizing (I haven’t read the last two books in the series yet) that his worldview is kind of pointless. Hopefully he will believe in Jesus before all is said in done, even though he is a fictional character.

For a better take on Alfred, just read Asser himself. Maybe he slips into legend a bit at times, but who knows? At least you can avoid modern cynicism.

For another excellent biography of Alfred from a historical, theological and political perspective, read The White Horse King by Ben Merkle. It was an excellent read, along the lines of Thomas Cahill but with good theology. Read Cornwell for a fast paced, interesting read, but be discerning and know your history.

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