Book Review: The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell
I’m always fascinated when an author I like switches point of view. And Bernard Cornwell does it admirably in The Last Kingdom, the first book in his Saxon Stories series.
Most of Cornwell’s novels (or at least, all the ones I’ve read) are written in third person. But he tells the Last Kingdom from the first-person perspective of Uhtred, a ninth-century English boy who’s kidnapped and raised by invading Danish Vikings. Uhtred narrates his tale in hindsight, reflecting on his youth from a distance of many years. This kind of switch might have tripped up a lesser author, but Cornwell aces the transition. One of the problems I have with first person is that it often feels less believable than third, even though they’re just different vehicles for storytelling. But when a first-person narrator recounts long-ago dialogue, I’m quicker to think, Is that really what they said, or are you just making it up because you don’t remember? (My other quibbles with first-person: it’s harder to worry about a character’s chance of survival when you know—barring some literary sleight of hand—that they’ll live to record their tale; and if the narrator is using present tense to relay events as they happen, how are their words getting to me? Telepathy?)
Cornwell gets around the issue of authenticity by making Uhtred’s unreliability explicit: “I think,” Uhtred says at one point, “looking back so far into my past, I have probably changed that night’s events.” Fair enough. Uhtred also has a distinct voice. “The story hurries now,” he says later, in another aside. “It quickens like a stream coming to a fall in the hills and, like a cascade foaming down jumbled rocks, it gets angry and violent, confused even.”
These interjections help drive the story, serving the dual purposes of fleshing out Uhtred’s character and foreshadowing historical events to come. Both elements were critical for keeping my interest, because there’s no central goal in The Last Kingdom. Uhtred isn’t, for example, consumed by evicting the Vikings from England; his loyalties are divided—he grew to love the Danes while he lived with them. But his spoilers about the importance of certain people and battles give the book a sense of larger purpose. (As I learned from reading The Last Kingdom, there actually wasn’t a single country called “England” at this point, but rather four separate kingdoms, all under threat from Vikings. Alfred the Great, a central figure in the book, eventually fought off the invaders and united the kingdoms. Cornwell notes in his historical note that he intends “Uhtred to be involved in the whole story.”)
The only bit of authenticity that gave me pause was a throwaway comment about post-battle rape. While describing the aftermath of a Danish victory, Uhtred-the-narrator notes that Uhtred-the-boy “listened to the drunken shouts and the songs and the shrieks of the girls who had been captured in our camp and who now provided the warriors with the reward for their victory, and watching their antics took my mind off the sorrow because, in truth, I had never seen such things before, though, God be thanked, I took plenty of such rewards myself in times to come.” Uhtred doesn’t actually assault any women in The Last Kingdom, but his admission that he will at some point colored how I saw him, even though many medieval warriors were guilty of the same. Cornwell could have omitted this detail without losing anything. In fiction, there’s such a thing as being too historically accurate.
This aside, Cornwell was right to tell The Last Kingdom from Uhtred’s perspective—it makes for an immersive look at a period I knew little about. I’ll be back for more of the Saxon Stories, and soon.
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