When I bought my copy of The Last Kingdom, the “series” consisted of only two books. That must have made it, roughly, 2006. At the time, the second book in the series, The Pale Horseman, was only out in hardcover so I kind of lost track of it all before I was ready to buy it. Fast forward a number of years when I picked up Sword Song from a bookstore. Not realizing The Saxon Chronicals was now a series, I didn’t imagine that Sword Song was part of that series and, worse yet, Book #4 in that series. I read a bit into the book before it dawned on me I had skipped over two books. At that point, I bought The Pale Horseman and tried to get into the series in proper order. At some point, as I told you earlier, I put the whole series on hold to wait until I was in the mood to immerse myself in the Viking era.
I’ve always been a pretty big fan of Cornwell in general. In particular, I loved the King Arthur trilogy (also known as the Warlord Chronicles). The Last Kingdom is similar in many ways to the Arthur stories and while I still think the former did it better, I’m pretty pleased with the latter as well. Naturally, I was pretty excited when the TV series The Last Kingdom came out. It was at a time when I was pretty ambivalent about the Vikings series. I had stopped watching Vikings, mostly because I had lost track of the episodes as they were coming out. I was less an outright rejection and more of being overcome by apathy. Nonetheless, it seemed like an adaptation of Cornwell’s work would stand a real chance to get it right. I managed to find BBC America in my cable subscription and watched the opening episode. Unfortunately, the opening show wasn’t enthralling enough to overcome the difficulty of trying to get to the TV as the show came on. I lost track of The Last Kingdom too.
Now that I’m revisiting this all, I’ve decided the right way to do it, rather than figure out how to pick up where I’ve left off, is to go back and re-read The Saxon Chronicles from the beginning. Then, when I get far enough that I’m well ahead of where the TV series sits, I can give the show another chance. Rereading an old book can be an interesting experience. I’ve mostly forgotten what I read some 13 years ago. However, reading it again means it all comes back to me; the story is neither new nor old. I think this is a necessary exercise to successfully “get back into the groove,” as it were.
My older copy of The Last Kingdom (the book, this time) has a blurb from George R. R. Martin about how “Bernard Cornwell does the best battles scenes of any writer I’ve ever read…” That may even be true. His descriptions are illustrative as to historical details of the era’s fighting. For one example, in the book he describes the movement of an “army” through England, eventually revealing that it was three-ships’ worth of soldiers or about 100 warriors. To our main character, 100 warriors is a sizeable army. To a Renaissance scholar, who imagines the armies of classical literature, it is easy to get the impression that there are a lot more people fighting than there actually were. Cornwell is instructive without being instructional.
The book also features the Battle of Ashdown and the first failure of the Great Army to subdue and English kingdom (hence the title of the book). In this, Cornwell is light on the battle’s details. Perhaps this is because this is one event where he could contradict accounts of others. Other who think they’d know better what happened. For example, Cornwell (speaking through the main character) discounts the narrative where Æthelred is late to the battle because of his prayer. Instead, he attributes the splitting of the forces to a Viking plan,born from hubris about the Danish invincibility when fighting the English. Facing a split force, the Wessex army responds by splitting their own force.
Of special note to me, the Battle of Ashdown is one Heathen Army battle which I can find represented in games.
I’ve told you how disappointed I was when Field of Glory released its Wolves from the Sea package and it did not have any scenarios for the Great Heathen Army. Fortunately, this is not the case with Field of Glory II. An “Epic Battle” of Wolves from the Sea is the victory over the Vikings at Ashdown by Prince Alfred and King Æthelred in 871. The design of the scenario is structured around Æthelred’s hesitance to fight before he had finished his prayer. The game begins with Alfred’s wing, on the English left, several turns closer to engagement than Æthelred’s, on the right.
Eventually Æthelred’s forces do come in to support Alfred’s right flank, and just in the nick of time too. As it was, the Viking left was poised to turn Alfred’s line and it is a struggle to get Æthelred’s wing into position to stop that. Having successfully engaged it becomes something of a race against the point tally. Simply leaving two armies fighting like this means a steady attrition of forces. With the Wessex army now fully engaged and having some luxury to extend its line beyond that of the Vikings, the advantage in that attrition goes to Wessex. However, Wessex started the race at a (11%, using the snapshot above) disadvantage. The question becomes, can Wessex catch up and overcome its deficit before the magical 60% number is hit?
As it turned out in my game, the drama continued right until the very end. Both armies first reached and then crossed over the game-ending 60% mark and, in both cases, pulled back from the brink with a timely rally of various routing units.
Except for Cornwell’s book itself, it doesn’t look like I have any comparisons handy using other games. Even the book’s version doesn’t talk of the battle in terms of casualties; dead and wounded. More important, to the story and to history, is the aftermath. The Dane’s defeat on the battlefield prompted a negotiated truce and a lull in the Viking campaign.
I did scan around for other representations of the battle. It is a little too large for the Last Kingdom and, anyway, I wouldn’t want to take that on unless someone had already created the scenario. Likewise, I can’t find anything in the old Field of Glory. I did come across a reference that surprises me. A mod/expansion for the game Mount & Blade called Viking Conquest culminates at the battle. Apparently, the story-based campaign mode has your character seek revenge against a notorious Viking raider who, all things coming together as they should, you can meet on the field of battle at Ashdown. Presumably, you would endeavor to defeat your nemesis while winning the day for the Saxons.
I’ll not go into Mount & Blade, although I will probably want to do that another time. I haven’t played the game in a number of years and, while I actually had picked up the Viking Conquest expansion, I had never even installed it. If memory serves, I was after the Napoleonic Wars expansion and picked them up as a combo. Obviously since I haven’t even started, I’m not going to be fighting the “boss battle” any time soon. What I’ve read is that, fictional backstory aside, the representation of the historical battle is actually a pretty good one. It would be nice to be able to compare and contrast.
Maybe some day.
Back to The Last Kingdom, the book. If it doesn’t become obvious from reading, it is explicit in the afterward notes; the book is about the life and historical influence of Alfred the Great. As he has done in his other series, Cornwell uses an unknown and fictional main character to be a witness to the actions of the historical figure. Also, as before, that unknown and fictional character occasionally takes part in some key moments so as to change the course of history. The star of The Last Kingdom, a Saxon noble named Uhtred of Bebbanburg, throws us one more twist. Uhtred is named for the real Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who lived some 500 years later. Furthermore, according to Cornwell, the author himself is descended from this real Uhtred. While it may be obvious that Cornwell, in many ways, identifies with his heroes, this genealogical connection likely makes that more explicit. And even though the gap between the barely literate men of action that narrate Cornwell’s stories and the scholar, teacher, and writer of Cornwell’s reality looms large, the likes of Uhtred somehow seem less ridiculous adopted personae than what some other authors do.