The Last Kingdom is the first book in a series by Bernard Cornwell on the reign of Alfred the Great, A.D. 871-899. The title refers to the Kingdom of Wessex which was the last to holdout against the Danes after they raided and captured the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia. The Danes sought to colonize what would eventually become England and replace its society with their own to include the worship of the pagan gods Odin and Thor.
The story actually begins in 866 A.D. with the introduction of Uhtred of Bebbanburg who at age ten witnesses the death of his father at the hands of the Danes. The death will initiate a blood feud to regain his title and lands which in the course of time (Book One covers the next ten years) will see Uthred raised by the Danes but ultimately aligned with Alfred.
His allegiance will be tested repeatedly as he tries to reconcile his previous life and religious beliefs with the Viking warrior lifestyle and the promise of Valhalla. It is a struggle of conscience between the piety of Christianity, belief in a loving God, and a place in heaven versus his predisposition toward the pagan gods, militarism, and the thrill of battle. Participation in Viking raids and fighting in a great shield wall earn prestige and status on earth while also promising an afterlife with endless merrymaking. The Church and priesthood, on the other hand, offer a life of quiet reflection and scholarly pursuits with the hope of saving one’s soul.
Cornwell lets the reader know Uthred’s thoughts and inclinations by relating his tale from the perspective of an old man looking back on his life. The first person narrative combines humor and pathos to capture the significant historical events of the period, the people involved in them, and the savagery of the times. It also firmly establishes the series and subsequent books as must read experiences to know the outcome of Uthred’s story.
One final note, keeping up with the names of places will be a challenge to many readers. Refer to the listing of Anglo-Saxon place names at the beginning of the book for their spelling at the time of Alfred’s reign and their more modern versions. Similarly, character names and relationships can be confusing. Variations of the same name were common. As an example, “Ealdorman AEtheired, son of AEtheired, brother of AEthelwulf, father of AEtheired, and brother to another AEtheired who had been the father of AElswith who was married to Alfred.” Don’t let this dissuade you. It all sorts itself out, or will in the next ten books!