Evaluation: The Last Nation By Means Of Bernard Cornwell

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The Last Kingdom
by using Bernard Cornwell
400pp, HarperCollins, £17.ninety nine

Our first sight of King Alfred in Bernard Cornwell's historic novel, The Last Kingdom, is of him crouched shamefully outdoor a tent, moaning in pain, vomiting, and grovelling for God's forgiveness: "It appeared Alfred had humped a servant female and, without delay afterwards, had been triumph over via physical ache and what he referred to as religious torment." Hardly the advent we'd have predicted to the best English sovereign ever provided the epithet "the superb", or to the monarch whose statue defiantly holds a sword erect in the centre of Winchester. But Cornwell's portrait of a sickly and sinful young Alfred is devoted to The Life of King Alfred, a records believed to had been written in or quickly after his reign, by a Welsh bishop called Asser.

The different early supply for Alfred's existence is the 9th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle . Cornwell's novel - the first part of a trilogy set in Alfred's reign - carefully follows the battles, treaties and successions laid out in this records: starting in 867, while Alfred's elder brother Æthelred turned into nonetheless king of Wessex and, in line with the chronicle, there has been "a giant slaughter of the Northumbrians" by Viking raiders at York; and finishing in 877, three hundred and sixty five days before the younger King Alfred infamously - even though briefly - lost manipulate of the closing English nation to the feared Danes.

For maximum of this first volume, but, it isn't always from the scriptoria of the Saxons, but from the camps and dragon-boats of the Northmen, that the warfare for England is regarded. Cornwell chooses for his narrator a Northumbrian boy who is captured and raised by using pagan Danes, before granting his allegiance to Alfred's West Saxons. Sitting between cultures, he wrestles at some point of with problems of identity: "Northumbrian or Dane? Which turned into I? What did I want to be?" Such a scenario isn't not going - within the north-jap areas of the united states of america, at that time while "England" become nonetheless being solid, there was much cultural amalgamation between Dane and Saxon. And such questions can't help but have resonance for a modern target market, living in a put up-devolution Britain that is again suffering to find an identification: English? British? European? Which are we?

For Uhtred, Cornwell's young narrator, there may be little question that - even though he in the end swears his sword to the English Alfred - his heart tugs irresistibly closer to the Danes. "To alternate Ragnar's freedom for Alfred's earnest piety regarded a miserable destiny to me," he muses. And it is hard for the reader no longer to percentage lots the identical sentiment. While Cornwell's Danes roar with delight at the battlefield, revel in the salt-spray soaking their flaxen locks, and banquet with carnivorous joy, his Saxons are in general rule-certain, pious leek-eaters. In the historical notes to the unconventional, Cornwell asserts that he needed to escape the "fanciful imagery" that has turn out to be connected to the horn-helmeted determine of the Viking -however a few cultural stereotyping genuinely stays in his depiction of the 2 contesting peoples.

Cornwell's instead muted Saxons comply with in a way of life of push aside for Anglo-Saxon history that has prevailed because the early twentieth century. In the Victorian period, Alfred's life changed into "the favourite story in English nurseries" and the Saxons had been hailed as the founders of almost every English institution. But global wars towards a Germanic country made Saxon heroes particularly much less attractive to English writers and film-makers than Britons, Normans or Norsemen. How many Arthurian movies stand beside the sole 1969 film Alfred the Great ? Alfred has waited many years for a novelist to update the Victorian image of him as an exemplar of the form of ethical, masculine boldness touted by 19th-century writers along with Thomas Carlyle; to give us as a substitute the Alfred recognized by using current historians - a flesh presser who had the foresight to fee a Welsh bishop to jot down his biography.

Certainly, Cornwell's Saxon king is a pacesetter cast in a twenty first-century mildew: a diffused, sensible ruler, he secures the loyalty of his fans as strategically as any business enterprise and, particularly, is aware of the value of spin. Uhtred learns that Alfred "had by no means been invested because the future king", however "to his loss of life day, insisted the Pope had conferred the succession on him, and so justified his usurpation of the throne that by way of rights have to have gone to Aethelred's eldest son".

Myth-making is a topic that fascinates Cornwell, and which he has explored earlier than. Here, the martyrdom of Edmund of East Anglia - tied to a tree and used for Viking target exercise - and the self-mutilation of the nuns of St Abbs, who reduce off their noses to avoid rape, are deconstructed. "The story continues to be offered as evidence of Danish ferocity and untrustworthiness," Uhtred states of the latter story. "I recollect one Easter paying attention to a sermon about the nuns, and it changed into all I should do no longer to break and say that it had now not befell as the priest defined." Religious propaganda, especially, receives brief shrift on this novel, as in Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy. And its anatomy of ways a Danish invasion looking for land and riches is conceptualised by English monks right into a "holy battle" certainly has current relevance.

Cornwell's foregrounding of the built and politicised nature of histories offers him a licence to stir round his assets. The reader forgives slight deviations from them, or minor chronological rearrangements in the novel (an 878 battle in 877) due to the fact, in any case, who is aware of how correct Asser's account is? Some slips, although, would possibly continue to be inexcusable to the avid Anglo-Saxonist: twice on this novel, Alfred's name mysteriously mutates to "Arthur" - the king who, at some point of the twentieth century, has so efficiently supplanted the Saxon because the kingdom's favourite medieval monarch.

It is difficult not to view this as portentous. Alfred may additionally blossom from sickly lecher to victorious hero inside the closing volumes of this collection. But if even Cornwell can't shake off the shadow of the Excalibur-wielding Celt, then it remains to be visible whether or not, for close to-forgotten Alfred, The Last Kingdom will constitute a renewed function as national icon - or simply the final gasp.

·Joanne Parker is junior research fellow in the department of historic studies at Bristol University.

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