Confession: When I was a child, I was pretty blasé about learning the Easter bunny and Santa weren’t real. I was more angry at feeling like I had been lied to than sad because I had had my suspicions for quite some time .
However, learning as a teenager that Vikings didn’t really wear horned helmets was extremely upsetting to me. As in, it motivated me to try to debunk this theory, only for me to realize that no self-respecting historian believes they wore these helmets.
As someone who doesn’t often wear hats but loves historically-quirky headgear and also has a collection of strange historical hats (it’s a long story), I was inconsolable.
Helmets aside, I’ve always thought Vikings were fascinating. I like reading and watching things about Vikings, but I also tend to procrastinate on watching them or reading them. For example, I own all seasons of the show The Vikings and still have never watched it. I think my hesitance is borne out of fear of being disappointed again about them. (I really cannot overemphasize how attached I was to those fake helmets as a child.)
However, I recently overcame my very neurotic complex about this issue and read Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom, which transports readers back to 9th century England, when England was not a united country and was at the mercy of the feared Vikings, who were descending on the country from their native Denmark. Fortunately, this book did not disappoint me.
The story’s young protagonist, Uhtred, is a young English noble, who is taken captive by the Vikings after his father and older brother are killed by them. He grows up torn between his Anglo-Saxon heritage and the great affection he has for the Danes that adopted him and have raised him as one of their own. The trope of a protagonist caught between two warring cultures is certainly not a new one, but I think Cornwell does a better job than most writers in making that conflict seem organic and compelling. A lot of suspense-and humor–is mined from the various scenarios that see Uhtred changing hands between his countrymen and his adopted comrades and his own mixed feelings about the matter.
His story, however, is situated within the larger context of the history of the formation of England, for one of Uhtred’s sometime ally/sometime adversary is the future King Alfred the Great. I must confess that I am not terribly familiar with English history from this time period. I know some key dates and events and have some vague notions of who major players were–like Alfred the Great–but it’s definitely not a historical period that I can claim in-depth knowledge of. So, for me, a lot of my enjoyment of this book derived from reading Cornwell’s obviously well-researched narrative of this unfamiliar time period. In addition, he does a good job of vividly recreating both the Christian Anglo-Saxon and pagan Viking cultures of the time and exploring Uhtred’s complex sense of loyalty to both of them.
Some people associate historical fiction with dense, massive books–and that can certainly be the case for some books in this genre, but The Last Kingdom is a fairly short (330 pages) and fast read. You may be familiar with Cornwell as the author of the popular Sharpe’s Rifles series, and as with that series focusing on the military history surrounding the Napoleonic Wars, this one also has a heavy focus on the martial adventures of its characters. Cornwell has a knack for writing exciting action sequences, and there are more than a few in this book, which also contribute to the quick pace. The final battle scene is so tense that I was almost afraid to keep reading, but I also was caught up in wanting to know what happened, so I kept reading it instead of attending to more pressing matters in my life, like eating.
If you’re looking for a good historical adventure, definitely give The Last Kingdom a try. If you like it, don’t despair–there are several more books in the series, and the BBC has released a critically-acclaimed television adaptation of the first two books, with another season on the way next year.
If you’re interested learning more about either the novel, the rest of the book series, or the television show, please check our online library catalog for more information.
Recommended for those who enjoy books by Patrick O’Brien, Steven Saylor, and Jeff Shaara.
Have you read The Last Kingdom or watched the television show? What are some of your favorite historical periods to read about? What’s your view on Viking helmets? Tell us in the comments!