Sunday, February 15, 2009

A Real Hero – The Last Kingdom

I always enjoy reading historical fiction. Especially about a period of time that I find interesting. The last historical fiction I read was “World Without End” by Ken Follet. It took place in England during the 1300s. This time I turned the time machine back to the late 800’s. The story remained in England, but placed the action directly into the dark ages. The book was called “The Last Kingdom” by Bernard Cornwell.

The story deals with young Uhtred, the son of a Saxon Earl, and his struggles with the dreaded Danes that have invaded his country. During his youth he is raised by the Danes and comes to understand their ways. However fate takes over and he finds himself to be a vital key to King Alfred, and his campaign against the Danes. Uhtred eventually finds himself entwined in critical events, with his desires, faith and honor put on the line. His land still lies in the hands of the Danes, but he detests Alfred and the King’s plan to unite all the kingdoms of England into a whole.

One of the most interesting things about the book is the character of Uhtred. He’s fictional, but interacts with plenty of historical characters. While the records from that time are scant at best, Cornwell does a very good job of creating a very real setting and supporting cast. But it is Uhtred that carries the story. His desires are very plain, his attitude is understandable (even if he can be a real jerk at times), and his actions carry weight.

I wondered how difficult it was to create a character that well rounded in a historical setting. Do you easily fit the character into the world, or is there a temptation to make the world fit around the character? Is it constricting to work in that world, or does it give guidance as to how your character will react.

For example, Uhtred as a Saxon should be Christian. However, he puts more faith in the gods of the Danes (or a variant of them). He feels that Thor and Wotin guide his life with greater influence than Jesus. In fact, he finds the whole idea that Christians can even be victorious against people who worship truly war-like gods ludicrous. When he meets Alfred he finds the king’s complete piety to be pointless and even a hazard.

I wondered how many Saxons of that time would have viewed the two religions in that way. I’m not a scholar of the dark ages, but my understanding was that Christianity was a solid and powerful force even in the dark ages. Would the Saxons, who had been converted to Christianity by monks previously, still view the Norse gods as powerful forces in their world? Perhaps. It seemed to be something constructed for the book and maybe not quite true to the historical record (such as it is). On the other hand it creates some of the more interesting passages in the book as Uhtred attempts to make sense of Alfred’s devotion to a religion he finds foolish.

All told, I really enjoyed “The Last Kingdom”. The book ends with a bit of a “to be continued” feel, and the second book is waiting for me to tackle. I’m looking forward to it and maybe picking up some of Cornwell’s Sharpe novels as well.

What do you think of creating a character for a historical fiction? Would you find the experience confining or helpful? Can you think of any stories where the fictional characters doesn’t seem to act the way you expected for the sake of the story? Have you ever ready “The Last Kingdom” or another book by Bernard Cornwell?

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