Late into the night, sipping strong alcohol, and avoiding the bad news and adult responsibilities, I sat through the male power Fantasy soap opera, on Netflix, “The Last Kingdom”, and found it fine enough while not thinking too hard. As I thought more. I liked it less and less. Certainly, attention to historical detail was enough to find something interesting in most episodes, but I was also sort of annoyed at the constant and relentless depiction of a past that is more of a fantasy than Lord of the Rings, in one important fashion: the whole world spins around the center of the universe in a single man. Everything is about him. Every character can be measured and understood by their relationship to the dashing warrior at the center of the show. As the seasons of the show tumble forward, this main heroic hero becomes almost a parody of heroism, self-sacrificing, all-suffering, selfless, battered by one tragic love affair after another, yet the kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia simply don’t run unless he is swinging his sword at something usefully.
I make light of it, and I do so on purpose, because the show becomes very silly and predictable very quickly. But, I also sat through nearly all of it late at night, when I should have been doing other things or sleeping, so I can only surmise that there is something entertaining about it. I was reminded of professional wrestling matches in every sword fight or battle, where things start to go one way, then turn, then turn, then turn, and voila! Heroism and luck barely wins the day! Despite the constant pronouncement of the main character’s name, Uhtred von Babbenburg(?), I couldn’t remember it, at all, until very late in the third or fourth season, if only from the constant repetition. He is the least interesting character on the screen, redeemed only by his glistening pectorals and long, raven-black hair, that is always very clean in a filthy world. No, don’t bother watching the show for this cookie cutter hero. (I can’t fault the actor, though: He didn’t write the lines and scenes.) The parts that are actually interesting – an introduction to small unit tactics of the time and place in history, the royal intrigues of a divided England, and the royals who intrigue therein – paint a world of brutal stratification and constructs an argument in favor of the royal feudal system as it developed. Raiders were coming to steal and rape and enslave. Strong kings with strong lords with strong armies could mobilize to stop the raiders from coming.
That argument in favor of feudalistic lords, then, is why I feel compelled to write about this show. It is an argument that suggests that great men will lead the gormless, useless, often comically-corrupt peasants, and things will form in a line where society arranges them. The church and king and lords and soldiers all form this strict social hierarchy that holds society together. It is a top down model of the universe presented with such love and attention to detail. It is a form of propaganda for a world that was, no doubt, nothing like what really existed when the Saxons came to raid the kings of the island that would become England, some day. The greater message of the text is also similar to the message that the chronicles inside the show, records kept by the king to tell the story of his kingdom. The message is a form of propaganda, to argue for the rightful rule of the kingdom, for all time. The order of things, where great men rise by virtue of their greatness, and wicked men fall by virtue of their wickedness, and the orders of society shall either be ordered under God by kings, or chaos and violence and darkness. Pagans that wish to continue, either as rulers or as followers of their faith, must bend to the rules of social order towards future England, and are violently encouraged to embrace the Christian Faith. It’s jingoistic and becomes abrasive in its repetitious message, carried even by the title of the show. The Last Kingdom of order. The Last Kingdom of Christian Gods. The Last Kingdom to stand for all time. Accept then, mere peasants, this rule of great men, and accept that if you had the qualities of greatness that you would have already risen above your place. Celebrate the great men who appear to be the center of history while the countless homes and farms and craftsmen who feed and clothe those great men, who join their armies and die off-screen, are nothing but the background noise of a kind of history that exists for the great men to swagger across it.
Arise, then, and hear my judgment: Read better books, instead, or watch the superior History Channel depiction of this same time and place, Vikings. The great glaring weakness of this particular show, which Vikings does much better, are in the women, who are always mere appendages of the men around them, servants and brides and lovers and dead when the time comes in the story for their life to be taken. Read Hild, instead, and see a version of this world that feels more accurate, more deep, and more true. Watch The Last Kingdom only while drinking late at night, and watch for the signs of propaganda in the guise of history.
The difference between a historian and an antiquarian is that an antiquarian may know the tools and costumes and methods of production and books, etc., etc., but a historian takes those elements and interprets them. A historian will tell the story. Fiction, alas, has to be believable while the work of antiquarians and historians does not require such things. Historical Fictions, then, are very dishonest and exist for our time, not theirs. I question, then, historical fictions that celebrate the social status quo that should never be frozen in time and held forever, and prefer more innovation and insight, like The Last Light of the Sun, perhaps, or Nicola Griffith’s Hild.