Cornwell’s novel The Last Kingdom is an historical take on the story of Alfred and Anglo-Saxon England. The book is one of many stories about this area, this character, and this period, and it remains one of the leading authorities, though it is written in novel form. Cornwell does an excellent job of telling the story of Alfred as well as Uhtred, noting the ebbs and flows of their travails. While this book does have some differences in comparison to others on the same topic, it is a solid work that retains historical accuracy while still telling an interesting story.
There is one way in which the book strays from historical accuracy in some respects. In telling the story of how Uhtred goes into battle across Europe with Alfred’s army, there is some dramatization. Some of the scenes of battle are dramatized for dramatic effect, leaving the reader with a less than complete picture of what took place during this time. By comparison, Asser’s Life of King Alfred is less dramatic about these war efforts. There is more of an attempt to provide dry accuracy in the facts rather than puffing up the story in order to make it more interesting. Another core difference is that Asser’s take focuses more on the story of Alfred rather than the story of Uhtred. This differential lens between the two books means that they are good complements to one another, providing a different look at the same events.
One of the strengths of Cornwell’s book is the author’s willingness to provide an honest, unbiased take on England and its imperial aims during this time. While the author might have tried to whitewash history in order to show this in a good light, he does not shy away from showing that Alfred and others in Anglo-Saxon England were looking to expand in order to grow their power. Given that states were still in flux during this time, it was very much an era where countries had to conquer or be conquered. If they were not able or willing to take down other nations in their region, then they might run the risk of being overrun later. Alfred was ambitious in his aims, and he put together an army that was strong enough to accomplish these goals. The truth of the matter is that when a country is trying to conquer others all around it, that country can sometimes engage in things that are less than ideal.
The author in The Last Kingdom is willing to show this rather than shying away from it. This willingness to grapple with the realities of history and the realities of what it means for a country to engage in regional wars is a part of the strength of the book. For sure, it is littered with exciting tales of war and battle. It also grapples with the political realities of this kind of movement, as well.
Cornwell’s book on Alfred and the Anglo-Saxon Region is an interesting take on history. Not exactly a history book, it is a novel that is set during that time, telling the story of Alfred in a way that is both compelling and historically helpful. The author is in many ways able to thread the needle between writing a history book and writing an interesting novel. In doing so, the author puts together something that is better and more useful than what many of his compatriots have been able to put together on a similar topic. This makes the book a useful one for people looking to be entertained or those trying to learn about this interesting period in history.