Interview: Bernard Cornwell, author of The Last Kingdom
The bestselling author Bernard Cornwell discusses how he mixed history with fiction to create his novels.
Uhtred is a Saxon boy, born into the 9th Century English aristocracy, but orphaned at ten. He is adopted by a Viking warlord and raised to manhood as a Dane.
Now he must choose a side and play his part in the birth of a nation, alongside the man who would become known as King Alfred the Great.
Q: Is it difficult to watch the series, with the screenplay speeding up the story and omitting certain characters?
A: They have constraints I don’t have and I knew that. I think they did a brilliant job.
I watch it thinking, ‘Why didn’t I trim down the story like that?’ It would have been a shorter bloody book! I loved it.
Q: Are you a big TV fan, generally?
A: We don’t watch a great deal. I did work in television for 11 years and that mostly cured me.
I live in the US now so we just tend to watch the news and 60 Minutes. We are very boring. And I watch the football.
I have also just discovered a website where you can get the cricket live so I watch the Ashes series and get no work done at all!
Q: Having watched the first episode, is it how you imagined it’d look?
A: Not entirely but I found it incredibly compelling and I am sure that is how I will see the characters going forward.
Seriously, when I wrote the Sharpe books after I’d seen the movies it changed the way I wrote them.
I am sure I’ll begin to see Alexander [Dreymon, playing Uhtred] in my head from now on when I write.
Image via BBC
Q: Does that worry you?
A: No. I love it. I thought he was great. I thought he was terrific, absolutely terrific.
Q: Do you know how many more series there will be; is there a grand plan?
A: There’s a grand plan but that is more or less up to the viewers as to whether they like it and if they like it they will commission more. If they don’t like it then that’s it.
From my point of view, there are nine books so far and I have to start the tenth book.
Although, quite seriously I have been saying about for three weeks, ‘I don’t know how to start this new book.’
Q: How far did you know the story would run?
A: I know it ends in 937 with the Battle of Brunanburh.
If there is a birthday of England it is the Battle of Brunanburh, where everybody gangs up on the Saxons—the Scots, the Irish, the Vikings, the Norsemen, the whole bloody lot all get together and you have this extraordinary battle and at the end of it there is an England.
You can say that England was born on this day.
Image via BBC
Q: Do you enjoy reading the Anglo-Saxon literature?
A: It is terribly dour in places but it is bloody stuff. That is what amazes me, that you have these poems about battles in Surrey for Christ’s sake, and Malden in Essex. And they’re incredibly bloody.
Yet, this is their society, a society dominated by Alpha males where might is right, where you do have this one man with a vision [Alfred] who is going to impose law and order and religion on these brutal, brutal men of whom Uhtred is one.
He is going to need people like Uhtred if the project is to succeed.
Q: Where do your loyalties lie, with the Saxons or Danes?
A: My sympathies are entirely with the Danes. Uhtred is reluctant in some ways to fight for the Saxons. There is a woman involved. There always is.
What comes out in later episodes is the religious conflict and that’s obviously crucial in the end because Alfred would accept the Danes if they became Christians. But until they did become Christians they were enemies.
Q: Is Uhtred based on real characters?
A: For me, Uhtred gives me a chance to be nasty about Christianity. One of the actors was saying that the sequence that he loved most is the death of King Edmund [played by Jason Flemyng].
It is all in the [real-life Anglo-Saxon] Chronicle. I didn’t actually make this stuff up.
Edmund is a saint now and, according to the hagiography, the Danes say, ‘If your god is all-powerful and will keep you alive then we can shoot arrows at you and your won’t die.’ It doesn’t work, of course.
The actor said it is one of the funniest sequences he has ever filmed. And it is a nasty moment.
Image via BBC America
Q: Is that one of the most interesting moments from the chronicles that has fed into your story?
A: For me, one of the most fascinating moments is Alfred’s repentance, which is coming in this series.
We don’t know but it seems likely that Alfred had a bastard child, Oswith.
None of the chronicles says that he is Alfred’s bastard child but the evidence looks pretty compelling—the way he treated him and the way Alfred himself confesses to have been a terrible sinner in his youth before being converted and becoming incredibly pious.
No one expected this guy to become king. I think he is the most interesting character.
Q: Alfred is also highly intelligent. He translates a lot of works from Latin to Anglo-Saxon.
A: His real interest is the church and scholarship, education and learning. He said that we divide mankind into three.
We have the church and the scholars who run everything and make the law, the handymen who actually make things and grows thing, then we have the warriors who protect them.
You raise the taxes and you spend one-third here and one-third here and one-third here. And for him it was simple. It wouldn’t work now. But there is this coruscating intelligence that comes through.
He begins the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and he does his own translations.
Q: It is bizarre that we are not taught this at school in England.
A: It is very bizarre that we are not taught it. Maybe the English have just been oddly retiring about it and they don’t care.
We start learning history with the arrival of the French who are Northmen, in fact, hence ‘Normans.’
In the end, the Danes sort of win in a way, at least they win 50 percent. We are half Danish and half English. It is just that they adopt our language and our laws.
Someone asked me if I see any modern parallels and yes, I do; this all about immigration. The Saxons were immigrants. The Danes are immigrants, and then the Normans were coming and they’re immigrants.
We are all immigrants, the whole damn lot of us!
The Last Kingdom is available on DVD on Amazon
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