I’m a sucker for television series such as “Game Of Thrones”. As anyone who has ever enjoyed “the Sopranos” , “Deadwood” or “Fargo” knows, really good television will grab you within the first twenty minutes and thereon hold you in the palm of its hand right up to the time when it turns into the current series of “Homeland” or say, “Lost” , where it will get so ridiculous that you’ll no longer be able to suspend incredulity and decompression will inevitably take place.You’ll be pulled back into the real world , feeling that sofa cushion under your arse again . You’ll have returned to the real world.You’ll realise that the writers are possibly treading water and thrashing about for some literary life-saver to stave off the series’ sure demise. This moment is known as “Jumping The Shark” and it is a rare television series that doesn’t, sometime in the future,reach that point and face its natural ending, outliving the public’s patience and bonhomie.
The latest television to grab my attention was the Viking drama , “The Last Kingdom”.The first run has just ended and will return , re-heated , sometime next year .”Breaking Bad” is gone . “Better Call Saul” maybe too.”Mad Men” and “Treme”. “True Detective ” had one really good season and then staggered into ignominy in the second run. This recent multi-episodic Viking new -form is based on the “Saxon” pot-boiler books written by Bernard Cornwell, the writer of the Napoleonic character, “Sharpe” ,itself loosely based on a history of sorts , every bit as much a history and as “pure” as history itself might be . After all , “history”has some dodgy provenances ,already. As we are apt to say in Norneverland , none of us can agree on what happened in front of our eyes these past fifty years so what will it look like when eventually returned to and written down on a virtual -screen, some hundred years in the future when paper books are long-forgotten or at best only available in closely- guarded museums ..There is obviously a growing audience for these things and they are shaping our ideas of history too.
We all have individual perspectives which will gradually be steam-rolled into an acceptable future story which will be our “history”. The Viking series is as much a “history” as “Downton Abbey” would be a true picture of life Upstairs and Downstairs in Merrie Edwardian England during the early part of the Twentieth century. We all accept these literary ruses and there is no expectation of pure truth and high artistic endeavour here. That said , if we take this Viking saga as a historical romance, it can give us some of the flavour of the times it is attempting to depict.It can return you to something like the mindset and life of past times , without any of the indignities or discomforts such as lack of plumbing and uncertain health.
This was all brought to mind by a short piece that Jude Collins wrote and featured on his site , with reference to the power and privilege Prince Charles currently holds as aspirant King of England .The question that really has to be asked is, how , going back down that hoary time -tunnel of historical facts and fantasies, someone like Charles actually came to this very point in the Twenty First Century where Mrs Smith across the road in number 13 might think he was such a “special” human being, worthy of better treatment than she , herself.She’ll have none of that wealth, power and privilege when she’s waiting for ten hours some night in A and E at her nearest hospital , after all. On the other hand ,Charles and his progeny will be hustled through the system and tended and cared for as though their nurses’ lives depended on it…{and their jobs probably will.}
“The Last Kingdom” is set in AD 866 at a time when “heathen”, unchristian Vikings from Denmark were invading the assorted kingdoms that became England, on the lookout for better and greener lands. This is in the times of Alfred the Great {although his “greatness” was yet to be evident. Alfred or Aelfraed {“Elf Council” or “Wise Elf”, as it was translated } was no physical warrior- leader and was apparently a very slightly -built , ascetic individual, as unlikely a physical specimen to wield power over others but became “Great King Supreme” anyway and styled himself “King of the Anglo-Saxons”. His story was laid down by a 10th Century Welsh scholar and Holy Bishop by the name of Asser , a very devout Christian, many years after his death. Alfred was not a particularly healthy man, by all accounts, but he encouraged education, military structures and an improvement of the people’s quality of life. Life would have been a short and humbling affair in those times, still lived with the old gods and superstitions clinging. He would have been a devout Holy Roman Catholic King with connections to Rome and his son would go on to become Edward, King of Wessex. Of course it’s not as simple as that because there were sibling rivalries and struggles for power between himself and his brothers too . Although he was described as a great warrior, he was actually physically a weak man and there is some talk of him visiting Ireland in search of a magical cure for something that sounds very like Chrohn’s Disease.
Alfred’s rise to prominence and public deference, began as the Vikings invaded and landed in East Anglia with the intent of conquering the four kingdoms of Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria and Wessex , that constituted Anglo-Saxon England at the time . So “kings ” were generally , really tribal chieftains ,something like Celtic Tanists, living in very rude conditions and guided by old superstition and some of their old various gods every bit as much as the Christian god. Alfred was seen ,eventually as having a better and stronger god aiding him and having a specific “hotline” to that god ; a state of affairs which was encouraged by the Holy Roman Christian church. The Vikings were as civilised a people in their own right , with their own gods and superstitions but their god was eventually seen as lesser.
As “history” goes , a television series such as this is not such a bad way to sketch out an idea of how we all became what we are now in the present, in an easily digestible form.Like I said, some of it might be true, some of it hearsay and a lot of it the product of the collective writers’imaginations.Within it is written a flavour of how the people of the day would have interacted ,what they might have eaten, the kind of homes they inhabited , the work they each might have done, their punishments for wrong-doings ,their belief-systems and their actual individual places in that society and that world.
All of this was the foundation-stone our modern sense of deference to monarchy was built on .The gradual theft of silver and gold and the aquisition of allies and wealth to the point where the greatest and most powerful thief could assume high kingship over the rest by dint of belief and connections to an unknow but powerful n god and therefore the right to “own” or caretake the land in his stead.
Why that should still be the case in an age of education and democracy , in the 21st Century is a question for all those who find kings, queens and monarchies and this state of affairs reassuring and possibly somehow glamorous.
It is ,after all, an unreal glamour that we all paid for and are still paying for , essentially.