selenak: (BambergerReiter by Ningloreth)
Having now read three of the four books the first two seasons of The Last Kingdom are based on, I find my original suspicion that Bernard Cornwell novels benefit from adaptions into other media because these take you out of the main character's head justified, though not always quite in the way I assumed. Because the novels are narrated by an older Uthred looking back, his narrating self can sometimes point out things his younger self did not yet see or realise, for example, that he wronged his first wife Mildrith, or that he underestimated Alfred early on because a chronically sick non-warrior valueing learning and feeling guilty about sex could not possibly be a strong leader in his young eyes. Otoh, older, wiser Uthred narrating still doesn't change the fact most female characters come across as more dimensional and fleshed out in the tv adaption than they do in the novels (Brida and Mildrith in the first, Hild and Aelswith in the second season - Iseult, alas, is a cliché in both versions).

The tv show cut or compressed various characters and slimmed down events, and given that they do two books per season so far, that's not surprising. But even if they took a longer time, I think some of the changes and cuts were to the narrative's benefit. For example: Cornwell has to come up with some pretty convoluted circumstances and far-stretched plots to have a teenage Uthred who is still with the Danes secretly present when Prince (not yet King) Alfred confesses about his carnal lapses to Beocca. In the book, he needs to be because he's the narrator and neither Alfred nor Beocca would have told him about this. The tv show dispenses with said circumstances and just has the scene between Alfred and Beocca, without Uthred secretly listening in, because he doesn't need to be in order for the audience to get this information about the young Alfred.

Mind you, dispensing with the first two times Uthred meets Alfred and letting their first encounter not happen until after Ragnar the Elder's death creates one important difference between book and show relationship that's worth mentioning. Book Uthred lies to Alfred (and Beocca) these first two times and point blank spies on them for the Danes, so the later "why do you keep distrusting me?" indignation rings a little hollow in this regard. Show Uthred does no such thing, so Alfred is accordingly less justified in his lingering ambiguity.

Another cut that somewhat shifts perception: the first novel has Uthred participating in a few Danish raids led by Ragnar, including one on Aelswith's hometown (though she doesn't know he took part). Now, in the show we go from Uthred the child to adult Uthred directly and adult Uthred is solely seen at Ragnar's home, with the deaths of Ragnar & Co. impending, but given adult Uthred later is shown to be already a skilled fighter, it stands to reason he practiced these skills. But I suspect the show avoided showing Uthred fighting against Saxon civilians this early on deliberately. Both show and books have Uthred loving the Danes but staying with the Saxons post Ragnar's death because various circumstances (and then Alfred's machinations) make it impossible for him to do otherwise. Only the book, though, spells out that Uthred doesn't start to feel any kind of identification/emotional connection to the Saxons until he sees them winning a battle (until then, narrator Uthred says, he hadn't thought Danes could lose, which makes sense given that throughout Uthred's childhood and adolescence, they were winning), when before he regarded them as weak and didn't want to think of himself as belonging to them. Which makes sense given Uthred is raised in a warrior culture and is a young, arrogant adolescent at the time, but again, I suspect the tv version avoids spelling this out in order not to make him off putting early on when establishing the character.

Otoh, the scenes the tv show adds in the two seasons where Uthred isn't present all serve to flesh out the characters in question more and work to their benefit, whether it's Alfred, Hild, Aelswith or Beocca. The notable exception is Guthred in s2, whose additional scenes make him look worse, not better than the novel does. Possibly, too, because in the novel Guthred is described having an easy charm that makes Book!Uthred forgive him even the truly terrible thing Guthred does to Uthred, and the actor playing Guthred on the show doesn't have that at all, and instead comes across as nothing but fearful, easily influenced and weak. (And show!Uthred while coming to terms with him doesn't forgive him.) I have to say, lack of actorly charm aside, given that Guthred does something spoilery to Uthred ), I find the tv version more realistic.

The push-pull relationship between Uthred and Alfred is there in both versions, but in the tv show, it comes across as more central. As my local library has it, I also read "Death of Kings", the novel in which, Alfred dies, not without manipulating Uthred one last time into doing what he wants him to do, and Uthred's thoughts on the man later, summing him up, are Cornwell's prose at its best:

I stood beside Alfred's coffin and thought how life slipped by, and how, for nearly all my life, Alfred had been there like a great landmark. I had not liked him. I had struggled against him, despised him and admired him. I hated his religion and its cold disapproving gaze, its malevolence that cloaked itself in pretended kindness, and its allegiance to a god who would drain the joy from the world by naming it sin, but Alfred's religion had made him a good man and a good king.
And Alfred's joyless soul had proved a rock against which the Danes had broken themselves. Time and again they had attacked, and time and again Alfred had out-thought them, and Wessex grew ever stronger and richer and all that was because of Alfred. We think of kings as privileged men who rule over us and have the freedom to make, break and flaunt the law, but Alfred was never above the law he loved to make. He saw his life as a duty to his god and to the people of Wessex and I have never seen a better king, and I doubt my sons, grandson and their children's children will ever see a better one. I never liked him, but I have never stopped admiring him. He was my king and all that I now have I owe to him. The food that I eat, the hall where I live and the swords of my men, all started with Alfred, who hated me at times, loved me at times, and was generous with me. He was a gold-giver.


Last Yuletide I added a Last Kingdom request at the last minute because I'd seen it had been nominated, and accordingly it was short, but this Yuletide I think I'll also offer, and will request in more detail and more characters. While the other historical tv shows I consumed during the last year were entertaining in various degrees, this was the only one which was also good.
selenak: (Library - Kathyh)
Being on the road in Lower Saxonia puts a serious cramp into my tv viewing, which is frustrating because everyone else seems to be talking about a couple of episodes I'm so waiting to see (and wish to remain unspoiled for). On the other hand, this means I get around to posting some short book reviews that are lurking on my computer, partly still from the book fair.

Peter Ackroyd: The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein.

The biggest mystery here is what the point of this book is supposed to be, and I say this as a) someone who has a thing for the Haunted Summer of 1816, though I'm more a Byron than a Shelley girl, and at any rate more Mary Shelley than Percy Bysshe, and b) someone who enjoyed Ackroyd's novel about Oscar Wilde and his Dickens biography. In this newest novel, he basically rewrites Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by moving the action from Ingolstadt and Switzerland to England, and by inserting Shelley, Mary & Co. in it. Oh, and adds a final twist. But what he adds isn't nearly original enough to justify a rewrite. I mean, Ackroyd even keeps Mary Shelley's structure - first person narration Victor, first person narration monster, first person narration Victor - minus the framing narration by the adventurer in the original novel who meets Victor and the creature in Antarctica. And while he might write more polished than Mary Shelley at age 19 did, her prose hat an urgency and and originality in the key scenes Ackroyd rewrites - most notably the moment of creation and immediate rejection, and the scene with creature and maker meeting each other again, where the creature, being highly articulate as opposed to the famous movie versions, makes its enraged "what the hell were you thinking?!?" case - which this new rendition lacks. As for the final twist, well. Poe did it better and with far fewer pages in several of his stories.

As mentioned before, this novel lets Frankenstein meet Shelley, and here I'm baffled as well, because usually this author is quite good at making famous literary figures come to life. But despite playing fast and loose with the Shelley biographical data, he doesn't manage it here. Not with Shelley, or Mary, or late arrival Byron, for that matter. Plus given that Mary is the original author, you'd think she'd have a more central role, but no. These were some of the most interesting people of their age, and the authorial failure to capture this in any way stupefies me.

Bernard Cornwall: Azincourt

This, by contrast, is an entertaining and unpretentious historical novel. I wouldn't say a must, and I do have some, well, less than enamoured observations, but by and large I enjoyed myself. Cornwall is good at battlefields (and fights are difficult to write and render in their mixture of horror and excitement - just try it!), every day soldiering and homosocial bonds - no kidding, with his Sharpe series and his Arthurian novels in his resume - and the one important female character in this novel, Melisande, is fleshed out beyond being "The Girl". He also doesn't fall into an easy trap in historical novels, tv shows or movies, i.e. let his sympathetic characters have enlightened attitudes right out of th 21st century, with only the villains sharing the prejudices of the time. His point of view character - safe for the battle of Agincourt itself, but I'm coming to that - is an archer, and the conviction that saints intervene if you pray to them is as real to him as the blood feud his family is engaged in. Speaking of prayer, early on I groaned when we got our second evil sadistic priest in a row, but then Cornwall threw in some sympathetic ones, one of which is a major supporting character, so there is balance.

Which can't be said about the the description of the period of the 100 years war this novel describes, sudden expansion of view points for the crucial battle to include one French nobleman not withstanding, but then, I hadn't really expected it, and it is fair to the novel's main character. Honestly, if Nick suddenly started to conclude that Henry V.'s claim to the French throne might be a wee bit flimsy and hey, maybe the French have a right to defend themselves, I would probably have cried anachronism. But while Cornwall pays tribute to the bravery and endurance of the garnison of Harfleur who withstood Henry's siege for eons, he's definitely doing the authorial manipulation thing otherwise. The first military action we get to witness consists of the French brutally conquering Soissons. And while we get to see plenty of the English archers and foot soldiers, you'd look in vain for a scene between non-noble Frenchmen, leaving one to conclude that the French army, despite vastly ountnumbering the English one, somehow only consists of the nobility. Just kidding. He does mention squires. But the only French pov character during the big battle is a nobleman who while being a brave fighter is definitely a very dark character otherwise. So of course Cornwall is playing the class game.

My actual nitpick is something else, though. If you decide the write a novel climaxing in the battle of Agincourt, you have the same problem the writers of the tv show Rome had with their second season opener, which was set in the immediate aftermath of Caesar's death: to wit, Shakespeare. And the fact he wrote some pretty definite renditions of certain speeches. Now, in Rome, the scriptwriters cleverly got around it by not showing us Brutus' and Antony's speeches at all (instead, we got a tavern scene in which characters excitedly talked about what had happened intercut with Antony dealing with Brutus, Servilia & Co.), not trying to top "Friends, Romans, Countryman" on the sound assumption that well, you can't. Corwnall, by contrast, writes his own version of not just one but two of Henry V.'s most famous scenes. And with Henry's big St. Crispian's speech, the inevitable happens. I'd have avoided that somehow. The other rival scene is a more interesting matter. Here's Shakespeare's scene of King Henry, in disguise, talking to his soldiers:

King Henry: I dare say you love him not so ill to wish him here alone, howsoever you speak this to feel other men’s minds. Methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king’s company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.

William: That’s more than we know.

Bates: Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough if we know we are the king’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.

William: But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make; when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.


It's a great scene in Shakespeare's play, though Shakespeare ending it by letting Henry win via some some rethoric tricks and moving the point of the argument elsewhere is annoying. It really depends on the production whether you put the emphasis on "if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us" (which a friend of mine once tersely called "the original Nuremberg excuse") or on "but if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make". Now, Cornwall takes it upon himself of presenting his own version of this scene and this time finds some way to justify this by the narrative. Earlier on, Henry has hanged a soldier for stealing. Said soldier just happened to be Our Hero's brother, and along with Our Hero Nick, we know poor Michael was framed and had no chance of proving it because Henry didn't give him the time to. So when Henry shows up in disguise, Nick recognizes him, doesn't let on but uses the opportunity to vent as soon as Disguised!Henry makes his claim about the king's cause being just by replying that since the King hanged an innocent man, his cause might not be so just after all. By making it personal for the main character, there is some justification for using the scene in the story. (Also, it's the point where Henry lives up to his propaganda by a) not hanging Nick as well and b) stating that if the man died innocently, the king would atone by letting mass said for him for the rest of his - i.e. the King's - life.) And it fulfills a seductive fantasy: the common man actually having the chance to tell the monarch the truth, and not in a flattering way. But I can't be behind it 100% because it seems to me that Nick's personal issue - the king hanged my brother, who is innocent - is in the end not as powerful a point as the one Shakespeare gives to William - the king started a war, and so all the deaths in it are caused by him.

But that's probably just me, and my Shakespeare issues. In summation: Azincourt (the French spelling of the place) is an entertaining novel, and while I wouldn't say you have to go and buy it now, you could do worse than borrow it from your local library.

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