‘The Last Kingdom’: the End of Tribalism

Uhtred nobly tries to unite the nations one last time

Well, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, hero of Netflix’s The Last Kingdom,  has wielded his amber-pommeled sword, Serpent-Breath, for about the last time, now that the show has wrapped up its fifth and final season. Of course, the streaming network does plan a movie for next year, Seven Kings Must Die, so we’ll get one more chance to relish actor Alexander Dreymon’s almost comical, put-on Danish accent, but it’s just not the same as binge-watching.

Through five seasons of trying and failing to reclaim his stolen Bebbanburg Castle, shifting allegiance from Saxons to Danes and back again until it’s hard to tell who he’s fighting for, Uhtred son of Uhtred, born in 857 in the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, was always more complicated in political allegiance than in personal motivation. Born a Saxon, kidnapped and raised by Danes, early on it’s all about joining himself to whichever tribe seems most apt to help him get what’s rightfully his.

By this final season, though, he is altogether within the Saxon camp, serving as one of King Edward’s top war commanders against Danes with whom he in the past supped, joined forces, and even slept. Whether he is altogether on board with Edward’s dream of creating a united England, though, is an open question. He has more immediate considerations: how to raise forces from allies against the Danes, how to contend with the machinations of treasonous counselor Lord Æthelhelm, how to keep his man-bun in perfect order and the sides of his head so cleanly shaved.

Once King Constantin of Alba (the Gaelic word for Scotland) gets involved, hoping for a marriage to the captive Lady Ælfwynn of Mercia, we have yet another tribe added to the tangle of allegiances and betrayals. As it so happens, it is the traitor Æthelhelm holding her, and inside Bebbanburg, no less, under the protection of Uhtred’s Saxon cousin, Wihtgar, the pretender to the castle. Constantin isn’t looking for love, of course, just a marriage that could bring him some political power, and he tells Ælfwynn in private that he doesn’t mind if she has a side piece because he’ll have one, of course.

Once Uhtred figures out that both the Æs are in his (dammit!) Bebbanburg, he hatches a scheme. Of course it doesn’t go quite as planned, and even though Ælfwynn escapes, not only does it end up that Constantin and his men push Edward and his men closer and closer, via shield-wall, to the sea-cliff, but quite a few of them topple to their deaths. Add in that Bebbanburg ends up engulfed in flames, and you have quite the situation. You’d need not just an act of God to fix it, but also the assistance of sworn race-enemies. Well….

It’s all a lot of hacking of limbs, and necks, and arrows piercing hearts, this show. There’s palace intrigue, and messy family allegiances trumped by Church-and-State power politics, and romance that borders on incest. Also fabulous costumes, variegated accents, and plenty of breathless Hungarian (sorry, folks: not England!) scenery. But above all, The Last Kingdom has a lot to say about tribalism. These days we’d call it nationalism, but back in 866 A.D. or thereabouts, there were kingdoms and duchies and such, maybe an empire here and there: no one had heard of a nation.

Uhtred, born a Saxon but raised by Danes, has spent his whole life navigating those divided loyalties. So, too, his daughter by the Danish Lady Gisela, Stiorra, who commands quite an army. Earlier in the season, we saw Stiorra deciding against swearing fealty to her recent foe King Edward. Yet by season’s end, she has agreed to live in peace with the Saxons. Maybe not on the terms Edward had hoped for, but still: her father, Uhtred, most definitely Saxon nowadays (whatever his weird accent), Lord of Bebbanburg, has promised equality between Saxon and Dane, and she’ll take it.

So, then, what makes for a peaceable community of people, whatever their tribe, and what makes for war and strife? Uhtred was never quite sure who he belonged to; and whether he fell in, after everything, with the Saxons because he thought they could get him what he wanted, or because the Danes were too brutal even for him, is an open question.  But what Uhtred himself does end up representing, whether he likes it or not, is a community of people (let’s not call it a nation) not defined by tribal heritage, but by common aims and ideals.

In our present moment, we are seeing, in the Russo-Ukrainian war, both the evil and the good that may be found in adhering to tribal or nationalistic identity. Yet even an inconsequential little show, exciting as it may be, as The Last Kingdom can show us how much better it can be to set all of that aside, and just be human together.

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G.L. Ford

G. L. Ford lives and works in Victoria, Texas. He is the author of Sans, a book of poems (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2017). He edited the 6x6 poetry periodical from 2000 to 2017, and formerly wrote a column for the free paper New York Nights.

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