The Vikings loom over the cowering Christian priest, mocking him and the church they have just sacked. “Do you believe your god can work miracles?”

The clergyman nods with certainty, and the wild-haired, tattooed pagan leader gives a delighted grin. “Well then, let us see if He will perform a miracle and save you.”

The Christian pales, shakes, and quavers. The Vikings take aim with their arrows, and kill him. God does not intervene.

The Last Kingdom

The Last Kingdom is a bloody BBC series, set in the England of the 800s, when Vikings were murdering and plundering their way across the land.

In the spirit of Mark Tordai, I want to give you a brief review. Here’s the even-briefer version: you should watch this show if you like sword fights, Vikings, and indomitable protagonists — and if you can overlook the show-writers’ one-sided approach to the characters’ faiths.

SPOILER ALERT

Pagans vs Christians

For me, one of the best parts of The Last Kingdom is that the whole show — writing, acting, direction, and costumes — highlights the cultural contrast between the pagan Danish invaders and the Christian Saxon inhabitants of England. Extra fun is that some characters convert from one faith to the other. This adds anthropological depth to the blood opera.

But throughout the series, Christianity gets the short end of the stick.

Pagan beliefs and rituals seem to afford their practitioners actual — if subtle — magical powers. For instance, early in the story, a Viking sorceress drinks some crazy heathen brew and glimpses important events occurring hundreds of miles away.

But there is no sign that there is any underlying spiritual truth for the Christians’ faith here — no prophecies, no faith healing, and not a single pivotal conversion or authentic moment of repentance.

Furthermore, throughout the series, Christianity is depicted as a cause of timidity, hypocrisy, and weakness, whereas the beliefs of the Vikings are depicted as a hearty “lust for life and battle.”

The most powerful and courageous Danish villain in the show is fiercely dedicated to the pagan gods. The most powerful and courageous Saxon fighter in the show is practically an atheist.

Indeed, it’s made abundantly clear that the only reason the quavering, fractious Christians survive the repeated Viking onslaughts is because they ally themselves with a bold, honorable pagan — the show’s protagonist.

There’s only one scene in the whole series where pagan beliefs function as a source of weakness. In this case, the daring protagonist manipulates an enemy Viking leader into doubting the prophecies given by his magical adviser. That doubt causes the Vikings to hesitate and gives the pagan hero enough time to save the day.

A Plea for Equality of Faiths in Fiction

All in all, I’m really glad that the show highlights this culture clash.

But the lopsided depiction of pagans vs Christians makes both the fantastical and the historical aspects of this story seem less sensical than they could have.

On the fantastical side, I would have preferred to have a more equal distribution of miracles across faiths in The Last Kingdom. If you’re going to construct a fictional tale in which faiths confer powers, why leave the members of one faith powerless?

On the historical side, why on earth would the Christians have actually expanded their influence in the backstory — over the previous hundreds of years, out of the Mediterranean and into England — if (1) pagans gain both moral character and occasional magical powers from their heathen faiths, and (2) Christians instead gain timidity, hypocrisy, and no divine intervention from theirs?

Heck, I would have been happy if the pagans got to have magic but the Christians got to be more honorable, or more courageous in the face of certain death, or more merciful — or more anything!

No such luck.

The Testosterone Power Fantasy (and His Supporting Cast)

There is only one main protagonist in The Last Kingdom. And he’s a bit of a testosterone power fantasy. Basically, the only mistakes our protagonist ever makes are (a) being too vengeful, and (b) being too proud. And he wins almost every fight.

Meanwhile, there are 5 notable female characters in the show. But 3 of them fall in love with our protagonist. The other 2 alternate between fearing him and reluctantly following his leadership.

(By the way, as I mentioned, this irresistible leading man is a pagan.)

But even though The Last Kingdom focuses on this one indomitable hero, the writing in the series does a great job of fleshing out a big cast of interesting supporting characters. Almost every single named character has three or more fun personality traits. For instance, the last Christian king is faithful AND a lecher AND brilliant AND sickly.

(By the way, the king’s Christian advisor fails to help him overcome his lechery, but a pagan sorceress does help him overcome his sickliness.)

Meanwhile, there are 5 different important male Viking leaders over the course of the series, and they each have unique mannerisms, senses of honor (or lack thereof), attitudes toward their gods and the Christian god, and differing relationships with each other and the protagonist.

That all makes for a very interesting plot, with plenty of twists and surprises.

Should You Watch The Last Kingdom?

Once again, if you like sword fights, Vikings, and an indomitable protagonist — and if you can stomach a bit of spiritual imbalance in your quasi-historical fiction — I bet you will like The Last Kingdom.

Yes, you can watch it on Netflix.

Will you give it a try?


Edit — 2016011 2:35 pm: Reworded for better hook, tighter focus, and clearer argument.