Less than Friends, More than Rivals

I’ve spent the past three weeks unpacking the character foils found in the TV series The Last Kingdom, and I promise next week we’ll move on to something else. 🙂 But I couldn’t help spending one more post on perhaps the most central foil relationship in the whole series: the relationship between Uhtred of Bebbanburg and Alfred the Great.

In fact, I think their constant fluctuation between friendship and rivalry makes up the main drama of the first three seasons.

With one of them a formidable warrior, and the other a sickly king, these two leaders represent opposite forces and natures throughout the entire series.

Uhtred is pagan, Alfred is a devout Christian.

Uhtred is torn between loyalties, Alfred has a single-minded drive to unite England.

Uhtred is physically robust, Alfred suffers constant physical ailments.

Uhtred is passionate and often wrathful, Alfred remains cool and cunning.

Even after leading Alfred’s men into battle and fighting alongside the king himself, Uhtred struggles to maintain a stable relationship with Wessex and its ruler. As I watched them oscillate between loyalty and suspicion, I couldn’t help wishing they’d just get along. Why couldn’t they just respect each other?

The thing is, they do both respect each other. So much, in fact, that they fear each other.

Alfred recognizes Uhtred’s merit as a warrior early on, but soon Uhtred finds himself behind bars for not following the Saxon rules within Saxon territory. This becomes a point of leverage for Alfred—in fact, it marks the beginning of the cycle that keeps Uhtred coming back to Wessex again and again, despite his wish to leave. Alfred repeatedly solicits Uhtred’s sword through manipulation, even going so far as to arrange a marriage for Uhtred that will steep him in debt. Each time Uhtred gets himself into trouble with Wessex, Alfred’s “clemency” consists of making him swear service to him for yet another duration. But why does he do this?

First of all, he knows he needs Uhtred. But, as a Christian king whose authority is new, Alfred fears having to rely on a pagan whose military prowess outstrips his own. So in order for Alfred to feel comfortable keeping Uhtred close, he must keep him in the more dependent position.

Uhtred, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to be the free lord of Bebbanburg, independent of any other ruler or kingdom. Naturally, he chafes under the constant state of dependency in which he finds himself with Alfred. Eventually he begins to fear he will never be released from Saxon hold—a fate his Danish friends Ragnar and Brida frequently warn him against. And yet even after Alfred’s death, Uhtred once again promises service to Wessex: this time to see Alfred’s son Edward secured as king.

What’s interesting about this complex relationship between the two characters is that the writers didn’t just create two opposites. They created two opposites that need each other.

So much that they fear one another’s hold.

It’s tempting to say that they might have been good friends if they didn’t need each other—and yet they never would have willingly entered each other’s lives if they had no such need. Two such opposite men would never seek out one another’s company and confidence. They were forced to out of necessity.

And so it seems that same necessity and co-dependence is both the cause and the bane of their ever-turbulent, yet ever-present relationship.

Less than friends, more than rivals… this tension alone was interesting enough to make me keep watching.

Do you find that complicated relationships between characters make a story inherently more interesting?

What are some other books/shows/movies where you’ve seen an unending dance of tension between two main characters? Do you think this dynamic makes the story more true-to-life?

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