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Monday, July 27, 2009

Enemy of God

Enemy of God

(Warlord Chronicles Part 2)

by Bernard Cornwell

(3/5 stars)

See my review of Part 1, "The Winter King" Here

As far as the middle parts of trilogies go, "Enemy of God" is more "Attack of the Clones" than "The Empire Strikes Back." By that I mean it helps move the story from the beginning (Part 1) to the end (Part 3) but by itself isn't as interesting as either of those. The action in this second installment of Cornwell's tale of a 5th Century AD Arthur is largely political, with only one major battle--and a short one at that--punctuated by a few smaller skirmishes. Instead, "Enemy of God" sets the stage for the climactic battles that await in the final part of the trilogy.

What's important to note here at the start is the difference in Cornwell's Arthur from what people traditionally think of. The traditional Arthur created in the Middle Ages was a Christian hero, as evidenced by the quest for the Holy Grail. Cornwell's Arthur though is an agnostic pagan, who makes an enemy of the early Christian church in Britain by insisting the church pay taxes to help him fund expensive wars to keep Saxon invaders from taking over the land. For that matter the church in those days was far different than most churches today, with far less organization and rituals akin to those of revivals.

In this 5th Century world after the Romans have gone but before the Saxons, William the Conqueror, the Tudors, and so forth, paganism defined by the Druids is fading while the newer religion of Christianity is rising. This creates bitter rivalries and conflicts within Britain even as Arthur struggles to bring peace to the land.

After the bloody battle of Lugg Vale that ended Part 1 of the trilogy, the warlord Arthur sets about the business of uniting Britain (what we'd think of as England and Wales) to fight the invading Saxon horde. This he does with political alliances and a Round Table oath, but the war against the Saxons goes terribly wrong thanks to a betrayal by the cowardly, vainglorious Lancelot.

However, a peace is established, during which time the conflicts turn from military to religious. As the year 500 approaches the Christians believe Christ is set to return and thus all unbelievers must be converted or otherwise eliminated. Meanwhile the Druid Merlin sets out to find the 13 "Treasures of Britain", including a daring raid into a wild Irish kingdom to find a magic cauldron. (The cauldron story is like the equivalent of the search for the Holy Grail.) And while Arthur has peace, chaos threatens thanks to a betrayal by the one he loves most. (Anyone who knows anything about the Arthurian saga knows to whom this refers.)

As I said at the beginning, most of the action in this book is of the dramatic kind as the Christians and pagans clash and various people scheme for control of Britain. Our narrator, the brave warrior Derfel, is caught up in the middle of everything, including the quest for the cauldron--how convenient! The middle of the story then tends to sag, something Cornwell tries to remedy by weaving the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult (or Tristan and Isolde as it was in the recent movie) into his Arthurian tale. As interesting as much of this is, it's hard not to get anxious for the climactic finish you know is coming.

Still, it's a necessary piece of the puzzle and an interesting study of life in the Dark Ages. Christians might find it especially interesting and should certainly find some parallels between these ancestors and current society. Certainly the idea of religions battling each other is something we all know something about these days. Maybe if we all had a little more of Arthur's pragmatism about the subject we'd have more of a Camelot.

That is all.

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