The Winter King
(Warlord Chronicles, Part 1)
by Bernard Cornwell
OK, most everyone should know the legend of King Arthur by now. If you don't, the basic summary is that there was once a king named Arthur in England who became king when he pulled a sword called Excalibur from a stone with some help from a wizard named Merlin. Later he married a woman named Guinevere and formed a wonderful kingdom known as Camelot, where he and his brave knights sat around a round table after a day of searching for the Holy Grail or battling dragons. But eventually he was betrayed when his top knight, Lancelot, slept with Guinevere. Later his bastard son Mordred shows up and they lock horns and Arthur is ultimately killed. Excalibur ends up thrown into a pond, where a disembodied female hand takes it while Arthur is taken on a boat to a magical land known as Avalon to wait the day when he is needed again.
Now most of that historically speaking is pure bunk. There are some who try to assert there really was an Arthur, but evidence is sorely lacking. Nevertheless, Bernard Cornwell, known in the UK for writing the Sharpe's series of historical military novels, tries to recast the Arthurian legend in a more historical context in the 5th Century AD.
Before the story begins, it's important to note that at the time the series begins, what we think of as Great Britain is divided into a bunch of little kingdoms. There's an alliance among the kingdoms of central and western Britain (what we think of today as England and Wales) rules by a High King named Uther. Uther's son Mordred was recently killed by Saxon "barbarians" who are coming over from probably what we'd think of as Scandinavia now, leaving the High King with no heir and thus leaving the alliance in trouble if the frail Uther should die.
The story begins with the dead Mordred's wife giving birth to a boy, whom is named Mordred for his father. The only hitch is that the boy is born with a deformed foot. But for the moment the alliance is saved. Unfortunately, before long, Uther finally dies and some of the other kings want to take power for themselves. Enter, Arthur.
In Cornwell's vision of the Arthurian saga, Arthur is not a king. He starts out merely as Uther's bastard son who is a warlord in Brittany (France) and pledged to help his nephew obtain the throne. This Arthur does by sweeping in with his armored horse troops and putting down any rebellion and in the process making himself the unquestioned leader of Britain.
All seems to be going well and will be even more well once Arthur marries a princess named Ceinwyn to cement an alliance with a neighboring kingdom. Except when he goes to meet the princess, he sees a beautiful redheaded woman across the room and is smitten with love. That redheaded woman is named Guinevere and while she too is a princess, her father lost his kingdom to Irish marauders and thus she isn't nearly as good of a bargaining chip.
Though Arthur should think with his head and marry Ceinwyn to keep the peace, he instead thinks with his netherregions and marries Guinevere on the sly. This ticks off Ceinwyn's daddy, who in turn rounds up a huge army to crush Arthur and make himself the High King. It all comes down to an epic battle in a place called Ludd Vale.
That's leaving out a lot of what else happens in the story. Cornwell tells the story through Derfel, one of Arthur's loyal soldiers. He is a Saxon child raised by the Britons, who survived being thrown into a pit of spikes as a sacrifice to pagan gods. This led to Derfel being raised in the household of Merlin, the most powerful Druid in all of Britain. Derfel's coming of age from a boy in Merlin's household to a warlord at Ludd Vale parallels the coming of Arthur and his rise to power and fame.
I first read this trilogy about ten years ago and what I like about it is the way that even if none of this ever happened, it feels like it COULD have happened. Instead of the old Arthurian world with plate armor and jousting contests and courtly love, we have a Britain a generation removed from Roman rule, thrust into chaos as various kingdoms fight each other while invaders from Scandinavia and Ireland threaten to wipe everyone out. Instead of noble jousting and such, men fight in clusters called "shield walls" because the shields of the clustered men are used to protect each other from attack. There's nothing heroic about shield walls fighting, as it's a bloody, gruesome business of pushing and stabbing.
The way Cornwell debunks the myth while at the same time turning it into a more realistic story reminds me of reading Mary Renault's "The King Must Die" and its sequel about ancient Greece and the hero Theseus or Colleen MacCullough's novels about Rome like "Caesar's Women." As well the attempts to make the battles more realistic is similar to Stephen Pressfield's "Gates of Fire" about the Spartans in the Battle of Thermopylae (more famously recounted in idiotic fashion by Frank Miller's graphic novel "300"). There's also a lot of political intrigue that helps make the world in which this Arthur and his companions live seem to come alive.
My major nitpick is that there are too many names. There are so many kings and warriors and princes and princesses and different regions that you need a scorecard to keep track of who rules what and who hates who at the moment.
Still, even with no magic swords, dragons, or Round Table this is an exciting book that promises much more to come.
(On a side note, this to my knowledge has no relation to the "King Arthur" movie starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley put out in 2004, though that also deals with an Arthur in the 5th Century. These books came well before that, which means Jerry Bruckheimer probably stole and corrupted them. I've long thought the Cornwell novels would make a great series of films like "Lord of the Rings" but I doubt that would happen.)That is all.