Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell. Saint Martins Press, 1998. 397 pages
Several years ago, when I was reading everything I could find about mythical figures such as King Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Tristan, Iseult and Galahad, I blundered on the works of a Romanian philosopher named Mircea Eliade. Eliade was also obsessed with mythology and one of his most famous essays, “The Eternal Return,” entertained the idea that all of the stories of legendary heroes and tragic lovers are still with us.
However, the story’s basic elements (culture, physical characteristics, sex, etc.) are constantly changing. For example, the story of Tristan and Iseult could have been repeated last week in a Greek fishing village where Iseult is a waitress in a local cafe, Tristan might be an African fisherman and King Mark may operate a local grocery. Eliade thought that all of the great myths served as “ eternal templates” that were repeated endlessly throughout all time.
Bernard Cornwell has an interesting variation on Eliade’s theory. Instead of creating colorful alternative versions in different times and places, Cornwell radically alters the original story. In Enemy of God, not only is Arthur not a king, he has no desire to become one. Sir Lancelot, instead of being a courageous warrior and Queen Guinevere’s devoted lover, is a cowardly, vain and devious snake who plots Arthur’s death. Cornwell’s Guinevere is arrogant, ruthless and selfish — almost the opposite of the traditional virtuous wife who regrets her adultery, but is incapable of giving up Lancelot.
As a consequence, Cornwell’s treatment of the Arthurian legend is filled with unpleasant surprises and revelations. There is no round table, nor does Arthur preside over a kind of parliament of courageous and devoted warriors. Instead, England is ruled by a multitude of contentious warlords, each with their own petty holdings. Although there are alliances and blood-oaths, they are frequently broken as the warlords shift positions and loyalties in order to increase their own power and holdings.
Enemy of God, like The Winter King, is narrated by Derfel Cadarn, an aging monk who was once Arthur’s favored warrior. In fact, Derfel not only emerges as Arthur’s biographer, but quickly becomes a dominant character in this complex and violent epic. Also, it is through the narrator’s eyes that 5th century England comes alive. At this point, England is a land filled with the relics of the old Druid culture, nearly destroyed by the Romans who had built marble temples, impressive roads and stone buildings. Now, the Romans have vanished and roving bands of Saxons, Irish warlords, Druids and fanatical Christians struggle to claim the war-torn country.
Enemy of God contains (at least) six major themes. (1) Merlin’s quest for a mythical Cauldron that will enable him to summons the “Old Gods of England” and re-establish the ancient order that existed before the Romans came; (2) Derfel’s love for Ceinwyn, Princess of Powes, who has been promised to King Lancelot, who becomes Derfel’s most hated enemy); (3) the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult, two lovers who flee King Mark’s kingdom (Mark is Tristan’s father in this version); they seek refuge with Arthur; (4) the growing treachery of Lancelot, including his plot to kill Arthur; (5) Arthur’s prolonged attempt to make Mordred, the crippled grandson of King Uther, the rightful King of Camelot; and (6) the rise of the fanatical Christians who have branded Arthur as the “Enemy of God” and are dedicated to purging England of pagans.
As these varied episodes unfold, Cornwell does a masterful job of creating an atmosphere fraught with superstitious omens and prophecy.
Although there is little magic in Cornwell’s ancient England, the little that remains is impressive. Early in the novel, Merlin and his assistant, the one-eyed Nimue, announce the following harbingers of disaster: a sword shall rest on the neck of a child; a king who is not a king shall rule; the living shall marry the dead; and the lost shall come to light. With a growing sense of dread, Derfel moves from revelation to revelation, knowing that one or more of these prophecies will alter his own fate.
Cornwell’s second novel presents Arthur’s “united” kingdoms as a deception. Beneath the surface of brotherhood and love lies a tangled knot of lies and betrayal. What gradually becomes apparent is that each of the major factions (Merlin, Arthur and the Christians) has a hidden agenda. The struggle for control of England will be between Merlin of Avalon who is committed to the ancient and mystical world of the Druids; Arthur’s dream of a reign of peace which will unify England under a single ruler (Mordred); and the Christians who believe that paganism will be driven out of England and their God and the church will be established after Christ’s anticipated return (500 A. D.).
Although Arthur’s proposed “Camelot” appears to be winning in Enemy of God, Derfel perceives the inner corruption that is undermining everything and repeatedly attempts to warn Arthur. He only succeeds in alienating his family and himself from Arthur’s protection. The prophecy regarding “a sword resting on the neck of a child” presages a treacherous attack on Derfel’s family, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Mordred, the devious, crippled child/king, will prove to be “a king who is not a king.” Certainly, the most bizarre prediction proves to be the one involving Lancelot’s “marriage” to the corpse of Mordred’s mother in order to become the “rightful heir to the throne.”
Between the rituals involving Merlin’s legendary Cauldron, the sexual orgies associated with Guinevere’s cult of Isis and the Christian ceremonies that promote self-flagellation and maniac seizures, The Enemy of God presents a disturbing picture of a country moving towards the total collapse of all order (religious, political and cultural). By the conclusion of this novel, Arthur is definitely showing signs of disillusionment and resignation.
The reader may be subject to the same feelings. Certainly, those of us who have loved the story of Tristan and Iseult may find it difficult to accept
Cornwell’s reduction of this tragic love story to the young prince’s somewhat abrupt death (killed in a duel) and Iseult’s execution by burning at the stake. None of the trappings of the traditional story are here. No love potion accidentally shared, no courtly love affair and no “ship with a white sail.” Instead, Cornwell gives us two helpless teenage lovers, whose lives are brutally extinguished before they have hardly begun to live.
Cornwell’s reduction of romantic myths to grim fables that are devoid of magic and/or grandeur is disturbing. Enemy of God contains a basic cynicism that may be the downfall of both the legendary Arthur and Bernard Cornwell’s trilogy.