Archived Reading Room

A different take on a legend

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell. Saint Martin’s Press, 1997.

I was probably 10 years old when I discovered King Arthur in the local library. I never got over it. That battered copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology was filled with illustrations of armored knights with noble countenances, sad maidens trapped in dark towers and bloody duels on lonely roads. I was hooked. As the years passed, other writers took up this wonderful story and I found every new version even more appealing. From Thomas Mallory to Alfred Lord Tennyson and from The Once and Future King to the musical, “Camelot,” I remained a devout fan. Like millions of other disciples, I read Mary Stewart’s epic series, and I especially remember a beautiful John Boorman film, “Excaliber,” that came out in 1981. I never cared for the comical and irreverent versions like Thomas Berger’s Arthur Rex, Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as well as the hundreds of “sword and fantasy” romances packed with dragons and Druids. No, I wanted my Arthur to be either serious, fierce and doomed, or “not yet born” (Evangeline Walton’s Mabinogion Tetralogy).

Now comes The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell, the first novel in an Arthurian trilogy. This is not a work to be undertaken lightly, for it comes freighted with issues that demand careful reading. First, the cast of characters is intimidating with over 100 lords, nobles, heartless villains, Druids and enchanting (in every sense of the word) women. Second, the names of people and places represent a minor challenge due to the fact that they have Celtic, Irish and Welsh origins. The reader must become accustomed to proper names that have a generous supply of double dd’s and yy’s as in King Gorfyddyd (pronounced Gor-vith-id), who is an especially nasty, one-armed fellow who hates Arthur with some cause ... Arthur cut his arm off in an earlier battle, and then added insult to injury by leaving Gorfyddyd’s daughter, Ceinwyn, at the altar.

However, this enthralling tale quickly renders these textural problems irrelevant. Cornwell’s “refurbishing” of the King Arthur myth is both original and captivating. Instead of a Christ-like figure intent on Christianizing the heathen, Arthur is an exceedingly ambitious (and deeply flawed) leader who is only saved from being a heedless tyrant by his conscience. In addition, the majority of the “Christians” in The Winter King are vain dissemblers who are intent on their own vision of power. Although Cornwell’s world is filled with the trappings of magic, he is careful to make the distinction between the belief in spells, curses and divinations and any subsequent event that could be termed “miraculous.” (Sorry, no “sword in the stone” this time.)

Cornwell’s warlords and soldiers fear the curse of the Druids who march in the enemy’s frontlines behaving like demented epileptics, but there is little indication that their powers are real. Everyone in The Winter King is constantly on the alert for omens and portents: the flight of a bird, the sound of thunder and the death agonies of a sacrificial lamb can fill the bravest warrior with apprehensions and even the most elegant lady will spit in the direction of the enemy when she encounters an omen. (Everybody spits a lot in this novel.)

The narrator of The Winter King, Derfel Cadarn, is a Saxon orphan who grew up in the household of the High Druid Merlin; later, he became a soldier in Arthur’s army, advances to the status of warlord and ends his days as a monastery monk devoted to recording all that he has witnessed in his life. It is through Derfel’s eyes that we see such legendary figures as Arthur, Guinevere, Galahad and Lancelot. The consequences are definitely provocative. Here are a few brief examples.

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In this first novel, Guinevere is a vain, ambitious and materialistic woman who despises the Druids, dabbles in paganism (she claims to be a follower of Isis and spends much of her time acquiring art). However, her initial attraction to Arthur has all of the trappings of true love/lust. Although she has been “bespoke” to a war chief named Valerin, and despite the fact that Arthur is in the midst of wedding Gorfyddyd’s daughter Ceinwyn, both become victims of “love at first sight.” Heedless of the consequences, the two lovers bring havoc and the death of thousands. (Remember, Lancelot hasn’t even seen Guinevere yet!) In the eyes of their followers, their love is both fated and doomed.

As for Arthur, in this introductory novel he is not even a king, but the illegitimate son of King Uther who has renounced him and proclaimed his heir to be a crippled child (grandson) named Mordred. (No, not that one! There are three Mordreds so far!). Arthur readily accepts Uther’s decree and pledges himself to be the guardian of a maimed “child king.” His motives are suspect from the beginning, and after the scandal attending his abandonment of Ceinwyn on her wedding day, he is condemned by the majority of England’s warlords — yet he steadfastly insists that he will be the leader that will bring unity to a land that is hopelessly divided between Saxons, Franks, Druids and Irish warlords.

Lancelot easily qualifies as The Winter King’s most despicable, vain and devious character (even though he has been perceived by other writers as the darling of Arthurian legend for centuries). Cornwell presents Lancelot’s undeserved reputation for bravery, loyalty and virtue as the direct result of an extremely effective publicity campaign conducted by poets and bards. Indeed, the narrator, Derfel, perceives the versifiers and singers who spend their time composing fictional accounts of Lancelot’s adventures to be nothing more than parasitic sycophants and he takes ill-concealed delight in their massacre in the palace of King Ban, Lancelot’s father. Lancelot’s brother, Galahad, emerges as the prince who actually possesses the virtues attributed to his brother.

The Winter King contains some of the most vivid descriptive passages of suspense and bloodshed that I have encountered in Arthurian literature. Derfel’s journey to the Isle of the Dead to rescue Merlin’s mistress, Nimue, is unforgettable (as is Nimue, who manages to be crazed, bizarre and captivating. She has a golden eye, too!). The destruction of King Ban and his kingdom, the murder of Norenna, Mordred’s mother, and Arthur’s final battle with his arch-enemy, Gorfyddyd, deserve to be described as riveting. They had me grinding my dentures and holding my breath. However, all of this slaughter and tension is interspersed with marvelous descriptive passages that conjure up those Victorian paintings with Arthurian settings: flowery bowers, crystalline streams, lush gardens, silken garments and impossibly beautiful women.

The reader may end up like the doomed lovers Arthur and Guinevere, Merlin and Nimue and poor Derfel and Ceinwyn (no kidding! All it took was the touch of her finger on the back of his hand!). Yes, the reader may also be fated (like me) to go and find a copy of the second novel, Enemy of God. Expect another review shortly.

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