Monday, 24 May 2010

The Arthurian Review, Issue 3

While on a trip to London in the late 1990s - I was in the middle of my First Arthurian Wave - I discovered Bernard Cornwell's Arthurian trilogy. I bought all three books in one go. The first two had just appeared in paperback; my copy of the third volume is a hardback I found in a second-hand store. Especially for the Arthurian Review, I went back to my mismatched set, to find out whether it is really the exciting series I thought it was back when I was about twenty :-)...

The Warlord Chronicles:
The Winter King
Enemy of God (1996)
Excalibur (1997)
Bernard Cornwell

A short while ago, asked by a friend whether I thought the HBO series Rome worthwhile, I made the following observation: there are essentially two approaches to historical fiction. The first assumes that people of the past were much like ourselves, with values and thought processes that do not differ all that much from our own. The second assumes that there is a wide gap between modern life and thought and that of the ancients. In his Arthurian trilogy, Bernard Cornwell clearly adheres to the latter approach. And let me assure you that he does it really well.

I don’t know how historically accurate or plausible Cornwell’s depiction of the late fifth, early sixth century in Britain is - because I have a natural tendency towards approach number one, whether or not that is justified - but he certainly succeeds in constructing a coherent and convincing Arthurian world. It is a savage place, ravaged by war and disease, by strife between rivalling warlords and competition between different religions. Ruled by superstition and oaths, it is a fairly alien world that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Arthurian society as we see it in medieval romances. There is lots of spitting to avert evil and scores of lice torment our heroes. There are Druids who perform atrocious rituals, sorcerers who style their hairdos with dung, hundreds of heads are lopped off, the skins of virgins are used as shield covers and magic invariably involves the use of blood, body parts, urine or faeces. Recipes are brought to you by Merlin and Nimue, mostly, and you are kindly advised not to try them at home. Now, one thing that distinguishes Cornwell’s treatment of magic from similar scenarios by other writers is that he leaves it up to the reader to determine whether or not all the crazy business with pee, poo and human sacrifices actually produces the least result. The line between the supernatural and the coincidental is never clearly drawn, a choice that allows Cornwell to have sorcerers without drifting off into the realm of fantasy and the all-too-improbable. The result is that magic in the Warlord Chronicles is actually plausible - even if I do remain sceptical about the spells :-).

Actually, the Warlord Chronicles contain quite a few story elements that have the potential of giving me allergic reactions. It has barbarous rituals and a society that seems barely civilised. It has a violent conflict between Pagans and Christians. It proposes a ‘realistic’ look at a society about which we know too little to make accurate assumptions. It uses medieval French and English names of Arthurian characters like Galahad and Agloval and mixes them with old Welsh names like Hygwydd and Emrys and Mynydd Baddon. But reading this trilogy did not give me a rash. The books are skilfully written and well-plotted; the story simply took me along and it worked. I enjoyed it when I first read it more than ten years ago, and despite having become much more critical since, I had a great time rereading it.

In Cornwell’s version, Arthur is not a king and Mordred is not his son. Instead, Mordred is King Uther’s grandson and the legitimate king of Dumnonia, whereas Arthur, Uther’s illegitimate son, is a warlord sworn to protect and support Mordred until he comes of age. Unfortunately Mordred turns out to be less than suitable to rule, and almost everybody urges Arthur to usurp the crown. Arthur, ironically, does not want the crown at all. He has very definite ideas about how the land should be ruled, and as a powerful and successful warlord he could easily seize Dumnonia, but all he really wants is a simple life. Throughout the trilogy he is torn between the oaths he has sworn, the dictates of reason, and his personal longings. He is a man who always acts for the best, but his decisions invariably bring him on a collision course with someone or other - whether it be his clever and ambitious wife Guinevere, his enigmatic former teacher Merlin, the cowardly and vain prince Lancelot, the conniving bishop Sansum or his own best friends Culhwch and Derfel.

Derfel Cadarn is the story’s narrator. Saxon and slave-born, he survives a Druid’s death pit and is subsequently adopted by Merlin, Druid and Lord of Ynys Wydryn. Derfel grows up to be a hardy spearman and warlord staunchly loyal to Arthur. Due to circumstances that I cannot reveal without spoiling a few good plot twists, he eventually becomes a monk, in which capacity he commits Arthur’s story to parchment at the behest of Queen Igraine of Powys. (A Wikipedia search has taught me that there is actually a Catholic saint Derfel Gadarn who was a companion of Arthur’s before he became a monk - I adore that kind of thing.)

The idea of an old man writing down the story of a hero he knew in his youth may not be amazingly original, but in this case it is one of the things that add charm to the series. When Derfel tells of the events he has witnessed, he doesn’t leave out the gory details and refuses to glorify people and events. His benefactress, Queen Igraine, belongs to a younger generation that has already begun to fantasise about Arthur, his reign and the people surrounding him, and she frequently takes Derfel to task for not embellishing his tale or for not telling it the way she has heard it from the poets. As a reader, you get an amusing contrast between a reality that could have been and the legend that we all know.

In my opinion, the story gets better as it moves along; the first book is the one I enjoyed least. As you read on, you see the plot elements come together and situations and characters become more nuanced. Cornwell has a sense of humour that serves to lighten up some of the gloom of his story of a decaying society and he creates several memorable characters - his version of Arthur, Guinevere and Merlin are among my favourite interpretations of the legendary figures.

And the Gawain-o-meter says...

Which Gawain?

Prince Gawain of Broceliande

His father is King Budic of Broceliande; his mother is Anna, sister of Arthur. There is an Agravain in the novels, but he is not mentioned as being related to Gawain. Gawain is Arthur’s nephew, but we never see the two of them interact.

He only appears in the last volume. Though he is of crucial importance to Merlin and Nimue, he is only a minor character and doesn’t get a lot of page time.

Very gentle and very innocent. Merlin considers him ‘tedious’ and ‘stupid’ because he wants to improve the world. In a nice twist, Cornwell’s Gawain has promised Merlin to preserve his virginity :P.

Very beautiful with a slim figure and long golden hair. Looks and sounds kind and has a lovely voice. He is only fifteen or sixteen and has no trace of a beard yet. Though rather ludicrously attired in cheap armour, his beauty and bearing ensure that he does not look ridiculous.

If this description should give you the impression that Cornwell favours Gawain, I can disclose that this is a delusion. Poor Gawain has rarely been treated worse! He is nice and very good-looking, but goodness, the fate the author has reserved for him is terrible. Wah.

For future issues of the Review (in random order):

Gillian Bradshaw’s Down the Long Wind trilogy
Der rote Ritter by Adolf Muschg
Chauvel & Lereculey’s Arthur series
Camelot 3000 by Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland
Merlin, the BBC series
Merlin, the 1998 mini-series
Kaamelott Livre VI, the M6 series
The Winter Prince by Elizabeth E. Wein
Uther & Igraine by Warwick Deeping


the comics expert said...

That's a serious list coming up, looks like.
I think I'll enjoy reading your thoughts!

ampersand said...


Yes, it's a long list, and I really should hurry. Most of these I have read/seen a while ago, and to write a decent critique I need to remember the details. I noticed that in the case of a film like King Arthur, I forget very, very quickly :P.

Oh wait, that's not even on the list yet...

Cecilia said...

By Cornwell I've read only Stonehenge and it disappointed me (well, if you can call disappointment be bored by a book you started with no expectations thereof). I don't know if it was a translation problem, but I didn't get hooked by his prose and, contrary to your review, I thought he attributed much too modern feelings to prehistorical characters.
In this sense your review intrigued me, since it's very possible that this Arthurian trilogy is better than Stonehenge, and I liked the description of Arthur that comes out from it.

ampersand said...

I have to confess that the books have their weaknesses - like, for example, the page count: I think that if Cornwell had wanted to do so, he could easily have cut a few parts. He also repeats stuff now and then - but whereas this was mildly annoying, it probably wouldn't have been so if I had been reading the books more slowly.

So, to be honest, I cut Cornwell some slack because there are other things that charm me, like his sense of humour, the fact that he obviously knows how to tell a good tale, and what he does with characters like Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and Morgan. I haven't read anything else by him, so I don't know about Stonehenge. Quite a few reviewers at Amazon seem to think it extremely boring :).