Bernard Cornwell is an author whose books I’ve been meaning to check out for a long time but hadn’t ever found the time to (even though I’ve had a copy of The Last Kingdom for ages!). However, when I found out he’d written a series of books based on Arthurian legend (a topic I love so much I wrote my dissertation on it in university!) I decided not to wait any longer, and jumped right into the Warlord Chronicles.
So far I’ve read the first two books, The Winter King and Enemy of God, and I’m really looking forward to reading the final book Excalibur soon! Check out my reviews below:
The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell
‘But fate, as Merlin always taught us, is inexorable. Life is a jest of the Gods, Merlin liked to claim, and there is no justice. You must learn to laugh, he once told me, or else you’ll just weep yourself to death.’
High King Uther has died, leaving his infant grandson his only heir. Therefore it falls to his bastard son Arthur to hold together a country that has fallen into war and chaos until the Mordred can come of age to ascend the throne. All the while he must battle with his forbidden love for the beautiful Guinevere, and the clash of religions that divides the country: Merlin with his magic and old Gods, and the rising religion of Christianity.
From the synopsis of this book (both mine and the official one) you’d be forgiven for thinking that Arthur is the main character of the Warlord Chronicles, and he is to a certain extent. However, the story is actually told by his close friend Derfel, a Saxon orphan brought up in the house of Merlin, who grows to become a powerful warrior and Arthur’s right hand. I feel like this was actually more effective to view Arthur’s story through the eyes of another, and Derfel has a compelling story of his own. He is definitely your classic ‘everyman’ character who always makes a good narrator: he was likable but not the kind of larger-than-life character who is going to distract from the story he was telling.
He tells the story of Arthur’s reign as Warlord as an old man looking back, as he reveals the truth behind the mythical golden age of Britain, and the legendary figure of Arthur to a young Queen Igraine. I quite liked this framework of the old Derfel looking back, as it left you intrigued as to how a steadfast pagan who grew up under Merlin’s wardship finds himself at the end of his days a devout Christian and living at a monastery with his old enemy, Bishop Sansum. However, it also kind of spoils the story it’s telling to a certain extent because you know all along that Derfel survives his many ordeals, and in fact outlives all of the other characters.
I really liked Bernard Cornwell’s adapting of the classic Arthurian characters, with him casting the usually flawless King Arthur of legend instead as the complex character of Uther’s despised bastard son. Whilst he is clearly a ‘good guy’, he definitely struggles with the conflict between his own morals and what has to be done for the good of the country. In many ways, Derfel serves as his conscience, and the friction this sometimes causes between them only enhances their friendship.
Guinevere as a character is also very complex, and rather hard to read, and I constantly seemed to be changing my mind about her and whether or not she was a good character or not (which was, of course, complicated by my knowledge of what happens in the King Arthur legends). Whilst she initially seems to manipulate Arthur into abandoning his original engagement and marrying her, she does seem to love him. However, the way she is easily bored and always wants the best things in life spells doom for their marriage, as you have a sense nothing short of a crown will please her, but Arthur won’t usurp Mordred.
And then of course, there’s Lancelot, the dashing and much loved ‘hero’, who finds himself driven out of his kingdom of Benoic. I loved the twist that he is actually a fraud – a cowardly man who takes the credit for other’s deeds – and I found myself sharing Derfel’s distaste for him.
A large part of this book was action, with plenty of battles to keep things interesting. In many cases, the descriptions were pretty technical about how the battles progressed, with descriptions of how the shield walls worked etc., but I found myself quite liking this aspect. It definitely gave a real sense of the horror of battle, as opposed to the glossy episodes of bravery and courage you usually find in Arthurian legend.
Another huge focus of the book was the conflict between the old pagan religion and the rising of Christianity. Merlin’s fervent belief is that the true Gods have abandoned Briton because of the Christians, and he is determined to reform religion and take the country back to the old pagan Gods. This sub plot was definitely gathering momentum towards the end of the book, and I was sure this would come to play a bigger part in the next book (and I was right!).
Overall though I really liked Cornwell’s re-imagining of Arthurian Briton, and the way he has transformed the usually romantic tales into something more reminiscent of actual early Britain, rife with war and religious conflict. It made for a dark, riveting read full of complicated characters and plenty of action, and I left the book excited to read the next.
Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell
‘To hear the tales told at night-time hearths you would think we had made a whole new country in Britain, named it Camelot and peopled it with shining heroes, but the truth is that we simply ruled Dumnonia as best we could, we ruled it justly and we never called it Camelot.’
Arthur’s attempts to unify the kingdoms of Briton is failing – they are besieged by Saxons, and traitors from within. Alongside this, religious war rages, with Merlin and his followers, and their quest to find the thirteen treasures of Britain, and the Christians, who are determined to put a Christian King on the throne. At the centre of this is Derfel Cadarn, torn between his duty Merlin, the only father figure he has ever know, his friend Arthur and his own dangerous love.
Enemy of God starts out where The Winter King left off, with Derfel telling Queen Igraine the events that followed the battle of Lugg Vale. I continued to like the device of the older Derfel telling the story, and especially the way he sheds light on what is remembered as the golden age of Britain, and how whilst the country was seemingly at peace, Arthur was in actual fact barely holding it together.
The battle with the Saxons is again a large part of this book’s plot, but I liked how in this book other things came to the forefront. The beginning of the book especially tackles other sub plots, like Derfel’s forbidden love for Lancelot’s betrothed Ceinwyn, and his quest with Merlin to retrieve the last of Britain’s thirteen treasures.
Ceinwyn as a character had a larger role in this book, and whilst I liked her, I feel she did suffer from being a little too perfect. She is kind, chaste and of course beautiful, and in a lot of ways, she didn’t seem like a fully rounded character, whereas a lot of the other female characters in this book (like Guinevere) have been very complex. However, she shows glimpses of a tougher side, as she goes against what is expected of her, and follows her own heart eventually.
Guinevere as a character, though largely absent from the first half of the book became even harder to figure out. Her obsession with a third religion – that of Isis – became a worry for the many characters of the book, and with good reason in the end. The reveal of what has actually been going on and Arthur’s devastation made for a dramatic climax, and I was left incredibly curious as to where their fractured relationship will go in the final book.
In fact, Arthur is left as a broken man by the end of the book, and as someone whose morality has been slipping a little (the incident with Tristan and Iseult), it will be interesting to see what happens in the next book. There is a sense now that his character could go in any direction, and start tearing apart the world he has tried so hard to build, and it will fall to his friend Derfel to pull him back from the edge. I’m definitely going to have to get to Excalibur soon to find out what happens, as I’ve been really enjoying Bernard Cornwell’s incredible reimagining of the Arthurian legend.
So have you read the Warlord Chronicles? What did you think? Or have you read any other great adaptations of the King Arthur legends or any of Bernard Cornwell’s other series?