Sunday, 21 June 2009
Bernard Cornwell: Warlord Chronicles
The Warlord Chronicles is a trilogy of books about Arthurian Britain written by Bernard Cornwell (perhaps best known for his Richard Sharpe adventures). The story is written as a mixture of historical fiction and Arthurian mythology.
The Winter King ISBN 0-14-023186-2
Enemy of God ISBN 0-14-023247-8
Excalibur ISBN 0-312-18575-8
The books have been published by Penguin and Michael Joseph in the United Kingdom and by St Martin's Press in the United States, in hardcover and paperback editions, each with different ISBNs.
"Once upon a time, in a land that was called Britain, these things happened . . . . well, maybe. The Warlord Trilogy is my attempt to tell the story of Arthur, 'Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus', the Once and Future King, although I doubt he ever was a king. I suspect he was a great warlord of the sixth century. Nennius, who was one of the earliest historians to mention Arthur, calls him the 'dux bellorum' - leader of battles or warlord." (Cornwell) Like other "historical" takes on the Arthurian legends, the series postulates that Post-Roman Britain was a difficult time for the native Britons, being threatened by invasion from the Anglo-Saxons in the East and raids from the Irish in the West. At the same time, they suffered internal power struggles between their petty kingdoms. Like Marion Zimmer Bradley in her novel The Mists of Avalon, Cornwell also presumes considerable friction still occurred between the old Druidic and other pagan religion and Christianity at this point in time (as he admits in the afterword of the first book, this angle was determined more by personal preference rather than third-party historical assessments).
The story is written as if it took place in Dark Age Britain as described in the original Welsh legends, with appropriate types of technology, culture, warfare, and attitudes. Cornwell also weaves later additions such as Merlin and Lancelot into the plot.
The protagonist of the series is Derfel Cadarn (pronounced Derv-el), based on the part-legendary Saint Derfel. Cornwell's Derfel is a Saxon brought up as a Briton by Merlin, the greatest of all Druids. In the course of the story, he becomes a great warrior and one of Arthur's lieutenants in his war against the Saxons. Merlin, meanwhile, concerns himself with trying to restore the old gods of Britain.
Among his fans, The Warlord Chronicles is often considered to be among Cornwell's best work, being acclaimed for both its storytelling qualities and its accuracy in portraying contemporary life. Cornwell himself has said, "I have to confess that of all the books I have written these three are my favourites."
For fans of the series, Cornwell's portrayal of Merlin as a lecherous, driven, mischievous and irreverent druid is particularly memorable, as are his unflinching descriptions of Dark Age barbarities. Also interesting is his solution to the problem of integrating the magic of the Arthurian mythos in the context of historical fiction: he leaves room for the reader to take the "magic" depicted in the story at face value or to interpret it as a mixture of coincidence, psychology, and primitive technology.
Isis Audio Books have also published unabridged recordings of all three novels, read by Edmund Dehn
1.Cornwell, Bernard. "Cornwell's own comment on the Warlord series". Bernardcornwell.net. http://www.bernardcornwell.net/index2.cfm?page=1&seriesid=4. Retrieved on 2007-10-02.
2. The SF Site Featured Review: The Warlord Chronicles
Book List - The Arthur Books
Once upon a time, in a land that was called Britain, these things happened . . . ." well, maybe. The Warlord Trilogy is my attempt to tell the story of Arthur, 'Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus', the Once and Future King, although I doubt he ever was a king. I suspect he was a great warlord of the sixth century. Nennius, who was one of the earliest historians to mention Arthur, calls him the 'dux bellorum' - leader of battles or warlord. I have to confess that of all the books I have written these three are my favourites. They have been translated into a score of languages and were best-sellers in a dozen countries.
Title: The Winter King Book 1
'Once upon a time, in a land that was called Britain, these things happened . . . . and I was there, and this is how it was.' The Winter King , like the rest of the trilogy, is narrated by Derfel (which is pronounced Dervel), one of Arthur's warriors. This first book tells how after the death of Uther, High King of Britain, the country falls into chaos. Uther's heir is a child, Mordred, and Arthur, his uncle, is named one of the boy's guardians. Arthur has to fight other British kingdoms and the dreadful "Sais" - the Saxons - who are invading Britain. Arthur is supposed to marry Ceinwyn, a princess of Powys, but falls disastrously in love with Guinevere - 'There have been many more beautiful women, and thousands who were better, but since the world was weaned I doubt there have been many so unforgettable as Guinevere . . . and it would have been better, Merlin always said, had she been drowned at birth.'
Title: Enemy of God Book 2
At the end of The Winter King Arthur fought the battle that forces unity on the warring British kingdoms and now he sets out to face the real enemy - the English (it is one of the great ironies of the Arthur stories that he should have become an English hero when, if he existed at all, he was a great war-leader who opposed the invading Sais). First, though, Merlin leads a perilous expedition into the mysterious west to retrieve a cauldron, one of the treasures of Britain - this cauldron story is almost certainly the root of the holy grail strand in the Arthur tales. The treasures of Britain, Merlin believes, will bring the old Gods onto the side of the British in their struggle against the Saxons (and the Christians, whom Merlin hates). But the treasures will also set Briton against Briton - especially as Guinevere, now Arthur's wife, wants to make a magic of her own. 'Chaos was now thick across Britain, for someone had spilt the Cauldron's power and its horror threatened to engulf us all.'
Title: Excalibur Book 3
If Arthur existed (and I am quite certain he did) then he was probably the great British war leader who won the battle of Mount Badon. No one knows where it was fought, or how it was fought, but we do know that the battle took place and it was the one great defeat inflicted on the English invaders of Britain. In Excalibur we follow Arthur and Derfel to that enormous struggle and incredible victory. It not only throws the Saxons back, but reunites Arthur and Guinevere. He might hope now to be left alone, to have a time of peace after gaining a great victory, but new enemies arise to destroy all he has achieved. First is Mordred himself, the crippled king who owes everything to Arthur and now tries to kill his benefactor. Mordred's ally is Nimue who has come to hate her mentor, Merlin. And so the story ends as it has always ended, at Camlann . . . 'and so my lord was gone. And no one has seen him since.'
Suggestions for Further Reading.
A note from the author: It hardly seems possible, but nevertheless the Arthurian legends are even more productive of 'nutcase' books than Stonehenge. At least, with Stonehenge, there is something tangible, the rocks themselves, which means that spectulation has some reality to contend with, but with King Arthur there is no reality; no ancient palace, no physical remains, no relics, nothing but whatever the poets, dreamers, novelists and myth merchants devise. So I do not intend to waste your time by recommending books that are mostly set in the astral plane, but instead offer a small list of reliable sources from which you, like everyone else, can construct your own fantasy.
Book Title: WAR BEFORE CIVILIZATION
Author: Lawrence H. Keeley
A very general book, but also a very good one
Book Title: THE QUEST FOR ARTHUR'S BRITAIN
Author: edited by Geoffrey Ashe
A collection of valuable essays by various respected authorities on aspects of Arthur and his background. This is very good reading - with essays on 'Camelot', Glastonbury, life in the Arthurian age, Arthur and Wales - among others.
Book Title: KING ARTHUR, HERO AND LEGEND
Author: Richard Barber
Richard Barber is a good, reliable guide to the legend and how it has changed. A nicely illustrated, well-written and sane guide to the whole complicated story
Book Title: KING ARTHUR IN LEGEND AND HISTORY
Author: Edited by Richard White
This is the absolute indispensable book about Arthur. Richard White has gathered all the primal texts, the original sources, in English, Latin, Welsh, French and German (all translated). This is what our ancestors said and thought about Arthur and everything, we believe, however weird, is based on these comparatively few sources. This is scholarly, reliable and good.
Book Title: ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF ARTHURIAN LEGENDS
Author: Ronan Coghlan
Just what it says - there are plenty of Arthurian dictionaries and encyclopaedias, but I found this one to be as good as any - a listing of all the major components of the myths.
Book Title: ARTHUR'S BRITAIN
Author: Leslie Alcock
This is a straightforward history of Britain between the years AD 367 and 634. I say 'straightforward', but of course nothing in that period is straightforward; they are not called the Dark Ages for nothing, and the title merely acknowledges that the famous figure from that misty era is Arthur. This is a splendid book by a noted historian.
Book Title: AN ARTHURIAN READER
Author: Edited by John Matthews
A much more eclectic collection than Richard White's, it is nevertheless interesting; a compendium of Arthurian tales that illustrate how the story changed over the centuries. There are also some interesting essays - notably one on Arthurian places, but there is also a real strain of occultism in the book.