Sep 15, 2012

Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell

Second volume in the Warlord Chronicles trilogy, the story starts moments after the ending of the first volume with the aftermath of the terrible battle of Lugg Vale against Kings Gorfyddyd of Powys and Gundleus of Siluria. The warring British kingdoms are now unified in their fight against the Saxons, From the author's website:
"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.’"

Hmmm... small problem here. I finished this book 2 weeks ago, didn't have time at the moment to write this post. Then a friend came to visit and while she was here I read another book she'd brought and have now started the third book in this trilogy, so my impressions of Enemy of God aren't as fresh in my mind as I would have liked! Fortunately I took a few notes while reading... ;o)

Enemy of God starts right where The Winter King ended, with the aftermath of the battle of Lugg Vale. Arthur sends Derfel into Powys to witness the crowning of prince Cuneglas as King (after his father's death in the battle). Much depends on a smooth transition as Cuneglas, unlike his father, believes in peace between all Britons so they can take on the Saxons together. This mission eventually leads to Derfel and the princess Ceinwyn (Arthur's one-time fiancée whom he forsook for Guinevere) to accompanying Merlin and Nimüe along the Dark Road to Ynys Mon. They face the dangers of a crazy Irish king in order to retrieve the greatest of the 13 "Treasures of Britain" which Merlin needs in order to summon the Gods (and then get rid of the Christians and the Saxons): the Cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn. And so right in the beginning of the tale we are launched on a Grail Quest! In the Author's Notes, Cornwell states that cauldron stories are common in Celtic folk-tales, quests in which bands of warriors were sent to dark and dangerous places. He surmises that these legends were the seeds for the medieval tales of the search of the Holy Grail (usually associated with the later part of King Arthur's reign) which were basically a Christianized re-working of these ealier cauldron myths. In this case Arthur himself will have nothing to do with the Cauldron Quest, he thinks it's a fool's errand and won't even give Merlin any troops because he needs all his men to fight the Saxons (and not get killed off by the Irish). Derfel is the hero here, and Ceinwyn the virgin who will be the one to dream of the location of the Cauldron.

Once back in Dumnonia it's pretty much business as usual: fighting Saxons. So now that - after the first book - Arthur is the de facto leader of the British, this would be the tale of how he uses his power to unite all these armies and push back the Saxons long enough for us to enjoy the wonders of Camelot. Unfortunately he doesn't do as good a job of it as he'd have liked thanks to Lancelot screwing things up! The main result is that although Aelle is weakened, Cerdic is much stronger than before and Lancelot ends up king of the Belgic lands around Venta (Winchester). And so we get further insight into Lancelot's untrustworthiness (which had already been much insisted upon by Derfel in the first book).

Anyhow, for a while we do have the "glorious years" which the poets call Camelot (name never used by those who lived through it though). Years with Arthur doing a good job of managing the kingdom of Dumnonia for his nephew Mordred, content with waiting for his nephew to reach the age to take over and Arthur and Guinevere can "retire" to a country home. Which is not what Guinevere wants... she wants Arthur to take the throne for himself since everyone agrees that Mordred is unfit to rule! He spends years in Derfel and Ceinwyn's household during which they try to educate him, but he's basically a dangerous brat ("if any child was wicked, it was Mordred"). So there we lay the roots for Mordred being the villain of the piece. During this period Morgan converts to Christianity and marries the horrible Bishop Sansum who opposed Arthur as a pagan leader!!! She and Nimüe were always rivals, but this betrayal of their common faith and of Merlin now makes her Nimüe's mortal enemy. Also in this segment we have the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult.

In the midst of all this "peace", comes the tale of Arthur's greatest betrayal: Lancelot and Guinevere. In most tales they are portrayed as tragic lovers, coming together in spite of their devotion to Arthur. Here they are basically using each other to gain and consolidate power! (although we do get an impression that Guinevere might love Lancelot) Shortly after Mordred takes his place as King of Dumnonia (and mismanages things for a while), Bishop Sansum conspires to have Arthur and Derfel sent away on a mission (from which he doesn't intend them to return) and Lancelot invades Dumnonia and has himself declared King, with the support of most of the Christians who start persecuting pagans. This obviously doesn't end well, what with Arthur and Derfel returning alive and Mordred not being dead like Lancelot claimed... so they manage to put down his rebellion, he returns to hide in Belga... and Arthur discovers the truth about Guinevere's secret rites in the temple of Isis which involved laying with Lancelot!!!

So we wrap up the tale with Arthur taking over as leader of Dumnonia (but not as King since because of his oath to Uther and Mordred he can't bring himself to execute his dangerously worthless nephew) and pretty much leader of Celtic Britain: Emperor Arthur, Lord of Kings. Lancelot is in exile and Guinevere locked up in the nunnery on Ynys Wydryn under Morgan's watchful eye. Merlin and Nimüe are in possession of the Treasures of Britain and ready to use them.

Elements from Arthurian Legend:

  • Arthur
    • Effective ruler in his nephew Mordred's name, unites the various British kingdoms to fight the Saxons.
    • Creates a period of peace referred to as the "glorious years" but which the poets call "Camelot"
    • During this period creates his great band of warriors called "The Brotherhood of Britain" which includes all the Kings and Lords and many warriors who must swear an oath of peace and friendship amongst each other. -> nicknamed later the "Round Table"!
    • Has a son with Guinevere, Gwydre!!! (so she's not barren in this tale)
  • Merlin
    • Much more present, responsible for the Quest of the Cauldron (origin of the Holy Grail quest).
    • Mutual respect between him and Arthur, but nothing more. They don't work together for the good of Britain as Arthur believes they need to concentrate on fighting and expelling the Saxons, whereas Merlin believes they must unite the Treasures of Britain and use them to summon the old Gods (who have distanced themselves since the Romans came) and have the Gods get rid of both the Christians and the Saxons.
    • Gave Arthur Excalibur, one of the Treasures! It's the sword of Rhydderch, Caledfwlch (Arthur doesn't know).
    • During the peacetime period of "Camelot" kind of disappears into the background as a grandfatherly figure in Derfel's household.
  • Lancelot and Guinevere -> not so much a tragic love story as a simple tale of betrayal in order to obtain power. Knowing its inevitability it's easy to spot the moments when it's clear they're getting closer.
  • Galahad, christian 1/2-brother to Lancelot. Much better man and warrior and dedicated to Arthur (and Derfel, his close friend). Is the one to rescue and protect Mordred. *sigh*
  • Morgan, Arthur's sister, in this tale becomes a Christian thus betraying Merlin and becoming Nimüe's sworn enemy.
  • Mordred finally gets his throne, only to lose it after a short while! Is described as incompetent and downright evil and wants to be rid of Arthur.
  • Nimüe, still Merlin's #1 supporter, slowly taking over in matter concerning the gods since she's a lot younger and is more fierce than him in her beliefs. Is much more intimidating than in the first book.
  • Tristan and Iseult (young 8th bride of Tristan's very old father -not uncle- Mark King of Kernow a.k.a. Cornwall): the tragic love story unfolds much as usual, but this time Arthur has a hand in their tragic ending.
  • Agravain, mentioned in passing, one of Arthur's cavalrymen.
  • Bors, Lancelot's cousin and champion.

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