Sep 4, 2012

The Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell

oops! Wrong order in bottom 2! :p
Although Bernard Cornwell may be better known for his Sharpe novels, on his website he confesses that his Arthurian trilogy are his favourite amongst his own novels!

From Bernard Cornwell's website:
"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.
Bernard Cornwell's Britain is that of the fifth and sixth century, a dark time when the Britons, after having been recently abandoned by the Romans who "civilised" them (many Britons still held to all things Roman), were facing wave after wave of Saxon invasions. Invasions which would inevitably lead to the Saxon colonisation of Britain. And they weren't alone: the Irish, fellow Celts, were constantly raiding along the western shores, and the north was frequently under attack from the tribes beyond Hadrian's wall. In fact some Britons had already abandoned the fight and found refuge across the sea in Brittany / Armorica. It was a Britain without any unity, divided into smaller kingdoms regularly at war with each other. It was a Britain in the midst of a religious conflict as well: that of the ever-growing Christianity against what little remained of Druidism (almost extinguished by the Romans) and other religious beliefs also imported by Rome (such as Mithraism).

Based on the "Author's Notes", what Cornwell was aiming for in this series was to tell a historically plausible tale. We are in the midst of the well-named "Dark Ages", of which we have little or no historical documentation. And although there is no proof that a historical Arthur exists, he says that it seems very likely that there was a British hero who, for a time, held back the advancing Saxon hordes during the early 6th century. As for it being Arthur, well he says that among the few records of the era some show a surprisingly atypical number of men named Arthur, something that would usually happen if people are inspired by a famous figure after which they wish to name their children. His idea of making Arthur a Warlord instead of a King comes from the earliest historical reference (albeit 200 years later) to Arthur by Nennius. Nennius makes much of him as a Dux Bellorum, not a king. So starting from this point he shares with us the tale of Arthur the mighty warlord, and tries to make it as historically accurate as possible (minimising any anachronisms) in reference to the time period. This leads to a certain realism thanks to the descriptions of clothes, foods, weapons, styles of fighting, battle strategies, soldiers' superstitions, conflicts between druids and priests etc., as well as the choice of names (from his website): "I took the names from all sorts of sources, many of them ancient Welsh, (...).  – some, like Aelle or Cerdic, are Saxon."

In this series Arthur is already a grown, full-fledged warrior with quite a reputation! He is Uther and Igraine's son, but a bastard! (along with 3 girls: Anna, married to Budec of Broceliande in Armorica (Brittany), Morgan a widow terribly scarred from the fire that killed her husband, she is now one of Merlin's priestesses, and Morgause married to Lot). Seems like here Uther never married Igraine! In fact he had a beloved legitimate son, Mordred!!! Who apparently died shortly before this story begins, in a battle against the Saxons in which he moved in too soon because he didn't want his half-brother Arthur to get all the glory. Bad mistake which cost him his life. Uther blames Arthur for this, refuses to see him and in a High Council meeting even calls him Arthur ap Neb  = son of no man. In other words refusing his paternity.

So Mordred isn't the bastard, Arthur is... which is quite a change! And Arthur isn't even the King, he's a warlord sworn to defend his nephew Mordred's (born posthumously) kingdom of Dumnonia.

The story is narrated by Derfel, a slave-born Saxon who was raised by Merlin and comes to be one of Arthur's trusted commanders. As in many cases when the story is in first person narrative, it takes the form of an old man writing his memoirs. Every once in a while tidbits are mentioned that would "explain" the differences between his version of events and the more romantic version passed along in the legends (most notably anything related to Lancelot!). He is writing it all down at the request of Queen Igraine of Powys because she -like many others- is in love with the stories and wants to hear it all from someone who lived it. But she is frequently upset by his truths and he surmises that she will probably have Dafydd -her clerk who translates Derfel's writings which are in Saxon so that Derfel's bishop (an old enemy of Arthur's) won't know what he's writing about- retell certain events so they are more in agreement with her romanticised version.

All in all these books are quite a good yarn! They're engaging, quite vivid (the characters felt very alive to me), aren't difficult to read (except perhaps for the overlong chapters which is only a problem for those of us who don't like to stop reading until at the end of a chapter!) and are hard to put down once you've really gotten into them! The details of the Druids' religion and the soldiers' superstitions are quite fascinating as is the use faith and superstition to explain natural phenomena (the Aurora Borealis is a sign of the Gods' favour). Plus they provide an interesting twist on characters we all think we know: Mordred is King instead of Arthur, Lancelot's no good, Merlin is driven by religion and not by uniting Britain against the Saxons... ;o)

The three books in the trilogy are (clicking on title will take you to each post, but warning: since I'm discussing elements of Arthurian Legend in these books there are spoilers):

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