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Bearing little resemblance to the story of Arthur, with which we are all most familiar and certainly a million miles from the current BBC TV hit - Merlin, Cornwell's story is probably more faithful to the likely history, bearing in mind how little is actually recorded of this eternal British hero. However, it largely agrees with historian, Michael Wood's observations in his TV programme, "In Search of King Arthur".
Cornwell sets his tale in late 5th Century Britain, not long after the retreat of the Roman Empire to defend it's capital from the heathen hordes. Eastern Britain is already occupied by the German Saxon tribes, seeking land, treasure and slaves and they continue to push westwards into the various kingdoms of the British tribes, who seem more concerned with fighting amongst themselves than bandying together to fight a common enemy.
The Arthur of this version of history is not even a true son of King Uther, whose kingdom occupies Devon, Dorset and Somerset of current day Britain. The true heir to the throne is a baby, the weak and crippled Mordred, whom Arthur has sworn to protect and see safely to his throne when of age.
Arthur, though, takes on far too many oaths, more than he can ever honour and this is ever his undoing. In this, the first book of Cornwell's trilogy, it is his breaking of his promise to marry the daughter of a, till then ally King, choosing instead to marry with unseemly haste Guinevere, which plunges the very kingdom he has promised to defend for Mordred, into inevitable war. It is the events leading up to and ending with this war that occupies this first book and introduces us to the principal characters.
The story is that told in retrospect by Derfel, of Saxon birth but British by chance and one of Arthur's primary warriors in his army, when in later life he has taken to the cloth and become a monk. Derfel's part in the story is central and he spares no gory details of the battles in which he, Arthur and a cast of larger than life characters participate.
So long as you are prepared to accept Cornwell's version of the story, the setting and especially the characters that he assigns to the cast of actors, some of which certainly jar with the "classic" Arthurian tales, it will introduce you to a very different but interesting angle on the story of Arthur. Arthur himself is probably the truest to the popular view. He is honest, true and courageous but eternally troubled by his conscience over people he has failed and oaths he has been forced to break.
Lancelot, who in classic versions is something of a hero, Cornwell casts as a posturing, cowardly Breton king, who deserted his land, people and, most of all his father, to escape to Britain, leaving Derfel behind to fight the Franks and die in his place. To his chagrin, Derfel fails to die and so his knowledge of the truth of Lancelot's cowardice remains a thorn in his side.
Merlin has his own agenda in Cornwell's story. Far from being the tame Druid magician you expect, his crucial role, in which he is using everyone around him, is to recover and restore certain ancient treasures of the British peoples that have been lost during Roman times but with which he believes that Britain will be rightfully restored to the British peoples and their Gods and will help to drive back the Saxon tide. Although he does play an important part in several episodes of the story, his is mostly a role played out behind the scenes.
Cornwell is the master of weaving an enthralling story out of historical events and, bearing in mind how little fact he has with which to work, the tale is certainly up to his usual high standard. You will find this a superb book and one that will leave you hungry for the following two.
I read the paperback version which has a cover price of £5.99 and is published by Penguin.
I've never read anything by Bernard Cornwell before but picked this up as I am fairly interested in the Arthurian legends. "The Winter King" is the first book in the Warlord Chronicles Trilogy.
"The Winter King" is narrated by Derfel, an ageing monk looking back on his earlier life as a warrior in Arthur's service. Derfel is writing his story down at the request of his Queen, Igraine, against the wishes of Sansum, his superior at the monastery.
Derfel's version of Arthur's life and times is a lot less romanticised than the version most of us know. Of course Arthur's very existence is disputed to this day - no one knows what the truth is. Cornwell plays on this by interspersing the narrative with short exchanges between Derfel and Igraine.
Igraine wants the story to be more romantic and insists on changes to Derfel's story, such as Excalibur being the sword in the stone, when Derfel insists it was lying on a stone not in it. Igraine responds by saying her scribe will translate Derfel's narrative in any way that she wishes. In this way we see how stories are shaped and twisted into legends that bear little resemblance to reality.
Cornwell's version of life in Arthurian Britain is brutal - life is hard and there is constant fighting and killing. The Britons fight between themselves for supremacy - especially when the High King Uther dies leaving only Mordred, his infant grandson, to succeed him. As if that wasn't enough, Britain faces constant raids by the Saxons and the Irish, looking to plunder land and enslave the local populace.
Arthur is presented as being Uther's bastard son and therefore not entitled to take the throne of the High King. He returns to Britain as the guardian of the infant Mordred, in order to protect him until he is of age to rule.
Derfel is a sympathetic narrator and you find yourself supporting him throughout the book. He believes in Arthur and is an honourable warrior - he swears oaths throughout the story and always tries to abide by them. His love and friendship for Nimue is quite touching as is his devotion to Arthur.
All the usual characters are present in this story - Merlin, Guinevere, Lancelot etc - but Cornwell has a different take on most of them. This makes the story a bit more believable and intriguing.
Arthur is shown to be a kind and compelling leader who wants to see the best in everyone. However, he is also an ambitious man and wants to rule over a peaceful Britain, ostensibly for Mordred, whom he is sworn to protect.
Merlin is a somewhat ambiguous character who is not present for most of the novel. He randomly appears and disappears and no one can predict his actions. He is also shown to be somewhat selfish and callous in some regards but kind in others.
Derfel is an orphan brought up in Merlin's household as he survived a Druid's death pit as a child. Merlin collects such people as children as he believes they must be beloved of the Gods. Nimue, Derfel's childhood friend, survived a wreck at sea that killed everyone on board apart from her. Nimue is Merlin's protegee and is a priestess who is touched by the Gods.
Merlin's main ambition is to bring the old religion - Druidism - back to Britain. It was destroyed under the Romans and he believes the Gods have abandoned them. We hear most of the argument for this train of thought through Nimue, who wholly supports Merlin. Christianity has gained a foothold and both Nimue and Merlin are disgusted by this weak religion.
Guinevere is shown to be a strong woman and Arthur's love for her is presented as a madness. He abandons a betrothal that would bring Britain to peace in order to pursue Guinevere. She is shown to be somewhat capricious and cruel - she uses her beauty to her own advantage and cannot abide ugliness.
Lancelot is loathed by Derfel and is presented as an arrogant and cowardly braggart. He is adept at pretending to be brave in battle by lagging behind and returning looking bedraggled and claiming great victories as his own. He has a following of poets and bards who write songs claiming him as the bravest warrior.
He is sharply contrasted by his half brother Galahad, who is truly honourable and brave.
One thing that I found fairly confusing in this book was the place names as they are all fairly similar and I wasn't too sure where the characters were for most of the story. This is helped somewhat by a list of place names (also showing the modern day names) and a map at the beginning of the book. There is also a list of characters which was also helpful as there are a lot of different characters with similar names throughout the book.
I did enjoy this book as it was a completely different take on the Arthurian legends. It was a lot more realistic as life would not have been easy in the Dark Ages in Britain. However I did find it a bit slow at some points and the confusion with the place and character names at some points also slowed me down.
I enjoyed the detail of the book as it was an interesting look at how life would have been in Britain. I also enjoyed the detail about the Druid religion and the hold it had over people. The constant friction between the pagans and the Christians also adds an extra thread to the plot.
I think I will look out for the following books in this trilogy as I did enjoy this and found it an enjoyable alternative to the Arthurian legends we all know. I would recommend this as a more realistic depiction of Britain in the Dark Ages and the problems a warlord such as Arthur would have faced in order to secure peace.
This review is also posted on Ciao.co.uk under my username.
Judging from the reviews both on here and Amazon, I must be one of the only people who really couldn't stand this book!! To say I found this tiresome and a bit too heavy-going would be an understatement and, though I don't often give up on books, found myself turning away 2/3 of the way through the novel and finally admitting defeat.
The idea is obviously to present a more historical view point of the Arthur legend and so is told from the perspective of Dreyfel- a member of Arthur's warband and an orphan taken in by the not-so sorcerous Merlin(who spends much of this novel absent whilst he seeks the lost and forgotten thirteen treasures of Britain)- who strives to tell the real story behind the legends many years after events have passed.
For a story that will mainly be about Arthur, the book begins mid-way through his story with Arthur himself abroad in foreign climes whilst his father, Uther Pendragon, seeks protection for his last true-born heir whom he hopes will take over his throne as High-King. Arthur himself does not appear untill later though his name is mentioned and this is another problem for me as I was lead to believe the book was more about him and yet in the opening chapters he is not to be seen...
Much of the novel also focuses on the onset of christianity as it struggles to replace the more ancient druidic rites as the main religion of the people. Certainly the book has a very authentic air but this is not nessecarily a good thing as much of what we know traditionally is based on myths, half-truths and ballards and hence much of this era has long been romanticised and embellished. To read a more matter-of-fact version of the tale we have all known and loved since childhood kind of left me feeling a bit cold.
It is a real shame as I really really wanted to enjoy this but unfortunately this is one book I COULD put down....with less time on my hands at the mo, I am more reluctant to spend time and energy on a novel if I really am not enjoying it and take the wider view that reading should be a pleasure and that when it becomes a chore, it is time to pick up something else.
I know I am in the minority but I am glad that I read the Grail Quest trilogy first as reading this novel would probably have put me off Bernard Cornwell as an author and at least I know I shouldn't rule him out completely....
For an account of these times, I much prefer Mary Stewart's Crystal Cave series that tells the stories from the viewpoint of a very young Merlin and follows us through to the end of his life. In my opinion these are a far better read and much superior to this heavy slog of a book....sorry Cornwell fans but this series was really not for me!!
Maybe I just didn't like the gritty realism of what life was truly like in the Dark-ages and prefer the romanticism present in other accounts I have read, I don't know. But I do know that I will be a bit more reluctant in picking up my next Cornwell on my list, Sharpe's Tiger, now that I have plowed through most of this.
Maybe when I have a tad more patience I might give this another go but, personally, I don't think its likely...
Derfel the monk, is writing of the adventures of his youth, when he was a warrior in the service of Arthur. He is doing this at the behest of Queen Igraine, the namesake of Uther Pendragon's queen. He begins with the birth of Mordred, Grandson of Uther, and son of Uther's deceased heir...Mordred! The baby and his mother, Norwenna, then travel to Ynys Wydryn (Glastonbury), so that the boy may be protected by Morgan, Arthur's sister and a priestess of Merlin the Druid. Norwenna is promised in marriage to Gundleus, King of Siluria. Merlin has not been seen for many years and it is not known if he is even alive. Ynys Wydryn is his stronghold though, and life continues there normally despite his absence. Derfel is not even a warrior yet, though he learns the art of fighting from Merlin's steward, Hywel. A council is called to discuss the marriage of Norwenna. Gundleus has been at odds with Dumnonia and the marriage is seen as a way of creating an alliance. Morgan and Nimue, another of Merlin's priestesses, are present. It is Nimue who takes Derfel to witness the council. Arthur is not present because Uther blamed him for the death of his legitimate son Mordred, and has sent him overseas to Amorica. Arthur, Morgan and two other sisters are Uther's children by his mistress and therefore Arthur is not entitled to Uther's throne. OK! Apart from the odd familiar name, hands up who else missed most of this in the legend version? Yeah! Me too! This isn't The Sword In The Stone by any means! Imagine a warlord, who is good enough to keep the Saxons at bay. Tales of his battle prowess and heroism begin to spring up naturally. Then in later years, writers with the same gift for the truth as your average 'Sunday Sport' reporter get hold of the story and suddenly Arthur is found on a double-decker bus at the bottom of the North Pole! Or at least the medieval equivalent of that!
The tale continues with Arthur's return to Dumnonia after Uther's death and his pledge to protect Mordred until he is old enough to rule in his own right. Then along comes Guinevere. She is ambitious for Arthur to be declared king. Will she turn Arthur from his purpose to protect Mordred? We are also introduced to an arrogant Lancelot and his younger half brother Galahad, when Derfel is sent to help their father, King Ban fight off the invading Franks in Benoic. Arthur can't go himself because the Saxons are increasing in numbers and encroaching more and more into British tribal territory. Treachery and double dealing abound! But by whom? I'm not going to spoil it by telling you! Then it all seemed to end too soon (just like this op is in danger of doing). I was left with too many unanswered questions and feeling slightly frustrated with the overall impression of the book. Still, I'm generally quite a patient person, so I didn't let my irritation get the better of me. Instead of hurling a rather frustrating book in the bin, I read through the Author's Note at the end of the book. Bernard Cornwell has really done his research on this one and I was impressed by that commitment even if I found the book disappointing. Flick on to the next page out of curiosity and Lo! What do I see? The story of Arthur continues in the second volume of THE WARLORD CHRONICLES! This is only part one! Nobody told me! I searched the cover and not a dicky bird. The first page inside the cover however, does mention that this is only part one. I just hadn't bothered to read it. Now I have to re-evaluate many of my impressions of the book. Not all of them though. This is a gritty, sometimes even gory, retelling of the tale of Arthur. Bernard Cornwell has done a lot of research into the dark ages (though there's little enough known), and uses it well here. This is a time when Christianity is struggling t
o get a good foothold against the old gods of Britain. The Romans have packed up and gone, but some of their legacy still remains. The Saxons are a new threat and the whole of Britain is looking at a time of upheaval and change. Into this was born a realistic Arthur. He is not a king, but a warlord, a fighter and a man of action. Can he save Britain and kick the Saxons out once and for all? Well, OK, we already know the answer to that one, but this is the story of how it might really have happened. There's a nicely drawn, fine line between the magic that was believed in at this time, which was more often illusory and superstition bred from fear of the unknown, and the magic that was later introduced into the story. I have to say, I found the pace of the book a little slow, for something that is essentially an action story. There is no doubt it's well written for the most part, but the characters never really grabbed my interest wholly. The battles are well thought out. I suspect Bernard Cornwell is leaning on his knowledge of fighting in the Waterloo campaign, which he obviously learned about during his writing of the Sharpe novels. Nevertheless, he writes a good, realistic and above all credible battle scene. This is quite possibly a winner as part of The Warlord Chronicles, but as a stand alone book, it does leave something to be desired. Had I known it was only the first part, would I still have bought it? I have to say I probably would. I'm curious to read more of this story. Curious, but not desperate. It's a good book. It's not a great book. It does have a decent grasp of what must have been chaotic and fairly brutal times, and this is conveyed to the reader very well. If the characters lack a certain depth, it's made up for in the detail of the age. The strange habits of druids seem somewhat ludicrous until one considers the strange habits of religions in general, whereby they suddenly look at lot l
ess unbelievable. The front cover is of a winter landscape, over which, is superimposed a battle helmet, decorated with the fantastic Celtic detail we might realistically expect. I'd have probably bought this book for the cover alone, which is very evocative of the times. It makes me want this book. It brings to mind Sutton Hoo, though there really is no connection beyond the fact both are helmets. It really is very nicely done. Until I've read the rest of the series, it's hard to judge how good this is. As I bought it at a car-boot sale for 50p and have no intention of purchasing the others new either, we might be in for quite a wait. On its own though, I can still say I've read plenty worse, and while I hesitate to urge anyone to rush out and buy it, I will say if the chance comes your way to read it without forking out much money, then it's worth a look. It's published by Penguin and my aged copy has £5.99 on the back, so you can reasonably expect to pay at least £6.99 now, which is why I'd stick to second hand copies. I'm not yet convinced it's worth paying full price. Thankyou for reading this!
In the Mad Wicca household it tends to be Mr. Mad Wicca who does the lions share of our comestible shopping, usually at 3 am when our local all night Tesco is free of screaming children and people who leave their trolleys in the middle of the aisle whilst they go off to look for a packet of digestives. When he returns from these late night forays, more often than not, he’s bought me a little present, anything from a bar of chocolate to a soft toy witch (that I’d had my eye on for some time but no one had picked up on my many dropped hints for Christmas!) One time he came back with a book nestled between the potatoes and a tin of beans and said, ‘I thought you might like this.’ Now although I am an avid reader it’s not often I buy myself Brand New books, preferring instead to scour car boots and charity shops to keep my reading addiction fed. I know what authors and genres I like and I know what I’m looking for, so when Mr Mad Wicca handed me my Brand New book, Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell, I’d never heard of the author and, after reading the back of the book, wasn’t sure if it was something I would like. Still, I thanked my ever-loving husband and plopped my Brand New book on a bookcase whilst I put the shopping away. It wasn’t until I had run out of something to read a few weeks later that I came across my Brand New book again and decided to give it a go. Coffee made, fire lit and a hob-nob or six to hand I snuggled down on the settee and began to read. From the first page I was gripped, totally and utterly wrapped up in this fantastic Brand New book. After reading about 100 pages I thought, ‘I wonder what else Bernard Cornwell has written?’ I flicked to the front of the book and was shocked and surprised to find he was in fact the author of the Sharpe series. This is where a bit of a dilemma set in and I began to question my literary sanity. First I’ll apologise to
any Sharpe fans and then to any avid Bernard Cornwell fans and finally to any Sean Bean fans. I hate Sharpe. I hate Sharpe with a passion. Sorry. I don’t like Sean Bean at all and I just can’t watch the Sharpe TV series. Because of this I hadn’t realised that Bernard Cornwell was the creator of Sharpe and if I had I think it would have put me off reading Harlequin. But now here I was 100 pages into a book I was really enjoying, written by a man who was also the author of something I really disliked. Even so, I decided to put my prejudices to one side and continue with the book. To be honest it didn’t mar my enjoyment of Harlequin and I was glued to the end, sad to turn the last page, but rather pleased to discover that Bernard Cornwell is one hell of a storyteller. As I stuffed Harlequin back onto my bulging bookcase I decided I’d keep my eyes peeled for more of Cornwell’s work next time I was doing a charity shop crawl. Well, it’s taken a good few months but last week I came across The Winter King, the first volume in the Warlord Chronicles, whilst scrutinising the Scope shops bookshelves. And I have to tell you it’s probably the best 75p I’ve ever spent. The Winter King comes at the Arthurian legend from a totally new, fresh and original angle. Before you start reading this book I’d suggest you put out of your mind anything you may have read about the tales of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. This is not Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. This is nothing like any book you may have read, or will ever read again, about Arthur, Merlin, Guinevere or Lancelot. So, with our minds wiped clean of all knowledge of Arthurian myth let us take a journey back in time to the Dark Ages, to the 5th Century, a time we know little about today. The mighty Romans have deserted Britain, leaving behind their long, straight roads, square built villas and aqueducts, all o
f which are now falling into disrepair. Some towns are still trying to cling to the Roman way of life but they are few and far between. The savage Saxons rule the land from London to the Wall of Hadrian. All the British have to call their own is Dumnonia (Somerset and Devon), which is surrounded on all side by uneasy clans, who are sometimes friends, sometimes foes, depending on the political machinations of the day, or how much gold they need to keep the peace. To the west lies Powys (Wales) ruled by King Gorfyddyd, South West King Marc of Kernow (Cornwall) rules. Over the water Demetia (Ireland) is governed by Oengus Mac Airem and his feared Blackshields. They should all be uniting to rid the land of the Saxon invaders but broken oaths and secret desires to claim the title of Pendragon, High King of Britain, mean civil war is often and bloody. If all this was not enough to contend with Uther Pendragon, the High King has died leaving only his crippled baby grandson Mordred in his place. Now men must be chosen to protect the young heir until he is old enough to take his place as King. Whilst all this is going on Christianity is beginning to get a grip on the country and some of the people are beginning to forget the true Gods of Britain and the Old Ways. Our guide through all this turmoil is Derfel (pronounced Dervel). Derfel is a monk writing the tale of Arthur and Merlin down for Igraine Queen of Powys pleasure. But before Derfel became a monk he lived as a boy in the care of Merlin, in the village atop the Tor at Ynys Wydryn (Glastonbury). Here Merlin collected all the waifs and strays that he came across and they formed a strange, but united, community. It is here we meet Arthur’s sister Morgan, who is one of Merlin’s Priestesses, and Merlin’s lover Nimue, another priestess whose life and fate is tied up with Derfel. Merlin is combing Britain and the lands across the sea to find the Thirteen Treasures of Br
itain, which will bring the Old Gods back to the people, and he pops in and out of the tale, ignoring the wars and petty squabbles, far too distracted by his task to bother over the fate of the kingdom. When Merlin’s village is sacked by Gundleus, King of Siluria, Derfel and Nimue just manage to escape with their lives and head for Caer Cadarn (South Cadbury Hill) to seek protection from Prince Mordred’s guardians. Here is where life really starts for Derfel when he is trained as a warrior and eventually, after many adventures, joins Arthur’s troops. Arthur is not High King, nor does he want to be, even though he is Uther’s illegitimate son. What Arthur wants is to unite the clans of Britain and drive out the Saxon’s so that the baby Mordred will have a whole Kingdome to rule. In this he nearly succeeds but unfortunately he meets Guinevere and things go disastrously wrong from there. And so Derfel leads us through battle after battle as Arthur tries as best he can to get his plans back on course. I have to say that I never thought reading about a battle could be just as tense and exciting as watching say the film Gladiator’s battle scenes, but they are all that and more. Cornwell takes his time with the battles, building the tensions as the warring sides face each other, sometimes for hours, before finally attacking. When the attacks come they are just as gory and dramatic as any you will see on the big screen. Men die in horrible, bloody, slow ways, women are raped, houses torched, children slaughtered. You can feel the fear and tension of the exhausted warriors as they fight from dawn to dusk, sometimes fearsomely outnumbered, to protect their child King. Whether they win or lose I shall not say here, I’ll leave that for your reading pleasure. Also, this is just a fraction of the tale that Cornwell weaves so well in The Winter King, there are sub-plots galore that serve to build the characters an
d personalities of the story. This book holds something for everyone, with villains aplenty, for instance you’ll hate the arrogant, coward Lancelot and awful Bishop Sansum. If you like to read about adventure, romance, history, war, politics, intrigue, or your just looking for a different angle to the Arthurian legends then this is the book for you. Bernard Cornwell has done a marvellous job with a tale that seems as old as time, his research leaving no stone, with or without a sword, unturned. The Winter King brought the Arthurian Legend alive for me far more than any other work I have ever read on the subject, and part of me feels that Cornwell has probably got closer to the truth than any other author before. At the back of the book you will find the Authors Note’s, where he talks about his research and how he came to decide what to leave in and take out of the tale. It’s a long book at 495 pages but once I had it in my hands I couldn’t put it down and I’d finished in a couple of days, not wanting to read on so it would last me longer, but dying to know what happened next! As it is such a long book you can lose track of who’s who and what’s where so Cornwell has provided a handy list of characters, place names and a map at the front of the book. I’m normally quite good at following plots but believe me I had to have a good few flicks back to keep track of people and places. Some of the characters names are real tongue twisters so a handy hint from Mad Wicca here: a ‘dd’ in a name is pronounced ‘th’ and a ‘ll’ in most cases is pronounced ‘kl’. But even with the tongue twisting names and myriad characters this is defiantly one for your ‘to read’ list. Now I have to keep my eyes peeled in the charity shop for the next two books in The Warlord Chronicles, Enemy of God and Excalibur, unless some kind Dooyooer who has no use for them
anymore would like to donate them to the Mad Wicca library, I’d name a shelf of my bookcase in your honour and everything… ;-) If you want to find out more about Bernard Cornwell and his work then pay a visit to his official website. Website http://www.bernardcornwell.net/index.cfm
This is a well-researched and excellently told Story. Narrated by Derfel, a Saxon slave from Boy to Man, Slave to Lord, he tells the gritty hard story of life in Britain in the time of Arthur. The Romans are long gone, pleasures are simple but life is hard. The Druid's struggle against Christianity, and Saxon invaders threaten All. Arthur, bastard son of King Uther, is oath sworn to hold the squabbling kingdoms of Britain and it's throne together, until Mordred comes of age. Bernard Cornwell's writing is superb, I WAS Derfel, I grew up with him and knew his doubts and fears, I could taste the blood and stench of battle. The first book in the series "The Winter King" is essential, but be warned, you will be transfixed. "Enemy of God" the second book gives you no let-up, the continuing tales of personal tragedy mixed with the treacherous politics of those in power are enthralling. Those of you brought up on the `Popular` myths of Arthur and Camelot are in for a big surprise. Worth reading are the Bernard Cornwell's notes that end each book detailing the source of many folk-tales, for there is little documentation of that time in history.
An Arthurian tale as recalled by one of Arthur's warband.