Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Arthur Series by Bernard Cornwell

I read Mort d'Arthur in high school English class, and excerpts from a few other Arthur tales. Yet, for some reason I was never very fond of the King Arthur legends. The stories always take place in a vague timeless Medieval setting, the magical element is simple, and I just never saw the attraction for Guinevere! The King Arthur subject has been just too overdone for me to take a series interest. I was a fan of Cornwell's writing since high school (Sharpe series), and I was aware of the Arthur books, but I had no desire to check them out.

After reading the rules for Song of Arthur and Merlin I was intrigued by the mention of the Dark Age Welsh writings of Arthur. I was further interested to learn that Cornwell's books are rooted in this "historic" Arthur. While waiting for the next book in the Saxon series I thought I'd give his Arthur series a try... and it's brilliant!

The Winter King takes place at the close of 5th century Britain. The inheritors of Roman Britain have been pushed west by the invading Saxons. The British kingdoms fight among themselves, and naturally it's Arthur that enters the scene to unite them. But, here's the good part: Arthur is not the main character. He doesn't even show up until around page 90. The main character is Derfel, a character of Cornwell's own creation (not of Arthurian legend). He fits the author's basic template for a main character. Starting at the bottom of society, Derfel rises in standing through chance and battle prowess, and befriends the great leader ( a la Sharpe and Uhtred). Still, the used plot devise does not detract from the story. Indeed, one might even say Cornwell's template is his thing—kinda like Woody Allen's films all being about a neurotic guy in NY.

I'm enjoying Cornwell's depiction of Britain society after the departure of the Romans. While some of his Britons continue living more or less as Roman life, many resent the old Empire. I'm sure that was a common viewpoint. It does seem that Rome only barely kept the British tribes from fighting each other, even after 400 years of rule. (read online: S. Laycock. Britannia: The Threat Within in British Archaeology, Issue 87, March/April 2006.) The friction between the Christian Church and the traditional pagans is interesting (a part of the resentment with Rome), as is the druids' search for lost details of their persecuted religion. Magic is treated in an interesting way. Spells cast by Merlin or the other druids are very real to the other characters, but they could also be explained as coincidence or natural phenomena. The ambiguity is compelling.

In his tale Cornwell grounds Arthurian legend in history. The second novel takes the well-known quest for the grail and rewrites it as a search for a powerful Iron Age cauldron. The Celts attached great importance to the feasting cauldron, so this was probably the historic inspiration for the grail story. The author is meticulous in his historic research, apart from a few details. He frequently mentions sliding an arm through a shield's straps. However, Roman, Celtic, and Saxon shields were all held by a central hand grip—no arm straps. (Same with the 9th century Saxons/Vikings. This inaccuracy also shows up in his Saxon books as well.) If I may be pedantic on another point of military equipment, one British warrior in the Winter King mentions the short swords of the Romans. Yet, the Romans' use of the short gladius ended over 200 years before this character spoke. I doubt the 5th/6th century Brits would be aware of anything but their own long swords and the Saxon's short stabbing saex. I should mention that Vegetius mentions "semispatha" in his writings, but it is unclear how large these swords might have been. Clearly, the long spatha was the common sword of later Rome. Speaking of swords, these are Cornwell books, so the battle scenes are excellent.

Cornwell's approach to the Arthur legend is refreshing. He has softened my disdain for the subject—I may give the traditional Arthur stories a second chance!

Book 1

Book 2
Enemy of God

Book 3


John said...

Great books! I could not put them down!

Alex K said...

They're the only Cornwell books I've really enjoyed. Can I also recommend The Lantern Bearers and Sword at Sunset by Rosemary Sutcliff - even better than Cornwell and with the same late roman/dark age take on Arthur.