Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Enemy of God, by Bernard Cornwell [3]

***/***** (3/5)


It's amazing that I dislike or hate all the prominent characters in this Arthurian tale -- Arthur, Guinevere, Lancelot and Merlin -- and yet, I'm drawn to the book nonetheless! Cornwell imbues all the Arthurian characters with a tragic human quality: Arthur, noble and simple to a fault; Guinevere, beautiful and clever yet ever ambitiously plotting; Lancelot, our vain and weak pretty-boy but equally as ambitious as Guinvere; and finally Merlin, seemingly ruthless in his own goals. It's testament to Bernard Cornwell's skill in writing human characters, a captivating story full of love and war and intrigue and vivid settings. Incredible, that I dislike all the main Arthurian characters yet found the story very redeeming with fun moments always tinged with sadness. I didn't cry reading the first book; the death of Derfel's youngest daughter Dian however made me cry.

It's hard not to like our narrator Derfel. But from his eyes, everyone just looks bad, even his Lord Arthur. Poor Arthur, so simple, so faithful, and yet so tragically cuckolded. But alas, this is his own doing. It was heartwarming to see Derfel and Ceinwyn share a faithful love without marriage (so unlike Arthur & Guinevere).

[Merlin] smiled at me. 'I remember you as an earnest little boy, [Derfel], all questions and frowns, then tonight you came like a warrior of the Gods, a terrifying thing of iron and steel and plume and shield.'...Ceinwyn, one arm around Morwenna, wept while I just stared at the fretting grey sea and dreamed of revenge.

Again in ENEMY OF GOD, Cornwell impresses with the scenes and settings of 5th-century Briton, a dark time replete with war, chaos and religious turmoil. It's important to understand the state of Briton during this time when the Romans have left Briton with dilapidated Roman villas, roads and technology, and all of the knowledge of that technology lost with their departure. We have the barbarous Saxons invading from the east and taken over all of Eastern Briton. We have scattered kingdoms of Irish rulers raiding from the west. We have the kingdoms of Briton themselves in what is now Welsh territory. We have mercenaries from Christianity fomenting a movement to either convert or eradicate pagans and their pagan practices. We have Merlin, the principle symbol of pagan power, we have the Bishop Sansam an avariciously grasping Christian, and we have Arthur, a man who respects the Christian God and the Old Gods, but considers men as ants from the God/Gods perspective. Tragically, Arthur loves Guinevere, and values that love above anything else in his life. The Enemy of God is Arthur, and in Cornwell's afterword, Cornwell makes a strong case how 5th-century Christians in Briton really hated Arthur.

Recall from THE WINTER KING (Book 1 of the Warlord Chronicles, a tale of Arthur), that Arthur salvages victory from the claws of defeat with the help of Merlin and the Irish King Oengus Mac Airem. From the victory at Lugg Vale in THE WINTER KING, Arthur finally manages to unite the British kingdoms against the Saxons only to have things go terribly awry after he acclaims Mordred as King of Dumnonia. In ENEMY OF GOD, the words of the mistress who loved Arthur dearly before Guinevere comes along ring true (and I paraphrase): at his darkest hour, during the worst time when it seems all is lost, Arthur will snatch victory, but then he'll be stupid and forgive his enemies consequently providing them another chance to destroy him. As an afterthought, his mistress adds- unless Guinevere teaches him something of cold retribution. Alas, ENEMY OF GOD finally has Guinevere teach him not to forgive his enemies, with her own betrayal. This is a wrenching and cold pill to swallow for Arthur since Arthur loved Guinevere with his all his heart and soul.

Finally, a cold, tortured rock replaces the Arthur that once was by the end of this book, and the transformation is riveting, heart-shattering.

By the end of the last novel THE WINTER KING, we're privy to the budding love Derfel harbors for his star, the Princess Ceinwyn. ENEMY OF GOD begins with the plotting having to do with Ceinwyn's fate as again she's pawned off in a betrothal after the defeat of her father at the Battle of Lugg Vale in THE WINTER KING. Princess Ceinwyn has dutifully betrothed 3 times and seen all 3 of them broken by others, and now Arthur wishes to see Ceinwyn married to Lancelot in a political alliance to rule the Silurian kingdom. At Ceinwyn's fourth betrothal feast, we're treated to some fun romance, and Ceinwyn grabs her fate with her own hands.

Although I was thoroughly riveted by the first part (The Dark Road) dealing with Derfel & Ceinwyn's love and the quest for the Cauldron, and I was moved by the final, fourth part (The Mysteries of Isis) having to do with Guinevere and Lancelot's betrayal, I found the middle two parts extremely protracted and dragging (The Broken War, and Camelot, respectively). Granted these middle parts were a time of peace in a sense, but I didn't feel any motivation to read during these portions. Also, we see magic playing more and more of a prominent role in this novel whereas before it's mostly superstition and trickery. Still nothing outright magical, but we find many prophecies, visions and "magical" items. Can't say I really enjoyed this larger role for magic.

'Arthur thinks you should marry Gwenhwyvach.' [Merlin] said the name carelessly.

'Gwenhwyvach!' I said too loudly. She was Guinevere's younger sister and was a heavy, dull pale-skinned girl whom Guinevere could not abide [Guinevere couldn't abide anything that wasn't pretty and beautiful].

'And why ever not?' Merlin asked in pretended outrage. 'A good match, Derfel. What are you after all, but the son of a Saxon slave? And Gwenhwyvach is a genuine Princess. No money, of course, and uglier than the wild sow of Llyffan, but think how grateful she'll be!' He leered at me. 'And consider Gwenhwyvach's hips, Derfel! No danger there of a baby getting stuck. She'll spit the little horrors out like greased pips!'

Although ENEMY OF GOOD begins with some very fun, romantic plot elements, this is a very dark book overall, and ends on a very brutal note, both for our narrator Derfel and for Arthur. Our narrator manages to finally win Ceinwyn's affections and her love, while Arthur obstinately accepts Mordred as King despite how unfit Mordred is to rule and blindly loves Guinevere and trusts Lancelot.

Poor Derfel. In the beginning, we once again pity Derfel's dire present situation as a Christian monk biding his time for death to finally take him. Once again, we're gloomily reminded of all the friends and loves long since dead. Ceinwyn tells Derfel what a priestess predicts of her fate in marriage after sleeping on a bed of coals. Ceinwyn reveals that the next man who will want to marry her will marry the dead instead. The full impact of this isn't realized until the end of this novel in the fourth part, The Mysteries of Isis.

As we revert to the bulk of the story in a flashback, Derfel garnered some repute as a capable warrior from the final civil conflict amongst the Britains in THE WINTER KING at the Battle of Lugg Vale. Arthur wants Derfel on hand to battle the Saxons and marry Guinevere's sister Gwenhwyvach while Merlin wants Derfel to help him obtain the final of the thirteen magical Treasures of Britain, the Cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn. Merlin however knows of Derfel's love for Ceinwyn and uses that to get what he wants. I didn't like the magic and the dreamy stupor in the beginning of this novel in a series going only so far as superstition and trickery until now. Now we have a bone, that if broken, will break Lancelot's spell on Ceinwyn and make Ceinwyn come to Derfel. When Derfel finally snaps that bone, it's debatable whether magic played a part or not, but Ceinwyn does, in the last moment, come to him.

Of course, no one will do Derfel any favors out of generosity or love. In return for breaking the impending betrothal between Lancelot and Ceinwyn, Merlin demands Derfel's aid in the quest for the Cauldron. Arthur "rewards" Derfel's service by offering him Guinevere's sister. Please, Arthur, don't do him any favors!

Arthur's incessant, didactic drivel about justice, oaths and kings really got old. In all of his conversations with Derfel, Arthur always speaks in patronizing, instructive tones and Derfel always lets him get away with it. All of Arthur's moral drivel comes to head after he makes Tristan and Iseult stand trial. For the sake of order, justice and oaths, Arthur turns over the lovers Tristan and Iseult to the Kernow King who kills them both.

Merlin said with a sudden and surprising harshness, 'You desire order, Arthur, and you think that Lancelot will listen to your reason and that Cerdic will submit to your sword, but your reasonable order will no more work in the future than it worked in the past. Do you think really think men and women thanked you for bringing them peace? They just became bored with your peace and so brewed their own trouble to fill the boredom. Men don't want peace, Arthur, they want distraction from the tedium, while you desire tedium like a thirsty man seeks mead. Your reason won't defeat the Gods, and the Gods will make sure of that. You think you can crawl away to a homestead and play at being a blacksmith? No.' Merlin gave an evil smile and picked up his long black staff. 'Even at this moment,' Merlin said, 'the Gods are making trouble for you.' He pointed the staff at the hall's front doors. 'Behold your trouble, Arthur ap Uther.'

Nimue's defense of Guinevere's unfaithful actions towards the end seem utterly ridiculous. Nimue argues that Guinevere is very clever, smarter than all men put together, and wanted to see Arthur King while all Arthur wanted was a simple life. A simple life the very thought of which bored and repelled Guinevere. And so, Nimue explains, Guinevere turned to the religious fanaticism of her goddess Isis, copulating with Lancelot and the twins Dinas and Lavaine to make Lancelot King instead. But, Nimue defends, these actions do not make Guinevere a whore. So for power and a chance to rule, it's acceptable to Nimue for Guinevere to use her beautiful charms to sleep around and effect an outcome she desires. Poor, poor Arthur. You really feel his misery towards the end, and it's heart-wrenchingly sad.

Alas, the book concludes on a very bitter note, but not one that makes you want to stop reading. Although what Guinevere wanted finally comes to pass - Arthur as Lord of Kings and Emperor - she herself never gets to be Queen alongside him. Guinevere really underestimates Arthur's prowess and resiliency as Warlord when she betrays Arthur, and for the very last time, Arthur forgives. Arthur forgives Guinevere to life, a condemnation far worse than any death. I still thought he should have killed her. What she did to him was cruel beyond words given his devotion.

EXCALIBUR, the final installment in Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles: a tale of Arthur, is next.

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