Friday, August 3, 2007

The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell [3]

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

The Warlord Chronicles (an Arthurian tale)
1. The Winter King
2. Enemy of God
3. Excalibur

"And then the horn sounded. The horn gave a clear, cold note like none I had ever heard before. There was a purity to that horn, a chill hard purity like nothing else on all earth. It sounded once, it sounded twice...It was as though a new bright sun had risen on that dying day. The light slashed over the pastures, blinding us, confusing us, but then the light slid on and I saw it was merely the reflection of the real sun glancing from a shield polished bright as a mirror. But that shield was held by such a man as I had never seen before; a man magnificent, a man lifted high on a great horse and men, armored men, men sprung from the dreams of the Gods to come to this murderous field, and over the men's plumed heads there floated a banner I would come to love more than any banner on all God's earth. It was the banner of the bear. The horn sounded a third time, and suddenly I knew I would live, and I was weeping for joy and all our spearmen were half crying and half shouting and the earth was shuddering with the hooves of those Godlike men who were riding to our rescue.

For Arthur, at last, had come."

Like the one above, this version of the Arthurian legend really has its fun moments. For example, Arthur's majestic arrival outside Caer Cadarn so reminiscent of Rohan's arrival at Gondor in THE LORD OF THE RINGS. Arthur's duel against Dumnonia's brutish champion Owain, and finally Merlin's dramatic entrance into the novel as an ugly hunchback transforms into the wise man erecting to his full height.

THE WINTER KING is the first book in a completed Arthurian trilogy dubbed the Warlord Chronicles (ENEMY OF GOD and EXCALIBUR finishing the tale). Overall, I enjoyed this one, and I'll read the other two at some point down the line.

This book is written in the first-person and I'm impressed by Bernard Cornwell's research. In his Author's note at the very end of THE WINTER KING, Cornwell references all relevant Arthurian sources, recognizes their lack, and comments, "The Winter King is, then, a tale of the Dark Ages in which legend and imagination must compensate for the dearth of historical records. About the only thing of which we can be fairly certain is the broad historical background: a Britain in which Roman towns, Roman roads, Roman villas and some Roman manners are still present, but also a Britain fast being destroyed by invasion and civil strife [and religious upheaval]." THE WINTER KING specifically refers to the child (Mordred), heir of the powerful Britain province of Dumnonia. Mordred's bastard brother Arthur pledges to protect Dumnonia for Mordred after their father the High King of Britain Uther dies.

Our narrator Derfel's provenance stems from humble roots, born a Saxon slave and thrown in a death pit as an offering to the pagan gods when he's just a babe. As the lone survivor of the pit however, the pagan druid Merlin later finds Derfel and brings him over to his sanctuary at the Tor. Saxon-born Derfel grows up Briton at the Tor, along with Nimue, a young girl only a couple older than Derfel. Derfel and Nimue form a bond sealed by a scar and their adventures very much parallel Arthur and Merlin's. The magic in the novel is based more on superstition and trickery than real magic. THE WINTER KING follows Derfel's life journey from a young babe as Merlin's ward to one of Arthur's sworn warriors. There's much war, much death, much political turmoil and most of all, as Derfel shrewdly comments at one point, it's a story which shakes and trembles on the strength two loves; that is, Arthur's selfish love for Guinevere and Derfel's courtly love for Ceinwyn.

"Anger and selfishness, those are the qualities that make the world march." --Merlin from Cornwell's THE WINTER KING

THE WINTER KING contains many tragic themes, melancholy overtones and a very gritty, yet sadly romantic look at Arthur's tale sure to appeal to guys. I would have liked it more if the entire book wasn't a flashback and the writing didn't teem with an overwhelming melancholy. There's a lot of sorrow, a lot of regret, a lot of lugubrious tones. For example, Arthur's mistress Ailleann is a slave who bore him spoiled twin sons. Ailleann probably understands and loves Arthur far more than anyone else, and yet she must in the end yield to Guinevere. You have Derfel's love for Nimue which will never know a lifetime's happiness. The overwhelming sadness of a sweet, innocent girl (Ceinwyn) rejected after a betrothal, and Arthur puts her aside in favor of Guinevere. The sinking feeling of a common soldier and a former slave (Derfel) preserving and treasuring Ceinwyn's token (a brooch) as a symbol of his impossible, courtly love for her, a love which "[turns Derfel's] blood to smoke." Derfel will give up his prized sword, his clothes, everything, but he will not forsake Ceinwyn's common token.

Whenever we revert to the present at the beginning of each part, we're reminded of our narrator's dour condition, of dreams unfulfilled, of friends lost and long dead, and most strident of all, of loves torn apart in the face of an inexorable Time. It is the Dark Ages for Britain, and Cornwell impresses the darkness upon readers with a melancholy brutality. It's hard to get behind any "side" or character in this novel, Cornwell intelligently postures arguments and counter arguments, skillfully accounts for noble, honorable views and convincingly lays out opposing point of views. For example, the Powys druid Iorweth's skepticism why the gods should care when Merlin believes that if we shout loud enough, the gods will intercede to help our goals. I came to sympathize with King Gorfyddyd of Powys's grievances with Arthur after Arthur rejects his betrothal to the Powys princess in favor of Guinevere. Besides our narrator Derfel and in spite of the fact that he's bound to Arthur, I didn't like Arthur's character, his lunacy and stupidity had me rooting for Arthur's death, and obviously Cornwell's twist on Lancelot had me detesting both Lancelot and Guinevere. The pagan druids Merlin and Nimue are in many ways worse, and there's little cause to root for their callous goals of a purely pagan Britain ruled only by the old gods. But then again, THE WINTER KING emphasizes that the benefit of a greater whole sometimes mandates a cold detachment and sacrifice of individuals.

Almost sadly, Ailleann (Arthur's mistress before Guinevere) recognizes what burns inside Arthur: the twin chariots of Ambition and Conscience, noting how his Ambition will tug the Conscience along, but after he wins, his Conscience will catch up, subduing him to a forgiveness when a cold retribution would serve the realm as a whole best. Ailleann perspicaciously observes how Arthur will never know peace because of his forgiving nature. Ah, if only Arthur could be content with Ailleann. But alas, Ailleann is a slave, and Arthur's Ambition will always drive him to bigger and greater things.

In spite of all this melancholy, political turmoil, and religious upheaval, THE WINTER KING manages to grip and captivate. Its clutches are difficult to break once you really get going, though it helps to read a lighter book at the same time if you don't like dark, whining tones. There's enough battles and fighting here to enjoy the novel though, and the book tempers its retrospective melancholy with engaging writing, vivid settings, captivating historical backdrops and best of all, battles galore. Fortunately, unlike Dianora's chapters Kay's TIGANA, THE WINTER KING doesn't dwell on a sorrowful, emotional angst.

The book portrays a challenging, defiant Guinevere inveigling Arthur as the most cataclysmic act in the story. Guinevere snaring Arthur incites a bloody, warring time and decimates Arthur's dream of a united Britain. As we're plainly told by narrator Derfel more than once, the impact of Guinevere ensnaring Arthur into marriage when he was betrothed to another in a political alliance, was severe and the results bloody. Rivers ran red, thousands warred and died, and turmoil reigned. Then again, without Guinevere, we wouldn't have a story.

Derfel's rise as one of Arthur's most capable warriors represents one of the more triumphant plots, and his courtly love for the Powys Princess Ceinwyn was moving. Recall Ceinwyn was the Princess Arthur shunned in favor of Guinevere thereby also destroying any chance of a political alliance and a united Britain.

"And there...was Ceinwyn. I [Derfel] had wanted to see her again...I had not come to Caer Sws to make peace, but to see Ceinwyn's face again, and now...I saw her. The years had not changed her. Her face was as sweet, her manner as demure, her hair as bright and her smile as lovely.

'My Lord Gundleus,' [Ceinwyn] said softly, 'demanded my hand [in marriage] as the price of his army in this coming war.' 'Then his army, Lady,' I said, 'is the most valuable in Britain.'

Although the moments of romance are few and far in between, the courtly love our narrator Derfel feels for Princess Ceinwyn of Powys beats with an unsurpassed, profound affection. The combination of Derfel's down-to-earth, grounded forbearance and Ceinwyn's sweet, smiling character together in one room muted all other happenings when they first talk over 350 pages into the novel. It's sad, it's heartfelt, and it's more like the Lancelot-Guinevere romantic stories than that pairing ever was.

"I looked at [Ceinwyn] and told myself that I was not in love with her and that her brooch was a talisman snatched randomly from chance. I told myself that she was a Princess and I the son of a slave... 'Do you understand that madness [love]?' she asked me. I was aware of nothing in the room except Ceinwyn...I was aware only of Ceinwyn's large sad eyes and of my own beating heart. 'I do understand that you can look into someone's eyes,' I heard myself saying, 'and suddenly know that life will be impossible without them. Know that their voice can make your heart miss a beat and that their company is all your happiness can ever desire and that their absence will leave your soul alone, bereft and lost.' She said nothing for a while, but just looked at me with a slightly puzzled expression. 'Has that ever happened to you, Lord Derfel?' she asked at last. I hesitated. I knew the words my soul wanted to say and I knew the words my station should make me say, but then I told myself that a warrior did not thrive on timidity and I let my soul have government of my tongue. 'It has never happened until this moment, Lady,' I said. It took more bravery to make that declaration than I had ever needed [in battle]."

The book ends on a triumphant note, but it's edged with a foreboding sadness. It's also very exhilarating and entertaining as Derfel magnificently holds the shield-wall.


Anonymous said...

Haven't read this series yet. I have read the Grail Quest Series by Cornwell and am currently reading the Saxon Series. He's my favorite among historical fiction writers.

Caine said...

I'd recommend the Warlord Chronicles, it's my first foray into Cornwell's novels. Not sure if his other series are like this, but my only gripe with THE WINTER KING: as I mentioned in my review, there's a lot of retrospective melancholy which I can't stand. Things like-- and this is one of the moments of happiness I've known. Or-- we lived and breathed war those days, and there was a camaraderie then that I've never known. And of course all 3 books is a first-person flashback so we know the narrator's end, it's just discovering the journey to get there.