Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Excalibur, by Bernard Cornwell [2]

**/***** (2/5)

Warlord Chronicles, a tale of Arthur
1. The Winter King (***)
2. Enemy of God (***)
3. Excalibur (**)

Arthur was probably no king, he may not have lived at all, but despite all the efforts of historians to deny his every existence, he is still, to millions of folk about the world, what a copyist called him in the fourteenth century, Arturus Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus: Arthur, our Once and Future King. --Bernard Cornwell, Historical Note in EXCALIBUR

Cornwell's EXCALIBUR marks the crowning jewel of a fulsomely callous portrayal of women in 5th-century Britain, at least any woman of note (with the lone exception of Ceinwyn). Maybe it's unfair and provincial of me to view ruthlessness and calculated ambition potentially admirable in men but singularly unbecoming in women. Regardless, Guinevere's promiscuous ambition for power, glory and fame while Nimue's cold, religious fanaticism to sacrifice women and children for her pagan religion both distinguished Cornwell's final Arthurian installment EXCALIBUR. Although some may see EXCALIBUR as Guinevere's road to redemption, I can't say I really saw it that way. Admittedly, EXCALIBUR belongs to Guinevere, but I couldn't get over Guinevere betraying Arthur with Lancelot and then ready to betray him again with the druid twins back in ENEMY OF GOD, and all for power and glory. The humble first-person narration in a flashback makes for an inviting reading experience though the portentously gloomy tones tends to drown some of the enthusiasm. Cornwell's settings, historical backdrop and prose are all solid.

EXCALIBUR highlights the monumental battle in Arthur's lifetime which repels the Saxon conquest of Britain for an entire generation: the battle at Mynydd Baddon, or simply, Mount Badon. Of the three books in this Arthurian rendition, magic plays the biggest role here, and I can't say it was for the better. In the first part, The Fires of Mai Dun, Merlin and Nimue attempt to bring the old gods back. I found myself most engaged in the second part Mynydd Baddon in which we're treated to the warlord in Arthur at his best: battling against insurmountable odds. The final two parts, Nimue's Curse and The Last Enchantment concludes with Nimue's pagan fanaticism.

Mount Baddon. In time the poets would make that name ring through all of Britain. It would be sung in a thousand halls and fire the blood of children yet unborn, but for now it meant nothing to me. It was just a convenient hill, a grass-walled fort, and the place where, all unwillingly, I had planted my two banners in the turf. One showed Ceinwyn's star, while the other, which we had found and rescued from Argante's wagons, flaunted Arthur's banner of the bear.

So in the morning light, where they flapped in the drying wind, the bear and the star defied the Saxons.

On Mynydd Baddon.

As opposed to the madness of Christianity in ENEMY OF GOD, EXCALIBUR now turns its attentions to painting the pagan religion of 5th-century Britain in a very gruesome light via Nimue's fanatically insane group of followers. Again, you have to admire Cornwell's decided aversion to black-and-white storytelling. Where ENEMY OF GOD describes a mad and violent Christian movement, EXCALIBUR now concludes with a fanatically cruel pagan depiction with child sacrifices. Past friends and lovers now become cruel enemies (Nimue), allies plot and scheme (King of Gwent Meurig, Mordred), traitors repent and expiate (Guinevere), while apparent enemies exhibit valor and heart (Derfel's Saxon father, King Aelle). Readers will find merit in evil and cruelty in apparent good. All of it adds to Cornwell's well-researched and captivating tale of Arthur.

...[Arthur] had loved the practice of war. He tried to deny that love, but he was good at battle and quick in thought and that made him a deadly soldier. It was soldiering that had made him famous, and had let him unite the Britons and defeat the Saxons, but then his shyness about power, and his perverse belief in the innate goodness of man, and his fervent adherence to the sanctity of oaths, had let lesser men undo his work...

By the end of ENEMY OF GOD, I thought Guinevere's betrayal would teach Arthur something of ruthlessness and cold retribution. Unfortunately, Arthur's downfall rested on his most noble quality: his persistence to forgive and believe in the goodness of people and the sanctity of oaths. In the end, he wanted gratitude, but both the Christians and the pagans hate him by EXCALIBUR and he finally relinquishes his power in EXCALIBUR. Our narrator Derfel loves Arthur dearly and vehemently defends him here:

'I still think Arthur let us down [by relinquishing his power after Mynydd Baddon],' Dafydd said...How many times have I been forced to listen to that same condemnation of Arthur? If only Arthur had stayed in power, men say, then the Saxons would still be paying us tribute and Britain would stretch from sea to sea, but when Britain did have Arthur it just grumbled about him. When he gave folk what they wanted, they complained because it was not enough. The Christians attacked him for favoring the pagans, the pagans attacked him for tolerating the Christians, and the Kings, all except Cuneglas and Oengus mac Airem, were jealous of him. Oengus's support counted for little, but when Cuneglas died Arthur lost his most valuable royal supporter. Besides, Arthur did not let anyone down. Britain let itself down. Britain let the Saxons creep back, Britain squabbled amongst itself and then Britain whined that it was all Arthur's fault. Arthur, who had given them victory!

Despite devoting his life to bringing back the old gods, Merlin in the end sacrificed that endeavor for the love he bears for Arthur, a man he loved above all men. Merlin returns to his crudely droll ways, and his advise to look to ourselves for guidance and salvation (instead of any god or gods) rings true in EXCALIBUR.

'[Guinevere]'ll be out of [her prison] in two years! One, probably. If Arthur wanted her gone from his life he'd have put her to the flames, which is what he should have done. There's nothing like a good burning for improving a woman's behavior, but it's no use telling Arthur that. The halfwit's in love with her! And he is a halfwit. Think about it! Lancelot alive, Mordred alive, Cerdic alive and Guinevere alive! If a soul wants to live for ever in this world it seems like a very good idea to become an enemy of Arthur...'

'Most of [Pliny's] notions are arrant nonsense, of course. All that rubbish about Druids cutting mistletoe on the sixth day of a new moon! I'd never do that, never! The fifth day, yes, and sometimes the seventh, but the sixth? Never! And he also recommends, as I recall, wrapping a woman's breast band about the skull to cure an aching head, but the remedy doesn't work. How could it? The magic is in the breasts, not in the band, so it is clearly far more efficacious to bury the aching head in the breasts themselves. The remedy has never failed me, that's for sure...'

We received a hint of a woman's cold viciousness when Guinevere betrays Arthur in ENEMY OF GOD, but here, all of the female characterizations exacerbate, all of them ruthlessly ambitious in their own goals/devices: Guinevere, Nimue and Arthur's second wife Argante. Argante puts on a sanguinary display to her goddess Nantosuelta. Men such as Cerdic and Lamelot can be cruel and ambitious, but neither of them demonstrate the ostentatious histrionics of callous truculence all the notable women characters in this novel sponsor (again, with the lone exception of Ceinwyn). Surprisingly, Arthur's sister, pagan-priestess-turned-devout-Christian Morgan, saves the day for Derfel.

I didn't find the book's attempts to redeem Guinevere very convincing. In EXCALIBUR, Guinevere admits to sleeping with the old Powys King and later, sleeping with a Powys chieftain for the sake of power. Guinevere wants to be a man, and failing that, covets being a Caesar's wife, an empress surrounded by power, beauty and glory. Arthur dreams of a much simpler life, the very thought of which suffocates and repulses Guinevere. Guinevere sets her ambitions aside to be what Arthur wants in this novel though, but I thought her words and the attempt were half-hearted because Arthur's rustic dreams strip Guinevere of who she really is: an ambitiously "clever" woman (though manipulative would be a better word). She consents to Arthur's wish of a simple life bereft of power and glory out of some obligation: "I do owe [Arthur] some happiness, do I not?" At another point in this novel, Guinevere asks Bors, Lancelot's champion who defects, whether he too grew bored of Lancelot. Cornwell's Guinevere continues to exhibit a savagery far surpassing men.

'[Christians] all worship motherhood, but they're all as dry as husks...[motherhood is] such a waste of life!' [Guinevere] was bitterly angry now. 'Cows make good mothers and sheep suckle perfectly adequately, so what merit lies in motherhood? Any stupid girl can become a mother! It's all that most of them are fit for! Motherhood isn't an achievement, it's an inevitability! But it was all Arthur wanted me to be! A suckling cow!' --Guinevere

Guinevere finally reveals to Derfel why she wanted Lancelot to be king. In ENEMY OF GOD, Derfel thinks Guinevere may love Lancelot, but the truth is actually worse (in my mind). Guinevere sleeps with Lancelot so she'll have him wrapped around her finger, something she couldn't do with Arthur. "I wanted [Lancelot] to be King because he's a weak man and a woman can only rule in this world through such a feeble man..." Since she was saying all this to Derfel so passionately, was it by her command or acquiescence that sent men to slaughter Derfel's wife and children back in ENEMY OF GOD? Since she can control such a weak man so easily, I couldn't help but wonder if she somehow plotted to have Lancelot rape Derfel's wife and kill his daughters back in ENEMY OF GOD. Is she that naively dumb to believe she'll "control" all the whims of such a weak man once he sits a throne? And if she did agree or command to kill Derfel's family because she so deftly controlled Lancelot then she's worst than Lancelot. Conveniently, it seems Derfel doesn't recall Guinevere's possible involvement in Lancelot's perfidious plans for Derfel's family back in ENEMY OF GOD. Derfel and his men are too enamored (manipulated) by Guinevere here in EXCALIBUR.

Derfel's conversations with Igraine before the beginning of Part One, The Fires of Mai Dun, proved interesting. A very interesting look at love, fidelity and Arthur.

'[Arthur] wanted a free Britain and the Saxons defeated, but in his soul he wanted Guinevere's constant reassurance that he was a good man. And when she slept with Lancelot it proved to Arthur that he was the lesser man. It wasn't true, of course, but it hurt him. How it hurt. I have never seen a man so hurt. Guinevere tore his heart.'
'Were you ever unfaithful to Ceinwyn?'

'No,' I answered truthfully.

'Did you ever want to be?'

'Oh, yes. Lust does not vanish with happiness, Lady. Besides, what merit is there in fidelity if it is never tested?'

'You think there is merit in fidelity?' [Igraine] asked...

I smiled. 'We want fidelity in our lovers, Lady, so is it not obvious that they want it in us? Fidelity is a gift we offer to those we love. Arthur gave it to Guinevere, but she cold not return it. She wanted something different.'

'Which was?'

'Glory, and he was ever averse to glory. He achieved it, but he would not revel in it. She wanted an escort of a thousand horsemen, bright banners to fly above her and the whole island of Britain prostrate beneath her. And all he ever wanted was justice and good harvests...' And a free Britain and the Saxons defeated.

Later, Sagramor shares rumors about Arthur remaining faithful to Guinevere even after he renounces her and marries the young Irish princess Argante. Tragic, that he should remain loyal to Guinevere to the last while that fidelity and loyalty wasn't returned.

I found this comment by Culhwch funny:

Nimue screamed as the boy fell, then she leapt at Arthur again with her hands hooked like claws, but Arthur simply backhanded her hard and fast across the head with the flat of his sword blade so that she spun away dazed. The force of the blow could easily be heard above the crackling of flames. Nimue staggered, slack-jawed and with her one eye unfocused, and she dropped.

'Should have done that to Guinevere,' Culhwch growled at me.

More than once, EXCALIBUR (and the other two books as well) describes the feeling in battle, and I thought it was an apt description. The warring doesn't necessarily strip the soul as so many romances would have us believe, it just is. For many men during this time period, it was a way of life.

A terrible hate wells up in battle, a hatred that comes from the dark soul to fill a man with fierce and bloody anger. Enjoyment, too ... Ours was a world where swords gave rank, and to shirk the sword was to lose honor, and so I ran ahead, madness filling my soul and exultation giving me a terrible power as I picked my victims. They were two young men, both smaller than me, both nervous, both with skimpy beards, and both were shrinking away even before I hit them. They saw a British warlord in splendor, and I saw two dead Saxons.

It is the beguiling glory of war, the sheer exhilaration...I watched Arthur, a man as kind as any I have known, and saw nothing but joy in his eyes. Galahad, who prayed each day that he could obey Christ's commandment to love all men, was now killing them with a terrible efficiency. Culhwch was roaring insults. he had discarded his shield so that he could use both hands on his heavy spear. Gwydre was grinning behind his cheekpieces, while Taliesin was singing as he killed the enemy wounded left behind by our advancing shield wall. You do not win the fight of the shield wall by being sensible and moderate, but by a Godlike rush of howling madness.

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