“The Winter King” by Bernard Cornwell (St. Martin’s Press, 1995)

Winter King

There have been many books written about the legend of King Arthur, the knights of the Round Table, Lancelot and Guenevere; a story that is known the world over and been talked about for more than a millennium.  Some of those stories have tried to remain true to the original myth — though it still remains unknown whether there really was a man who went by that name — and others have gone off into their own world, using these familiar characters.  Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles is one that remains relatively true to the heart of the story, while at the same time revealing the strong themes of Britain in the fifth century, and in so doing, has become one of the main canons of Arthurian literature.

The story of the rise of Arthur and his helping of Britain begins with its narrator, Derfel, now an old monk working away in a decaying monastery.  He professes to his Bishop Sansum that he is writing the story of Jesus Christ the savior in the words of the Britons so they may better understand him, when he is really recording the story of the greatest warrior to ever live, so it may be well and correctly remembered for future generations, as compared to the tales and songs the bards sing where the true heroes are not always recognized and appreciated.

The story begins with King Uther who does not have a certain heir and is not doing well.  His son and crown prince was killed in a recent battle against the Saxons, while his bastard son, Arthur, has been sent to Armorica.  But he has a grandson, who is also named Mordred, and who he decrees is the heir to Britain, and shortly after Uther dies.  Derfel is an orphan living in Merlin’s commune, only the renowned magician hasn’t been seen in many years, and it is rumored he is in search of the lost treasures of Britain.  Mordred and his mother are brought to Merlin’s commune where he is to be raised and educated under the Druidic religion.

Arthur comes back with his men just in time to stop King Gundleus of Siluria from attempting to kill Mordred and take over the throne of Dumnomia.  While Mordred is raised and educated, Arthur essentially rules Dumnomia, looking to unite the British kingdoms as one against the Saxons who are looking to take more land.  Then he meets Guenevere and his heart is stolen, as well as the meeting of the character of Lancelot, who is renowned as a great fighter and warrior, though it seems the man is actually a coward.

The Winter King is a great start to the trilogy that furthers the story, but has plenty of fascinating subplots that Cornwell is renowned for in his historical fiction, such as the Isle of the Dead, where the mad are left to roam and where Derfel must find a woman he loves.  In the afterword, Cornwell explains what history there is to work from, and why he went the way he did with his particular story.  Thankfully, the book doesn’t end on too much of a cliffhanger, setting up well for its sequel, Enemy of God.

Originally written on March 17, 2012 ©Alex C. Telander.

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