“Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages” by Guy Halsall (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Worlds of Arthur
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One thing we will never be certain of is whether or not King Arthur actually lived.  There are literally hundreds of books, TV series, documentaries, movies, papers and journals on the subject and life of King Arthur.  There are also hundreds of historical fiction novels about him.  There are also a number of secondary sources recorded from various times during the Middle Ages that talk of Arthur, and his time, his battles, his life.  But we still don’t know how true any of these documents are, and whether there really was a large-scale Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain.

Guy Halsall is in the minority, and he admits this up front, in his introduction to Worlds of Arthur.  He has taught at universities in London and York, and has specialized in the Merovingian Period (c. 450- c.750), but has also written about a lot of other subjects from the period, including death and burial, age and gender, violence and warfare, and barbarian migrations.  He is also not a believer in King Arthur.  He believes, from his study of the sources and archaeology, that such a person never existed.  He also doesn’t believe that the supposed large-scale Anglo-Saxon migrations of the mid-fifth century were as large-scale as thought, and in fact began much earlier.

Worlds of Arthur is divided into four parts. The first consists of Halsall discussing the various secondary source that mention or reference Arthur and the period.  The second part is about the archaeology of the period and what it states.  In the third part Halsall goes into detail on these sources and linking with the archaeology to show that they actually tell very little about Arthur and whether he existed or not.  Finally, in the fourth section Halsall lays out his theories and researching about how and why Arthur never really existed and the events we have come to think we know about the period that aren’t completely true.

Halsall is thorough and detailed in his discussions, using his experience and knowledge of the Merovingian period and the subjects mentioned above, but he also seems to rely a little too much on this, and not on the history and archaeology of Britain itself, as well as what its peoples left.  It is nevertheless a worthy debate in the story of King Arthur that is well worth the read and deserves to be heard and accepted, even if it is in the minority.

Originally written on April 27, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

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Battle for Britain  Death of King Arthur  Winter King

“Excalibur” by Bernard Cornwell (St. Martin’s Press, 1998)

Excalibur
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The final book of Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles is all about confrontation and final showdowns, whether it be in battle, against matters of faith, or between the wants of certain people.  Readers familiar with the Arthurian saga know of Arthur’s inevitable end, but Cornwell has created and developed a number of interesting subplots and characters that the reader has been following since the beginning of the trilogy, which are all resolved.

Guenevere’s infidelity with Lancelot has been revealed, though she professed it to be due to her prayers and offerings to the goddess Isis with the hopes of making Arthur king; she is now imprisoned.  Lancelot has been revealed as the coward and traitor that he is and has defected to the Saxons.  Meanwhile the Christians are becoming stronger and more dominating.  Merlin has a plan though; to bring back the old gods and save Britain, however, it will require extreme sacrifices, which Arthur may not be willing to grant.  Mordred has been overthrown for his evil ways, and is imprisoned, while Arthur rules, but the Saxons have plans to free the rightful heir and it will all come down to one last battle at Camlan.

Readers who have come this far will not be disappointed with this great finale to the trilogy, which ends not with a resolution of Derfel as a monk in his monastery, but with the last page of Arthur and his sad end, with the hope that he will one day return to Britain.

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

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“Enemy of God” by Bernard Cornwell (St. Martin’s Press, 1996)

Enemy of God
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In Bernard Cornwell’s second installment of The Warlord Chronicles, he continues where he left off in The Winter King: Arthur has defeated the armies of Powys and Siluria, while the kings, Gorfyddyd and Gundleus, are dead, and with an alliance between the Brythonic kingdoms now near at hand, he turns to confronting their common enemy, the Saxons.

Derfel continues the telling of his tale, where he is ordered to Powys to arrange a marriage between Lancelot, a man he despises, and the beautiful Ceinwyn, who he has completely fallen in love with, though he does not tell Arthur of this.  The mighty warrior soon arrives in Powys with the beautiful Guenevere and his full entourage to enjoy the grand wedding and all seems to be going according to plan.  Meanwhile, Merlin knows of Derfel’s love and offers him an ultimatum.  The magician is in search of one of the sacred thirteen treasures of the island of Britain, a powerful cauldron that supposedly has the power to bring the dead back to life.  If Derfel will join him on this quest, he will make sure Ceinwyn is his.  He is given an enchanted pig’s bone which, if he breaks it, will release the magic, and Ceinwyn will belong to Derfel.  The young man must then decide what he must do, as he weighs the decisions of Arthur, his lord, with the desires and wants of his heart.

Enemy of God takes the story of Arthur in new directions, as Cornwell skillfully blends it with some Welsh mythology to make for a captivating and adventurous tale.  At the same time the Christian faith is growing in power, and Arthur must balance this fact with respect for the Druid religion, but ultimately decide what is best for Britain and its people.

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

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

Winter King
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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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“The Eagle: The Concluding Volume of the Camulod Chronicles” by Jack Whyte (Forge, 2006)

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Jack Whyte has come a very long way from the crumbling empire of Rome many generations ago to the man known as Riothamus – Arthur.  In this ninth concluding book in the series, we finally get the full story of Arthur’s life, and what makes this series interesting is that while our hero is obvious, in the context of the series, he is but one of the many players on the stage of early medieval Britain.  This is what Whyte is saying with this series: that it’s not about specific individuals, but – as is the case with all history – it is a series of events over hundreds of years that lead to the establishment of Britain as a country, putting itself back together as a sovereign nation after its abandonment by Rome.

Continuing on from the Lance Thrower, our narrator is Clothar, known as “Lance” by his friends because of his skilled ability to throw lances with precision at the enemy – a feat no other man, not even Arthur, can master.  In the first part of the book, Arthur forms his knights – a term taken from the Roman élite, all with their own specifically designed swords in the form of Excalibur.  The knights are addressed by the term “seur” from a Frankish term meaning one of noble or high stature.  Whyte is impressive in his interweaving of parts of the Arthurian legend and fitting them in a realistic setting in fifth century Britain.  In the second part of The Eagle, it is learned that the girl who Arthur considered his soul mate in the Lance Thrower was in fact his sister and that an act of naïve incest was committed.  At the same time, Clothar has his own personal problems to deal with in falling in love with a woman who is to be married.  After a long night of sharing their love, they must accept their fate and go their separate ways.  In the final part of the book, Clothar must go with Arthur’s élite cavalry to Gaul where he will train thousands more men both to establish the authority of Arthur and his cavalry, as well as to prepare for any invading forces.  Word has begun to spread of these invading peoples from the distant east known as Huns, led by a man known as Attila.

While the fate of Gaul with the invading Huns is never fully revealed, the book ends, naturally, with Arthur’s death from a wound in battle, while his son Mordred is next in line to rule.  The book ends without any great summation of the mighty ruler known as Arthur who united Britain and made it a nation to be reckoned with, but tapering out like a long burning candle.  Whyte’s point here is that the saga of Camulod is over, its characters now all dead, but they have done much to change Britain from the abandoned land after the fall of Rome.  Their part is complete, and it will be up to other people, other kings, and other rulers to continue making Britain into a great nation.

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Originally written on January 5th, 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.