Bernard Cornwell has always been a great favourite of mine, managing to combine exciting action with historical events – informing the reader, whilst keeping them on the edge of their seat. So I was intrigued when he decided to write a series of novels based on the legend of King Arthur. The Winter King is the first of the Warlord chronicles and is set in ancient Britain just after the Romans left its shores and the Saxons started to make incursions into the British Isles. King Arthur comes to hold back the impending storm, and by so doing spawns the legend that has inspired the myth that has lasted through the millennia.
The difficulty with any Arthurian novel is striking the balance between historical accuracy and the myth that has grown over the past fifteen hundred years. Most people realise that Sir Thomas Mallory’s concept of knights in shining armour is completely inaccurate, but do you throw out all the elements of the legend you think untrue or exaggerated? If so you may come up with a tale nobody recognises. This is an issue with Arthurian novels, because readers will come to it with their own pre-conceptions and if you leave out characters like Lancelot, or elements like Arthur’s sword Excalibur or the round table, the reader might be so disappointed that they are completely turned off by the book.
Luckily Cornwell, as ever, strikes a great balance. He retains the ideas and concepts of the great legend, whilst combing it into a believable tale set in Britain’s past. It would be impossible for him to please everyone of course, but I think most who love tales of Arthur will really enjoy his take on the myth. We have all the characters we know so well, Lancelot, Guinevere and Merlin, but all sown into a story where the warriors wear leather or chain-mail suited to the period, and fight in a tight shield wall rather than with horse and lance, donning full plate armour.
Merlin is done especially well, where he is depicted as a Druid and performs the rights and rituals of the ancient pagan priests that had held sway in the land before the Romans appeared and put an end to their power, hundreds of years before. Any magic in the novel therefore comes in the form of curses and prophecy, being a realistic way of portraying ancient mysticism and retains a sense of realism. The character Merlin appears completely believable and fits in with the period of history. The power he holds over others comes from their belief in his words and rituals, and is a clever way of writing this essential ingredient into the story, without it branching into the realms of fantasy.
I’ve always loved the legend of King Arthur and I really enjoyed Bernard Cornwell’s interpretation of the myth. I had a few gripes of course, normally with the behaviour of the odd character, but that’s to be expected – we bring our own ideas with us when it comes to stories on Arthur, it’s what makes him such a fascinating subject to write about and I can’t recommend these novels enough.
You can purchase the first of these novels, The Winter King on Amazon here.