“The Winter King,” by Bernard Cornwell (512p)
The Winter King is the first in a trilogy of Bernard Cornwell’s take on the King Arthur legend. Cornwell’s telling of the King Arthur legend is a “historical” version, meaning he has placed it in the real world setting of post-Roman Britain in the second half of the fifth century. The Winter King is tells the story of Arthur’s return to Britain from exile and the brewing civil war between the petty kingdoms in the face of the impending Saxon invasion.
The lord Derfel is now old and serves the rest of his life as a monk, but once he was a captain and champion of Arthur’s Britain. He has been tasked by the Queen of Powys, Igraine, to write Arthur’s life story (under the guise of a translated gospel for the Saxons to trick the tyrannical Bishop Sansum, who despised Arthur and his paganism) for her and for the Britons as the invading Saxons creep ever closer. But the story begins years before that, when Derfel is a young lad training to be a warrior, while Arthur himself is living in exile in Armorica (modern Brittany). The High King Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father and King of Dumnonia in his own right, had banished him there when the Crown Prince and heir Mordred was slain in battle against the Saxons and Uther held Arthur, his illegitimate son, responsible. The hopes of Dumnonia’s future fell to Mordred’s widow Norwenna, pregnant. She would give birth to a son but not the picture of strength and nobility Uther had been hoping for, but rather she gives birth to a disfigured crippled boy with a clubbed foot, named Mordred after his father. The child and mother were fostered at Merlin’s home Ynys Wydryn (Glastonbury) under the care of Morgan, Arthur’s sister, where the young Derfel resides with Nimue. Merlin himself has not been seen in Britain for years.
Uther convenes the kings of Britain for a high council to establish the Dumnonian succession. The King of Powys does not attend and the King of Siluria arrives late. Uther makes it clear Mordred will succeed him and until he comes of age, three men (King Tewdric of Gwent, Owain the champion of Dumnonia, and Merlin) shall act as guardians. Morgan, acting for Merlin, declares he would only accept such a role of Arthur is also made a guardian, but Uther refuses and publically disowns Arthur. Soon after Uther dies and Mordred becomes King of Dumnonia, but the Britons quickly descend into civil war when Gorfyddyd of Powys attacks Gwent and the King of Siluria betrays his pledge to Uther and attacks Ynys Wydren in a bid to become High King. Arthur, however, returns to Britain and saves the besieged Dumnonians and defeats Gundleus, the Silurian king, taking him prisoner. Arthur wishes to unite the British kingdoms against the Saxons and agrees a peace treaty with Powys, frees Gundleus to his throne and agrees to marry Ceinwyn, Gorfyddyd’s beautiful daughter. But Arthur shatters the peace when he falls in love with Guinevere, secretly marrying her and rejecting Ceinwyn, plunging Britain back into a war with itself.
In the mean time, Derfel had grown into a man and a warrior in Arthur’s service, being given the name “Cadarn”, which meant the mighty. He is sent across the channel to Armorica to assist King Ban of Benoic in his war against the Franks. Linking up with Arthur’s cousin Culhwch, he is taken to Ynys Trebes (modern Mont. St-Michel) to meet King Ban and his heir, Lancelot, to whom Derfel takes an immediate dislike to. Lancelot is rude, arrogant and cowardly, and Derfel almost kills him following an insult. Lancelot and Derfel would be enemies for life. Escorted out of Ynys Trebes, he gains a friend and ally in Galahad (Lancelot’s illegitimate half-brother) who joins Derfel’s small army. Derfel spends three years defending Ban’s lands from the Franks and, while often successful, it is ultimately useless as the sheer number of Franks overwhelms them, and pushes them right back to Ynys Trebes itself. After eight months under siege Ynys Trebes eventually falls to the Franks. In the destruction of the city, to which the cowardly Lancelot is the first to escape, Derfel uncovers the true identity of the embittered priest that lived in the city: Merlin. Merlin escapes with Galahad and Derfel and he returns to Britain, before quickly disappearing again. Lancelot had arrived back in Britain first, however, and intended to disgrace Derfel by holding him responsible for the fall of Ynys Trebes and the death of Ban, but Derfel challenges Lancelot to a duel. It is only Arthur’s intervention and stubborn faith in the good of people that prevents a full scale fight between the two.
While Derfel was absent Nimue, to whom he had been linked together by a blood-oath, had been declared mad and banished to the Isle of the Dead. Derfel rescues her and the two becomes lovers for a short time. Arthur’s war against Powys had continued to rage in Derfel’s absence and was bleeding the Britons dry, so Arthur planned to end it for good. He had to also ensure a peace with the Saxons and so taxes the Christian monasteries and pagan temples heavily, an act the Christians never forgave him for. He manages to buy a season of peace from Ælle, the self-styled Bretwalda and information on how to capture the Powys stronghold of Ratae (modern Leicester). To learn of Gorfyddyd’s intentions Arthur sends Galahad and Derfel to meet with him under a flag of truce, and there Derfel himself falls utterly in love with Ceinwyn – however, his beloved had been betrothed to Gundleus by Gorfyddyd to secure an alliance while Arthur wanted her to marry Lancelot. Ceinwyn wanted neither and just wanted to be left alone, and softly rejects Derfel’s pledge of love, but accepts his oath to protect her freedom. Arthur is left to attack Gorfyddyd and Gundleus alone when Tewdric of Gwent refuses to commit to an alliance and remains neutral, claiming his only responsibility is to perverse the life of Mordred and not to wage war against the other kingdoms. Arthur is left with the only option of fighting Gorfyddyd and Gundleus alone.
Marching in the night, Derfel and the main army arrive at Lugg Vale while Arthur’s horsemen destroy the vanguard. Arthur switches armour with Derfel as well in a ploy to trick the Powysian army. Despite having the high ground the Dumnonians are out-numbered and forced uphill, and Arthur’s plans to out manoeuvre the Powys army with a sudden cavalry charge fails, leaving things at a loss. But the face of the battle changes dramatically when the Irish, paid off by Gorfyddyd, switch sides, and smash the Powsyian army, saving Arthur and killing Gorfyddyd. His son, the far more pragmatic and sensible, Cuneglas, is now King of Powys and immediately calls for a halt in he fighting and offers Arthur the promise of peace and an alliance against the next Saxon invasion, bringing an end to the destructive civil war and establishing Arthur as the preeminent lord in Britain. The story is continued in Enemy of God.
If the number of reviews wasn’t obvious, I am a massive Bernard Cornwell fan. I have loved almost everything he has written, but the Warlord Chronicles are easily my favourite of all his novels after originally reading them in 2007. The Winter King is an engrossing and gripping read that will pull the reader right in. Post-Roman Britain is a complex world with much of the raw facts lost to history, yet nothing in this feels as though it doesn’t belong. He has properly depicted what life in post-Roman Britain would have been like. It is a largely lawless society with no proper order and a handful of noble lords from small petty kingdoms vying to be the High King and succeed the Romans, all the while in a society facing imminent destruction from the Saxons while also witnessing the beginning of the slow transformation from paganism to Christianity. If Arthur ever existed (and I believe he did), I have always been one of the people that believed this is the Britain he lived in. And so, with very few refutable facts to go by, Cornwell probably made most of it up, but the end product is a completely believable world that, from what I understand, is pretty much exactly how we know post-Roman Britain to be.
All the known favourites from the Arthurian story are included in the story. But what I like most is the way he has tweaked it, to give his version of Arthur an original voice and depiction. Arthur is as you would expect him to be but his supporting cast is excellent, particularly in the latter two books, and rather quite original. Lancelot, usually cast as Arthur’s greatest knight and most loyal subject, is completely transformed into a snivelling little shit of a man that everyone can see but Arthur, and Cornwell’s skill as a writer makes you dislike him. This is pretty rare from me as I usually end up loving the villains (I wanted Voldemort to “win” and kill Harry Potter), but the way he made Lancelot such an unappealing character turned out to be one of the best parts. Characterisation is important and this novels delivers on that front superbly, and I think most will enjoy the somewhat newer depictions of a number of old favourites.
On the whole, The Winter King is a bit unlike the rest of Cornwell’s novels, which are much more precise and less sprawling in their nature. Rather, The Winter King adds a lot more politics and intrigue to its story and attempts to explain the power struggles by the many kings and wannabe kings of the land. It is nothing like Sharpe either, which tend to be more “episodic” whereas this is just one long story. You would have to read The Winter King before moving on to the next two parts of the trilogy, but I think that would be a wise thing to do anyway. It is a great story to begin with – who doesn’t like King Arthur? – but this really is an original telling, written by one of the great action writers of the last thirty years. It is not simply a novel of war, but a novel of a lost society still trying to find its way and survive, combining the real and the imagined to be told by a man who saw it all. Highly recommended.