I’m already a huge fan of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales– and have put off reading the latest one until I absolutely can’t wait any more. I have to say though, I like this trilogy best of all of Cornwell’s work. I think it’s some of his best writing and his descriptions of early medieval Britain come across as realistic and frankly, scary in a Hobbesian sort of way.
First up is The Winter King– The story is told by an old monk, Derfel Cadam, who is writing it down for the current Queen Igraine (not Arthur’s mother). Son of a Saxon slave, Derfel had been raised by Merlin, and over time became one of Arthur’s greatest warriors. He is just a teenager, living at Ynys Wydryn (Glastonbury- all of the old British and Saxon words can make reading trying at times), when the infant king Mordred comes to live there. He is king of Dummonia, which is in turmoil after the death of powerful King Uther.
Both Merlin and Arthur are absent at the book’s beginning, and make spectacular returns at just the right time. True to the Cornwellian formula, there is a great deal of hacking and slaughtering, interspersed with moments of romance. It’s really the perfect balance, for my taste at least.
We also meet Lancelot, who for once is quite villainous. He is handsome, vain and cowardly. He seeks to ensure his reputation as a great warrior by paying bards and poets to portray him that way, but he’s worse than useless in battle.
I like the portrayal of Guinevere. She is strong and very proud, to a fault. In the end, she brings Arthur nothing but grief, but they love each other anyway. Arthur commits an almost fatal error when he marries Guinevere, breaking his engagement to Ceinwyn, princess of the neighboring kingdom of Powys, and causing a rift with this potential ally.
Merlin is also given a slightly unorthodox portrayal. He’s not terribly dignified, though he can be scary, often speaks in riddles, drifts off absentmindedly and is a lecherous old goat.
In between battles, Derfel rescues Nimue (Vivian) his best friend and Merlin’s protégé and lover. The books conclude with the battle of Lugg Vale, in which the forces of Powys and Siluria are destroyed and it’s kings killed. The new king of Powys, Cuneglas, swears allegiance to Arthur.
Enemy of God picks up after Lugg Vale, when Arthur finally has a chance to make peace between Britain’s warring kings and take on the Saxons, who are a mounting threat. As part of this plan, he makes Lancelot king of Siluria and plans to marry her to Ceinwyn of Powys, whom he had spurned in favor of Guinevere.
This is very bad news for Derfel, who’s fallen madly and hopelessly in love with the beautiful Ceinwyn. At the betrothal feast, he blurts out his feelings to Merlin, who together with Nimue, give Derfel a choice. He can have Ceinwyn, but along with her, he must pledge his allegiance to Merlin and join him on a dangerous quest for one of the treasures of Britain. Derfel of course, chooses that path, and at the last minute, Ceinwyn deserts Lancelot and goes off with Derfel. Awkward.
But, Arthur can’t really complain, because you know, pot meet kettle. So, Derfel and Ceinwyn go off to Ireland with Merlin where they find an ancient and magical cauldron that will help bring the old gods back to Britain, Merlin and Nimue’s fondest wish.
The whole story wraps up in spectacular fashion in Excalibur, the action-packed finale of the trilogy. While Derfel has been off questing, Arthur is directly challenged by Lancelot, who hopes to overthrow him with Guinevere’s help. The plot is stopped in time, Guinevere is exiled to Ynys Wydryn and Lancelot joins the Saxon invaders.
Merlin attempts a huge religious rite to bring the old gods back, but Arthur learns, just in time, that it will involve the sacrifice of his son Gwydyr, and puts a stop to the whole thing. This now puts him in the position of being seen as opposing Christianity by the Christians- a rapidly growing population- and also being opposed to the old gods. No fun at all and, Derfel feels, quite unfair to Arthur, who’s just doing what he thinks is best for Britain.
Then, there is the great battle at Baddon Hill. In this version, Derfel gets there first and is besieged by swarms of Saxons. Arthur comes to the rescue and the Saxons are put down, for at least a generation. Lancelot is also found and executed.
A brief period of peace follows.
However, Mordred is now grown and is a real jerk. He finally manages to undermine Arthur to the point where Arthur takes himself out of the game entirely and retires to Siluria, along with a rehabilitated Guinevere, without whom he apparently can’t live. Derfel and Ceinwyn join him and everyone hopes to happily grow old together.
Not so fast. Mordred engineers a situation which forces Arthur to put Gwydyr forward as the next king, so Mordred can accuse him of treason. In the meantime, Merlin has been trapped by Nimue, who is extracting all of his secrets from him. Because Arthur refuses to give her Gwydyr and Excalibur, which she needs for her big religious rite (she’s still working on bringing back the old gods with an intensity that Merlin never had), she marches on Siluria with an army of crazy people.
With Mordred’s forces closing in on the other side, Arthur, Derfel and their families work on escaping across the sea. They are shipwrecked after Nimue murders Merlin, thereby unleashing a great storm, and Mordred find them. Arthur and Mordred meet in combat and Arthur kills Mordred. He is seriously wounded, but Derfel gets him onboard a ship that will take him across the sea. Derfel then throws Excalibur into the sea, where Nimue will never be able to get it. And that’s the last we hear of Arthur.
The plots of all three books are infinitely more complicated than my very brief summaries, but the twists and turns are truly suspenseful and enjoyable. When it comes to creating interesting characters, Cornwell has really outdone himself. Arthur in particular is complex, interesting, and hampered by a frustrating amount of integrity.
Early medieval Britain is portrayed as a truly frightening place. The Romans left not so long before, and already the Britons are conscious of how little their culture can contribute in the way of building, learning and law. They live in and on top of Roman ruins, but aren’t capable of building much themselves. They are under threat from all sides- from their own bloodthirsty chieftains, to the numerous Saxons and the pesky Irish. It’s truly a dark time, and of all of the many adaptations of the Arthurian legend that I’ve read, Cornwell probably creates the most plausible portrayal.
I can recommend these without any reservation whatsoever and I’m sorry that I’m done reading them. I’ll probably be back in a few years!