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February 13th, 2008, 04:43 PM #1
The Warlord Chronicles Trilogy by Bernard Cornwell
My take on The Warlord Chronicles Trilogy which - just - fits inside the genre.
Britain, at the close of the 5th Century. The Romans are gone and the Britons are seeking to unite themselves under one ruler, but factional infighting and squabbles between the individual kingdoms are diverting them from the encroaching threat of the Saxons, who have landed on the east coast and made headway into the interior. The High King Uther Pendragon of Dumnonia is determined to drive them off the island, but he is old and dying and his son, Mordred, is but an infant. When Uther's death triggers a bloody war, his bastard son Arthur returns from Armorica with his hand-picked warriors to ensure that Mordred makes it to his majority and takes the throne. But the great druid Merlin is embarking on a great quest to unite the lost treasures of Britain in the hope of restoring the old gods, and his quest will bring Britain to its knees...
The Warlord Chronicles is Bernard Cornwell's take on the Arthurian epic. Published between 1995 and 1997, these books represented a major departure from Cornwell's established role as the author of the phenomenally successful Sharpe series of historical adventures set in the Napoleonic Wars, although the same eye for detail and combat is present. The Warlord Chronicles features greater emphasis on character-building and it is to Cornwell's credit he avoids the cliches. His Merlin isn't quite the same Merlin we've seen a hundred times before on film and in TV series, and his Guinevere, Lancelot and Arthur are all similarly well-defined, retaining some of their traditional characteristics whilst being imbued with greater depth and motivation.
This is a big, complex story, but Cornwell keeps the page-count down by making it a first-person story narrated by the great warrior Derfel Cadarn from his retirement at an abbey many years after Arthur's death. To a certain extent this limits the action as an enormous number of events, some of them pivotal, occur off-page at battles or meetings where Derfel is not present. However, this keeps the action cracking along at a fiendish pace, and Derfel's viewpoint allows Cornwell to illustrate elements of 5th/6th century society that other takes on the legend gloss over, such the fanatical inter-faith squabbling between Christians, Druids and even the followers of the Roman gods who established a foothold in Britain during the conquest. Military tactics are present realistically as well. No Arthur strutting around a London-sized Camelot in full plate armour, for example. This was the beginning of the Dark Ages, with the knowledge and wisdom accumulated by the Roman Empire over seven centuries crumbling into nothingness along with the ruins of its great towns and cities. This sense of a truly great civilisation being lost is one of the most stunning achievements of the books, and is unrivalled by anything else I've read with the possible exception of Lord of the Rings' evocation of the once-mighty landmarks of Gondor and Numenor reduced to a few ruins. In the Chronicles, however, it is given greater pathos by being true.
There is also a quite amusing reference to the traditional Arthurian legend as Derfel watches his careful, accurate historical account being taken away and translated by an interpreter who decides his work is a bit dull and makes various unfotunate changes which we can tell are the beginnings of the rather unhistorical myth as we know it today.
The Warlord Chronicles (****) consists of The Winter King (1995), Enemy of God (1996) and Excalibur (1997) and is highly recommended.
April 24th, 2008, 12:07 PM #2
Just finished it. I thought it was absolutely phenomenal. I have an issue with how quickly he ended it though, it seems very out of keeping. Everything else in Derfel's life is described extensively, and by having the story be from Derfel's POV and ending it with the last battle at Camlann, he leaves out so much story which could easily have fitted into an epilogue. Were I his editor I would at least have advised to spend some time on tying that up properly. Too many questions unanswered. What happens to Guinevere, Galahad, Gwydre and the others on the boat for instance? Does Derfel ever meet them again? Where does he go to live with Ceinwyn and how many more years are they given? I understand that he wants to keep Arthur's final fate unknown, even though we can deduce from his never coming back that he did die, but the final chapter just doesn't seem right in how fast Cornwell goes about tying things up.
Other than that niggle about the unsatisfying ending, nothing but praise. Well almost. I thought the characterization was great, particulary for the secondary characters. He does a great job of building a big cast of characters in a way few authors can. Especially the group of Arthur's companions such as Sagramor, Culhwch, Galahad, Tristan. Derfel is the star of the show in this series rather than Arthur, whose portrayal I am ambivalent about. The same applies to Merlin, who has been portrayed better elsewhere ( Stewart). Merlin to me was too powerless, too vulgar. I understand he went for the Dark Merlin/Mad Merlin take but I don't think it fully worked, he is too diminished for my taste. Nimue was interesting, as was Guinevere. So many good enemies as well, Lancelot, the Saxons, Amhar and Loholt, Mordred, Nimue, the vicious twins Dinas and Lavaine that killed his daughter, so many weak men set off against strong ones, the story of Tristan and Iseult, the character of Gawain gets a completely different treatment,a great sense of melancholy for a lost reign. Wonderful how Cornwell gives us the story through the eyes of a man writing at the end of his life, excellent device. Actually a great romance between Derfel and Ceinwyn as well, touching.
His portrayal of magic in the story seems to shift at the end of the third book from how it has been portrayed up until that late point in the story however, and I found that quaint. After two and a half book of pretty much no magic and alternate explanations for everything that could be construed as magical, he does seem to want to make it plain at the end that there is some real magic being done.
Lancelot: Yes, one-dimensional. He's a total tool, bereft of good qualities, unlike Galahad who is his opposite and who Derfel calls his best friend.
The Saxons: not villains in the sense that they are just like the Britons, trying to gain land so continious flow of Saxons coming to the British shores can be accomodated. And enemy yes, but it depends on the POV. Nimue, the druid twins, Lancelot etc are more clearly defined as villains. Not to mention the guy that tries to kill Derfel so shcokingly at the Isle of the Dead.
Strange how Nimue turned out. From Merlin's best friend in youth to ally in maturity to cruel enemy at the end. Mordred was a truly terrible human being, rotten even as a boy.
Merlin's portrayal leaves too much to be desired here. As does Arthur's, who is lead around the nose too much by Guinevere in the first two books, something which is corrected in book 3. He is very human, but for me just a bit much and too flawed. Some of his decisions were just poor and as Derfel said, poor for all to see but Arthur.
Loved the companions. The bachelor Galahad, Christian knight of great prowess, coarse Culhwch, built like a bull, Derfel himsel with his marvellous life story, Sagramor the black demon. Tristan was a great character as was the brutal Lord Owain in book 1, I was sad to see him killed. Same for Aelle, Derfel's father.
In the end, a superb portrayal of Arthurian legends. The only Arthurian series that rivals it is the vastly different Merlin Trilogy by Mary Stewart. I've still yet to read Sword at Sunset though, which has no Merlin as I understand it. He puts a different hat on almost every character, and on many known events. He has great storytelling flair and displays great characterization abilities. He shows us battles, passion, romance and makes the Arthur story new to those had become tired of it.
Last edited by Mithfânion; April 24th, 2008 at 01:23 PM.
April 24th, 2008, 12:34 PM #3
I with you on this: it's a wonderful series. I'm not much of a fan of Arthurian fantasies, to be honest, so it's probably no surprise that my only real disagreement with you is that I loved the Merlin character.
I also would have preferred if the same approach to magic had been kept throughout all of the books. However, this is only a niggle. Highly recommended.
April 24th, 2008, 05:53 PM #4
I think this sounds absolutely fantastic.
Does it have a lovely dark / spooky atmosphere?
April 24th, 2008, 07:18 PM #5
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Not as dark as some, perhaps, but in places, yes.
Cornwell's an interesting chap.
Mark / HobbitMark
April 24th, 2008, 08:22 PM #6
Being a die hard fan of Jack Whyte, I have to say that his Arthurian series "A Dream Of Eagles" in the superior series for me.....
....BUT....that being said, Cornwell is awesome, and the Warlord Chronicles are a close second for the Arthur legend. Great stuff to be had there!
April 25th, 2008, 08:00 AM #7
I agree!. Cornwell's Arthur series is awesome!
I'm currently reading some of his other books now. All good.
April 26th, 2008, 12:09 PM #8
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I read the trilogy two or three summers ago. Very fond memories of sitting outside, drinking roiboos and honeybush and port and cranberry juice and eating soft turrón into the wee hours of the night. I've bought Harlequin by him as well, bu I haven't read it yet so I don't know where he stands as an author outside of that series. The battle-scenes stuck with me, because I usually loathe them and often skip them altogether (last in mind was the Prince of Nothing series, and even some scenes in the Malazan books until recently) - very few authors are skilled at giving a clear view of what's going on in the battlefield without muting the action and killing the sense of urgency inherent to this kind of scene and drawing from my experience of reading fantasy, Cornwell excels at this.
he does seem to want to make it plain at the end that there is some real magic being done.
Does it have a lovely dark / spooky atmosphere?
April 27th, 2008, 06:02 AM #9
Spoilers for the end of the last book below:
There is Nimue cursing Arthur's entire army with an unnatural storm that wipes out all his forces.
There is Merlin's silver mist.
There is Merlin teaching Nimue how to make shadowbodies,which is a foul magic that she uses to full effect on Ceinwyn.
Merlin alone knows that Lancelot is hiding in some bushes near a river, out of sight. A vision is implied.
June 24th, 2008, 07:03 AM #10
This post piqued my interest in Whyte's take on the Arthurian legend.
I can say that for me, I often will defend which author I read first on a common subject. That's just the way my head works.
As of now, I've read eleven of Cornwell's books (Warlord, Grail and Saxon series' plus Stonehenge). Love his writing. But I kept Whyte's name in my head whilst I read a good bit of Cornwell. Yesterday, I finished up the first book of the Camulod/Eagle series, The Skystone. Wow! Very good! I think it doesn't do me/us good to say who is better, but I'll say that they both keep me hungering to continue reading their books.
June 24th, 2008, 11:59 AM #11
Whyte has an interesting take on the Arthur myth, but his books dragged a bit. Someone should explain that Show Don't Tell rule to him.
I read the series in between other books; I admit I would not have been able to read all of them in one go.
My favourite is Cornwell, though I have Sword at Sunset on my TBR pile and it may yet take the laurels. Mists of Avalon was ok back when it came out, but upon reread it turned out too feminist for my taste.
June 24th, 2008, 01:33 PM #12
Granted, I've only finished The Skystones by Whyte and have only read the prologue to The Singing Sword as of right now. It may be that his "Teller" may be stuck. I believe I'll still enjoy the books. Along with Cornwell, too. Good stuff!
June 24th, 2008, 02:11 PM #13
I got the impression the telling, or name it the slow pacing, became more in the later books.
And I couldn't finish the first of his Templar novels, it was too boring. He had too much in the way of discussion and almost nothing in the way of fighting (in a novel about the Crusades, for crying out loud ) and came up with that old adage of a secret society that's older than the Templars and all. Not the sort of thing I want to see in historical fiction. It's a pity because a good historical novel about the real Templars, with all the intrigues and battles, would make for a fun read, I'm sure.
June 25th, 2008, 11:16 PM #14
Knights Templar are just . . . ugh. The real Templars were a fascinating association--the warrior monk is such a strange combination. It's a shame they've been beaten to death with all this bull**** that post-Dan Brown thriller writers and "historians" are spewing.
On a side note, I got like 200 pages into The Winter King and it's a really interestion read. I love the grim world that Cornwell portrays. But he doesn't beat us over the head with it like some authors . . .