The Winter King: a Story of Arthur
© 1997 Bernard Cornwell
The high king of Britain is dead, and the land lies in peril. Surrounded by implacable enemies, from the vicious Irish to the aggressive and hungry Saxon invaders, scarcely a day goes by without a village being reduced to smoke and its granaries looted. Some folk cling to the old gods, while others embrace the new Christ – but all need a hero, and they get it in the unexpected form of Arthur, the exiled and bastard son of the old king, who has been named protector of the young Prince Mordred, his nephew and the high king’s chosen heir. Arthur is loved by neither the druids nor the bishops: he is not of the royal blood. His authority has been earned, not granted, but it will be sorely put to the test in the days that lie ahead. Such is the beginning of Arthur’s story, The Winter King, Bernard Cornwell’s captivating treatment of the Arthurian legends.
Search the lists of English kings, and you will find no Arthur. Yet, his memory lives strongly in the mind of English and American culture, and has since the medieval era. He is the ideal king: strong, just, and benevolent, incorruptible and inspiring. Historically, there are only faint traces of a man named Arthur who may have led the British armies against the Saxons in the 400s. From those traces, Cornwell creates the noblest character he’s ever attempted, a leader with great dreams and all the virtues to make them a reality…until he lays eyes on the Princess Guinievere, who “turns his blood to smoke” and his story into tragedy.
Cornwell tells Arthur’s story through another character’s eyes, namely a soldier named Derfel who becomes the ruler’s ally and friend. Like other Cornwellian protagonists, Derfel begins as an outcast without pedigree, who must prove himself as a warrior and leader. Spending time with Cornwell’s main characters is always part of the appeal of his works: though possessing many faults, they’re utterly guileless (except when tricking their enemies on the field). Though surrounded by men who have deceived themselves into thinking they are powerful, clever, or righteous, his heroes stand, content to be just themselves, warts and all. Thus it’s interesting here that Derfel tells the story of a man who doesn’t regard himself as heroic, but who will nevertheless be considered as such by history, and can’t help but read larger-than-life.
The Arthur legends are rich with fantasy, and Cornwell weaves that into his own story. Magic exists in Cornwell’s world not as supernatural reality, but in the minds of people; it is there that the wizard Merlin casts his spells. Ritual permeates this world of dark-age Britain, but it’s not forced or hokey, readers are allowed to experience the mystery of Cornwell’s world as his characters would. Other aspects of the Arthur legends, like the search for the Holy Grail, are also worked into The Winter King, but in a way that makes sense in the context of the story. Arthur isn’t challenged to find an artifact of Christianity, but a treasure from Celtic mythology.
The Winter King is a magnificent story, succeeding both as a “realistic” treatment of King Arthur and a historical novel about the cultural conflict between not only Britons and Saxons, but between Christianity and the native religion. As usual, the weight of historic details is impressive, and the characterization — always one of Cornwell’s strengths — is superb, but then his characters are legends. I am astonished that I’ve owned the first two books for well over a year and am only just now reading them.
A final thought: Cornwell’s story has so filled my imagination that despite spending the past few days reading about King Arthur, only once have I had an issue with quotations from Monty Python cheerfully invading my focus. (That happened only recently, halfway through the second book when Camelot was mentioned. You can guess what song played in my head for an hour thereafter…)