Enemy of God: A Novel of Arthur
© 1996 Bernard Cornwell
Enemy of God stunned me. I thought I knew what to expect from a Bernard Cornwell novel: a solid, irreverent hero with a talent for fighting, enticing and dramatic narration of historical battles, and a lot of wry commentary thrown in. And Enemy delivered that, but it’s a much different beast than I anticipated. Second in his King Arthur trilogy, it sees Cornwell flirt with the realms of fantasy and horror. Although I opened it planning to continue an thrilling historical series, Cornwell surprised me with a read very much appropriate for the Halloween season.
The Winter King set the stage: it is the twilight of the fifth century, the dawn of the sixth, and Britain is going mad as the year 500 approaches. The isle is rifle with conflict between the invading Saxons and the defending Celtic Britons. The Britons were once united under High King Uther, but his death left a baby on the throne, and now all of the British kingdoms fight with one another as eagerly as they do against the Saxons. In Winter King, Arthur emerged as the baby king’s half-uncle, the eldest son of the deceased high king but illegitimate. Arthur strove to unite the Britons, and succeeded – but in Enemy of God, he must defend the peace from internal strife, dark conspiracies, and the growing Saxon hordes.
Cornwell’s usual strengths are present here, but the Arthur books are exceptional because of their larger-than-life characters and the fantasy elements, which are not found in any other of Cornwell’s novels to my knowledge. Arthur and Merlin are the titans; Cornwell’s Merlin surpasses even Albus Dumbledore for being a half-mad mentor – and like Dumbledore, Merlin has his own plans and ambitions which ensnare Arthur and his lieutenant, our narrator Derfel; plans that may run contrary to those of the heroes. Merlin is a chessmaster, forever pulling the strings, and there’s a shadow of malevolence to his hoped-for future. Mordred, Morgan, Galahad, and Lancelot are here as well. I didn’t mention Lancelot* in my comments on The Winter King, in part because he’s a truly unpleasant character, ambitious, vain, and deceitful. Believed by most (especially the ladies) to be a mighty white knight in shining armor, he manages to achieve great praise despite never accomplishing anything, aside from keeping his pretty face free of battle scars. Arthur, of course, dominates the novel, and is legendary – an almost perfect leader, but he is hopelessly in love with Guinevere and doggedly loyal to his friends. Alas for him and Britain, he is not as sound a judge of character as he is a friend, and the result is disaster…and for Arthur, heart-rending pain.
All this makes for a fantastic story: this series is truly set apart from Cornwell’s other work. If the characters, humor, historical details, and intense storytelling weren’t enough, the backdrop is faintly fantastic, and increasing horrific Regular fantasy readers may not notice it, but it’s a jarring difference from Cornwell’s other work, and definitely gives the story and edge.Arthur and Derfel go on quests to dark ruins, fight against monsters (people given to madness, rather reminiscent of the Reapers from the Firefly universe), and return to find hell releashed on the peaceful world of Camelot. It would have made for perfect Halloween reading, especially as one of the incidents fell on Samhain and Celtic mythlogy plays a crucial role.
Enemy of God is magnificent.I await Excalibur to arrive in the mail.
* Think of Prince Charming from Shrek 2. Seriously, I watched the movie last night and thought, “That’s who Lancelot reminded me of!”.