Excalibur: a Story of Arthur
© 1999 Bernard Cornwell
In Britain’s darkest hour, a man named Arthur came to rule. With the high king dead and enemy Saxons filling the shores looking for land to settle, he confronted the tremendous challenge of uniting the feuding British kingdoms and guiding them to victory against a foe superior in numbers and in spirit. He faced adversaries from within his camp, as well, as even longtime companions proved treacherous when tempted by ambition. Now Bernard Cornwell tells the final story of Arthur with Excalibur, a fitting conclusion to an extraordinary trilogy.
The trials that Arthur has faced would break lesser men, even other heroes. It would be easy to give into despair, to abandon hope — but here in Excalibur, Arthur again looks adversity square in the face. Although an uneasy peace prevails at the start of the book, the aftermath of Enemy of God’s epic ending, for Arthur and his ally (our narrator, Derfel), the growing might of the Saxons will soon need to be reckoned with. The unity Arthur fought for seems to have dissolved, but he remains determined to defy the inevitable, and this culminates in the Battle of Baden Hill, which is incidentally the only historical reference we have to an Arthur of any kind. But Baden Hill is not the end, for this King Arthur trilogy is inspired both by history and by myth, and the final battle is between Arthur and a final betrayal, that of the dark prince Mordred. The conclusion is masterful, beautifully appropriate: this being a trilogy about King Arthur, it could not end but with a flourish.
Excalibur lives up to Cornwell’s usual legacy, but reveals an additional strength of this trilogy in particular: character evolution. Although Cornwell doesn’t shy away from writing evil characters, in the Arthur trilogy the lines between heroes and villains isn’t a clear cut. Guinevere, for instance, was utterly despicable in Enemy of God, but moves toward redemption in this final volume, while someone who has been Derfel’s friend since his childhood becomes monstrous, continuing a trend that began in Enemy of God. It points to the complexity of life, of people and our motivations, and the fact that nothing can be taken for granted.
…nothing, that is, except for the quality of a Cornwell novel. This trilogy has been absolutely stunning, and I’m sad to have finished it. Happily, though, it can always be re-read.