Stonehenge: 2000 BC
© 2000 Bernard Cornwell
For millennia the hanging rocks of Stonehenge have stricken visitors with awe and mystery. Who built them, and to what purpose? Stonehange: 2000 BC tells the story of those people, the ancient ones, whose dreams and fears were made material in their temple of the sky. Bernard Cornwell is a bonafide master of historical fiction, writing chiefly tales of adventure and war set in Britain’s storied past, but the world of Stonehenge is his earliest treated yet. Stonehenge is largely drama, personal and cosmic, with action throughout, including a battle or two. It is the story of three brothers: Lengar, the eldest, whose cruel ambition leads him to murder his father at a wedding and seize the bride; Camaban, born with a club foot and rejected by the tribe, who burns with bitterness and looks to the gods for consolation; and young Saban, who begins the book fleeing from death, a race that continues throughout. Caught between his elder brothers’ constant treachery, Saban must survive the destruction and chaos caused by both, and lead his people to peace.
Lengar, Camaban, and Saban share a father and little else; their dreams set them at variance with one another, for Saban only wants a quiet life with a woman, kids, and a few healthy pigs while his elder brothers spend the entire book besotted with dreams of grandeur. Lengar wants to be a fearsome warlord who brings the entire region under heel, while Camaban works to become a master sorcerer and restore order to the Cosmos itself. This is a primeval setting, dominated by a religious worldview that is largely animistic, drenched in blood and steeped in superstition. The overall feel is reminiscent of the magnificent King Arthur trilogy Cornwell penned: political and religious leaders vie for power, undergird with a metaphysical theme; while Merlin wanted to restore the old gods to Britain to drive out the Saxons, Camaban wants to end the war between the native gods and bring about an epoch of heaven on earth. While many find the claim suspect, a temple to the violent sun god serves the glory-thirst of Lengar, and the challenge appeals to the craftsman Saban. (Not that he has a choice in doing their bidding, since he has an unfortunate habit of becoming attached to people, a great source of leverage for his sadistic elder.) The motives for building the temple are thus mixed, and the struggle of its construction is the foundation of the book’s many plot lines, from politics to war. At least a decade passes from the time the first stones arrive to its treacherous consecration.
Like the King Arthur trilogy, our main character Saban is a supporting actor in other men’s dramas, but he’s fairly sympathetic. A good thing, too, because he’s much abused; his is a violent world, and his brothers’ ambitions make it doubly so. He’s wily enough, and a good fighter, though not nearly as self-assured or clever as other protagonists. His life is often in the hands of Fate, which typically comes in the form of possibly-delusional characters who declare that going here or doing this is the Will of the Gods. Though religious, Saban doesn’t put a lot of stock in such claims; fortunately for the plot, he’s ususally beholden to someone who does – either his brothers, threatening violence, or his girlfriends, who have an unfortunate tendency to become goddesses or prophets. C’est la vie préhistorique.
Stonehenge is an impressive novel, harrowing and dramatic. Like all of Cornwell’s fiction, the world is rich in luxuriant detail. Not only does Cornwell paint the landscape for readers, but the human environment, of actors and legends, is simultaneously fleshed out, using an invented mythology instead of vexing historic purists by throwing in the Celtic pantheon. It suffers a little in comparison to the King Arthur trilogy, but the mystery of the Stones has its own appeal, and seeing the temple appear in stages throughout the tome, as chiefs and priests struggle for power, will doubtless keep readers in thrall.