Roman and Mediaeval History, Illlustrated Travel Journals, Mediaeval Literature, Geology

  Bernard Cornwell, Warlord Trilogy

The Warlord Trilogy (The Winter King / Enemy of God / Excalibur) is Bernard Cornwell's take on the Arthurian myth. He bases his books mostly on the Welsh tradition, but also includes characters from younger developments, like Lancelot. The world of his Arthur is post-Roman Britain, torn by internal strifes and war, endangered by the ever-increasing Saxon invasion, not the chivalrous world of a Chretien de Troyes with tournaments and fair damsels. It is a dark world most of the time, and the few happy moments are the more precious.

Arthur is Uther's bastard son, a Roman trained warleader who defends the kingdom for the infant Mordred, Uther's grandson. I wondered a bit about his heavily armed cavalry, they reminded me of Sarmatian cataphracti though Cornwell never calls them thus and there is no proof that Sarmatians still served in Britain that late.

It is also a world of different religions, of Christianity and the old belief of the Druids, of Mithras, popular among the warriors, and Isis, secretly worshipped by some woman. In times of change and danger, people cling to whatever religion promises them a hold, Cornwell says in his author's note. His presentation of Druidism differs greatly from Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, and I suppose it's closer to what the religion might have been like. There is human sacrifice and blood, bones and skulls, and a lot of urinating and spitting to avert evil. It is a brutal, down-to-earth religion, not some mystical Wicca variant. And it breeds fanatics as well as Christianity - Merlin and Nimue are no better than Bishop Samsun, they want their religion to be the only one, and they ask a lot of their followers. They ask a lot of themselves, too, which is a somewhat redeeming trait.

While Mists of Avalon is Historical Fantasy, a genre where magic is real and essential for the plot, Cornwell's Warlord trilogy mostly establishes a balance that shows that the characters in his books believe in it, but many incidents can be rationally explained from a todays reader's view. Though there are a few instances where the balance tips in favour of magic as sole explanantion.

It was a time of war, and writing about war is where Cornwell shines the brightest, be it battles against Napoleon in the Sharpe books or 6th century shieldwall pushing and sword slashing. His battles are grim, bloody, often desparate, but there is courage, too, and hope. He also understands the psychology of warfare, the way the attitude of the warriors can matter more than mere numbers. There are several major battles in the trilogy and the world overall is a male world, though some female characters play an important role.

The Warlord trilogy is told from the POV of Derfel, a soldier and later leader in Arthur's warband. Derfel, now an old man and Christian living in a monastery, writes the story down for the charming Igraine, and both he and the young woman cheat the illiterate Samsun about the true nature of the text. Cornwell interrupts the story several times with Derfel / Igraine snippets that show us how the "true story" has been distorted by later retellings (the version Igraine knows is closer to Chretien).

Derfel, half-Saxon and a pagan during his years as soldier, is a honest man with simple expectations of life (fight for Arthur and in times of peace live on a farm with the woman he loves). By using a single point of view, Cornwell gives the story great coherence. Yet Derfel understands those men best that are to some extent like him, and thus Cornwell's approach has its shortcomings when it comes to characters Derfel cannot understand (like Lancelot). If there's not a piece of dialogue to introduce a different view, the reader will have to stick with a maybe biased representation.

Arthur is a man he does understand, a likeable character, though I had wished he sometimes were less trusting. Arthur basically has two weaknesses, and this is one. The other is Guinevere, and I don't spoil anything here because the legend is well known. Guinevere is a woman with a head of her own in this book. The third in this group, the late intruder into the Arthurian legend, Lancelot, is a very interesting character in that he is very different from the usual image of him.

Other characters that were introduced into the legend at a later stage yet appear in the Warlord trilogy, like Galahad (a positively portrayed Christian), but there are elements of older versions as well, fe. the appearance of Culhwych and Tristan. Cornwell moulds all those characters to the older, more cruel versions of the Arthurian legend and thus makes them fit into the story.

Cornwell's style is easy to read, unpretentious, and sometimes he manages to say a lot in a single sentence.

If you like a dark, down to earth, a sword and sorcery presentation of the older Arthurian legends with a fair share of fighting, the Warlord trilogy should be to your liking.
Hi Gabriele. I don't know much about Druidism but I have a memory of some old novel I read in which they would burn people in large wicker baskets - human sacrifices ... don't know if that was well researched or not, but if so, there goes that warm and fuzzy tree-hugging facade :-)
Hi Gabriele, I finally surfed my way over here. I love green! It's the same color I used for my journal. Beautiful site.

Oh gosh, that movie The Wicker Man scared me to death! When that poor man gets burned up at the end. I had nightmared for weeks!
Here's my journal:

I'm no specialist on Druidism (though I have to read up on it for Storm over Hadrian's Wall) but I'm sure the tree hugging aspect is a recent idealisation. People back then surely were closer to nature, but they often experienced nature as inimical because they depended on weather, game avaliability, grain grow and whatever. Thus, a religion that was based on nature would rather have been cruel and demanding as nature itself. And while the sources about Druidism we have were written by Romans and thus very biased, the aspect of human sacrifice probably is correct.

I remember to have read that that idealisation might also have happened with some native indian religions which were not as peaceful and nature-preserving as some people would like to believe.


thanks for visiting. I'll check out your blog. :)
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The Lost Fort is a blog based on my travels in Germany, the UK and other places, with essays on Roman and Mediaeval history illustrated with lots of photos of old castles, cathedrals, Roman remains, and beautiful landscapes. You may also find the odd essay about geology or Mediaeval literature.

All texts (except comments by guests) and photos (if no other copyright is noted) on this blog are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.

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Location: Germany

I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History which doesn't pay my bills, so I use it to research blogposts instead. I'm interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who hasn't yet gotten an Instagram account. :-)