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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, February 08, 2004

The Winter King: A Novel of Arthur by Bernard Cornwell. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996. ISBN: 0312144474

I am a huge fan of what is often called “Arthurian fiction,” retellings of the story of King Arthur and/or any of the related mythology and legends. My favorite Arthurian novel of all time is and will probably always remain The Mists of Avalon (1982) by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Next in line would be the classic trilogy by Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave (1970), The Hollow Hills (1973) and The Last Enchantment (1979). She added a couple of sequels some years later: The Wicked Day (1983) and The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995).

Arthurian fiction can be subdivided into at least two subgenres: at one extreme you have books like The Mists of Avalon, which are truly fantasy novels, since magic is real and works. On the other extreme you have books which attempt to write some account of what might have been the actual history of some portion of that time period in Britain after the Romans left, but before England became a reality, the period which used to popularly be referred to as “The Dark Ages.”

The Winter King definitely falls into the latter category. In his “Author’s Note” at the end of the book, author Bernard Cornwell rehearses briefly the available sources for any authentic information about Arthur, including the fact that he was probably never king of anything, but rather “Dux Bellorum” or “Leader of Battles,” a warlord, but not the king.

Cornwell gives no truck to most of the traditional legends of Arthur. Yes, there is a sword, but there is no magic about it, no embedding in a stone, or feminine hand waving it from a mere. Yes, there is a Mordred, but in this account, he isn’t Arthur’s son, bastard or otherwise, but the grandson of Arthur’s father, Uther, by another line of descent entirely. Yes, there is a Merlin, and a Nimue, both adherents to the Druidic tradition, but their magic is that of the “witch doctor” variety, designed to frighten and awe the beholder, but no supernatural powers are involved. There is no round table, nor knights thereof, but Arthur has companions and loyal followers, one of whom is the primary voice through whose eyes the tale is told.

Nevertheless, this is a compellingly written tale, told by a master story-teller, and well worth reading. This is how it “might have been,” or at least, how it “could have been,” given what we actually know about the historical period in question and those who lived in it. And if you like this story, you’ll be pleased to know that it, too, is the first volume in a trilogy, and that there are two more novels to read: Enemy of God (1996) and Excalibur (1997). I’m looking forward to reading them myself.

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