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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Enemy of God: A Novel of Arthur by Bernard Cornwell. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-312-15523-9

This is the second novel in Bernard Cornwall's Arthurian trilogy. I blogged the first volume, Winter King, back in February of this year. Back then, I said, among other things, that there was no Round Table. Well, I was wrong. The famously named table does show up in this volume, but not as an actual physical table so much as a name for Arthur's oath that was supposed to bind the Briton noblemen together. Unfortunately, that didn't last too long.

No, the most interesting aspect of this book is reflected in the title, Enemy of God. As Cornwall points out in his brief Author's Note at the end of the book, the earliest Christian sources that mention Arthur are generally hostile towards him. The inescapable conclusion is that Arthur was NOT Christian, but pagan, although practically every author (and they are legion) who has tackled the Arthurian legends has made Arthur tolerant of all the religions extant at that time.

In Cornwall's trilogy, there are at least four religions that have a role: the ancient Druidic religion as espoused by Merlin, Nimue, and their ilk; the Christians, of course; but also the soldiers' Roman religion of Mithras, the Bull; and finally, the Egyptian religion of Isis, which he attributes to Guinevere. Plenty of other authors have included references to the first three, but I don't recall anyone else using Isis in an Arthurian story.

Christians don't come off very well in Cornwall's books, but that is often the case in Arthurian literature, which often tend to stress the romance of the Druidic belief. Cornwall doesn't seem particularly enamored of Druidism either, as neither Merlin nor Nimue, the two practitioners of the Druidic arts most connected with Arthur, are depicted as particularly pleasant people. As to whether they practice any REAL magic or not is dubious, but Cornwall leaves just enough room for doubt.

One of the main plots in this volume is an attempted coup by the Christians in league with Lancelot, who surprisingly, is one of the trilogy's main villains. In Cornwall's version of things, Lancelot is a vain, cowardly man who always manages to be somewhere else when there's real fighting to be done, but arrives in time to claim all the credit. Why does "history" paint him as just the opposite? Because he paid the bards to write the songs about him, naturally.

Why should you read this book? Well, be sure to read Winter King first, but the fact that it's one of literature's greatest stories, told by a master story teller is reason enough, at least for me.

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