Monday, January 24, 2011

Review: The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell

The first book in his Arthur trilogy, the Adjutant of the Army of Historical Fiction Bernard Cornwell has produced again an adventure of the first order. As with several of his previous works, Cornwell deftly balances the adventures of an "everyman" with the high politic which defined Europe of the period.
Set in the late fifth century - about the time that any Arthur may have lived - Cornwell portrays a young warrior's ascent to court as in his Saxon Chronicles and the Grail Quest series. Rather than shoving established history aside willy-nilly for the sake of a good story, the author gently bends what we know of the truth to add to his tale - as always noting when he's done so in the Historical Notes. The Winter King also provides an accurate account of the staidness and often perfunctory nature of peasant life in the Dark Ages but moves effortlessly between the peasant's black and white existence and that of the tonal and nuanced machinations in the courts of the land's regents.

There are certain parallels between The Winter King and Cornwell's later Saxon Chronicles, especially when it comes to his depiction of the main protagonists. Unsurprisingly, as King Alfred the Great is suggested as a possible model for the Arthur of legend, there are the same world-building, considered personalities to both men and the storyteller, a captain in the King's army narrates from old age. The hero is once again a young Saxon raised by people of an enemy nation, which allows him easy passage in both nations and more importantly, the ability to speak multiple languages, a skill which when combined with his endeavour, allows him access to the King.

In all of his works that I've read, Bernard Cornwell gifts his main character with literacy against the odds, for a man of his position and birth should have no rights or expectation of any book learning. He does so for two reasons - to emphasise how lucky the character, and by extension the reader is to have this gift of words; secondly, it makes the narrative so much easier in a fractured land with myriad dialects. Though likeable, these are men and women of their time - leather armour rather than chain mail, characters with the pox and often, death in childbirth. By mixing historical fact with a really engaging story, he involves the common man in the politics of nations without it being boring and more remarkably makes it seem like that commoner has reason to have a relationship with royalty.

After only recently having read the Saxon Chronicles these similarities did strike me as mildly formulaic but as I thoroughly enjoyed both books I won't and can't complain. By weaving a good old fashioned adventure tale around likeable lead characters Cornwell engages his readers enthusiasm which in turn makes for a fast 430-page read.

The Arthur legends with which I grew up were amongst my favourite stories. The benevolent King, a pure, selfless Guinevere and the noblest of all, Sir Lancelot. Arthur and Guinevere married because they were in love - why else would you marry? - and Lancelot, Gawain and Galahad served Arthur at the Round Table because, well, that was what they did. Though the characters remain, the motives behind are much more true-to-life and often infinitely more mercenary than legends say. By correctly ignoring the siren-call of the anachronistic plate armour, Round Table and Holy Grail, Cornwell describes his characters in very real terms, inferring that what drives a man now did so 1600 years ago. But perhaps his most underrated talent is having the happy ability of helping us relate to and care about people with whom our lives have simply nothing in common.

All the while taking us on an adventure story of the first rate. The Winter King, by Bernard Cornwell, scores footballs.
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1 comment:

  1. This Arthurian trilogy is Cornwell's best work by far in my opinion, and I have enjoyed all his books. I noticed the similarities with the Saxon Chronicle too, but strongly recommend that you read this series first.