Cornwell's retelling of the Arthur tales is, if the other two volumes match up to this, set to become one of my favourites. while he includes...more4.5 stars
Cornwell's retelling of the Arthur tales is, if the other two volumes match up to this, set to become one of my favourites. while he includes characters that are undoubtedly mythical and, as he admits in his afterword, continues to put together characters from different mythical or semi-historical heritages (such as Arthur and Merlin, only put together by Mallory but now indivisible), I would still class this work as a historical fiction, even a realistic historical fiction.
The author paints an incredibly vivid picture of Britain in the 6th century. A hundred years and more after the Romans have left, the island is awash with battle and intrigue as the ancient tribes seek to defend and expand their territory. The Eastern part of the land is under the control of the invading Saxons, the Irish raid from across the sea, and the efforts to reinstate worship of the Celtic gods clash with those religions brought by the Romans, especially the increasingly prominent and powerful Christianity.
These conflicts form the backbone of the novel. We see the names familiar from our centuries-long love affair with the Arthurian tales - Arthur himself, Guinevere and Merlin, Lancelot, Galahad, Nimue, Mordred, Morgan, and mad king Pellinore - each recognisable from their mythic image and yet quite different. Partly it is the gritty, realistic brutality of the Dark Ages Britain they inhabit, a million miles away from the shining armour and courtly manners of so many classic representations. By the standards of the medieval romances, and the Roman world which they envy as a golden age at the same time as they despise it, the lives of these people are barbarous. And some of them know it, doing their best to live in the crumbling Roman ruins they no longer have the expertise to maintain. But Cornwell also plays with our expectations of the characters. Arthur, as in the original stories before Chretien de Troyes, is neither a king nor a Christian but a Briton warlord, a noble, charismatic leader with the mission of uniting the native tribes against the invading Saxons. Lancelot is a spoilt, foppish, arrogant coward who employs poets to write about his non-existent feats of valour, which soon outlive the reality.
In these events - narrated by Derfel, a Saxon-born captain of Arthur who is recounting events years later after he has converted and become a monk - we see a possible germ of the Arthurian mythology in the warring and politics of this time. As Derfel writes the tale for Queen Igraine (who is too young to have known the people and events first hand) she tries to push him to embellish the facts away from grime and reality toward chivalry and magic, giving an idea of how legends grow in the telling.
The myths we know are medieval tales, and have become heavy with the imagery of Christianity, although Merlin and Nimue of the Lake and the Green Knight usually remain as a connection with the pagan past. I have read version which over-emphasise the Christian aspects or try to reclaim the tales for their pagan origins. In Cornwell's version belief and superstition permeates every page as belief in the 'native' gods of the Celtic Britons vies for dominance with more recent arrivals brought by the Saxons and, especially, the Romans; the cults of Isis, Mithras and of course Christ. This world is uncertain and brutal and so much is dark and unknowable. It is all but impossible to imagine not sharing the faith in supernatural beings having a direct and often malicious effect on every day life in such a condition. Omens and curses threaten to bring down the wrath of the gods, and to deny their existence is unthinkable. Cornwell does not gloss over the brutality of the slavery, human sacrifices and rapes that are prevalent amongst many holding pagan beliefs at the time, but neither does he avoid the hypocrisy and dishonesty in some of those of the early Christian church. Galahad, a Christian, is perhaps the most honest and noble character in the book, yet the self-sainted Bishop Sansum is utterly without merit. The pagan Arthur is heroic, though flawed, yet some of the other pagans are vicious in the extreme. Derfel often writes such things as "I know there is no greater joy than to serve Christ, but sometimes when I think of the times shoulder to shoulder before a battle, I miss my shield brothers", suggesting both an old man's regret at his passed youth and also a religious conversion that is perhaps more judicious than heartfelt.
The Winter King is brutal, noble, thrilling and thoughtful. The vividness of the scene setting is superb and the characters fully fleshed. I would highly recommend this to anyone with the slightest interest in Arthur, or the Dark Ages, or good books in general.(less)