“The Winter King: A Novel of Arthur”

Bernard Cornwell

In “The Winter King” Cornwell gives us a plausible Arthur. This is not Lerner and Loew’s Arthur, but a warlord from the Britain’s Dark Ages. We can’t know whether Arthur ever existed, but this is an Arthur that could have been. The book is the first of the “Warlord Chronicles” trilogy and a complex and convincing historical novel from an era which barely has a history.

Cornwell’s Aruthur is the bastard son of King Uther of Dunmonia and, on Uther’s death, regent for the infant King Mordred (Uther’s legitimate son). Arthur unites the fractious kingdoms of Britons against the Saxon invaders. He has a vision of a peaceful, united Britain, but it is a vision endangered by his own tragic flaw: his love for Guinevere, for whom he betrays his betrothed.

The story is also the autobiography of the narrator, Derfel, an orphaned Saxon raised in Merlin’s Tor, who defends Lancelot’s doomed kingdom in Brittany and rises to become a leading warrior in Arthur’s army. He tells the story from a monk’s cell long after the events of the novel. How Derfel, a devout pagan, becomes a Christian monk, is a mystery presumably resolved in a later volume.

Fan’s of Cornwell’s Richard Sharpe series will recognize Cornwell’s trademark ability to describe a battle. What is surprising is his talent at telling a tale of political intrigue in a setting almost as complex as the Japan of Jame’s Clavell’sShogun. “The Winter King” is a substantial, absorbing, satisfying story.