The Winter King is a new TV adaptation of The Warlord Chronicles, a 3-book series by Bernard Cornwell. What are the original books like? I devoured them.
The Winter King
I received the three volumes of The Warlord Chronicles for my birthday this year, from my brother Stephen. His middle name is Derfel, in tribute to our family’s Welsh heritage. An elderly monk and former warrior, Derfel Cadarn, narrates all three volumes of The Warlord Chronicles.
The first volume is, like the TV series, called The Winter King.
Old Derfel writes of his turbulent youth, from his first kill, through countless battles alongside Arthur, to their final farewell, decades later. The formula enables us to enjoy plenty of action with the young Derfel, as well as the older Derfel’s wisdom. This is a rich mix and a reminder that elderly people often have incredible stories to tell.
Like Cornwell’s Sharpe series, The Warlord Chronicles focus on being a rollicking good read. But the stories also teem with reflections on life, love and friendship; on how to rule; and on religion. The tone throughout is elegiac, as Derfel – perhaps, now, with not long to live – looks back on an extraordinary life packed with friendship, valour and adventure.
I finished reading the third volume – and the “historical note” that closes the series – with a lump in my throat. Derfel and his wife Ceinwyn watch a ship carrying the gravely wounded Arthur off to sea:
And I watched and wept, my arm around Ceinwyn, as the pale boat was swallowed by the shimmering silver mist. And so my Lord was gone. And no one has seen him since.
The Winter King: Arthur
Arthur plays a central, binding role throughout the three books of The Warlord Chronicles. Cornwell depicts him as a straight guy – honest, noble, uninterested in power, always dreaming of giving up war to retreat to an idyllic farmhouse with a smithy where he can live with his family. Instead, Arthur must, reluctantly, return to war again and again.
When the amiable, peace-loving Arthur goes into battle, with his magical sword Excalibur, he becomes an unstoppable warrior, drunk with blood-lust:
I had expected Arthur to fight calmly, using the skills Hywel had taught him, but that morning, as the rains poured from the winter skies, I saw how Arthur changed in battle. He became a fiend. His energy was poured into just one thing, death, and he laid at Owain with massive, fast strokes that drove the big man back and back. The swords rang harsh. Arthur was spitting at Owain, cursing him, taunting him, and cutting again and again with the edge of the sword and never giving Owain a chance to recover from a parry.
Yet most of the time, Arthur is thoughtful and wise, and, unlike nearly everyone else in Britain, keen to rule well and dispense justice:
Arthur: ‘What do you think a soldier’s job is, Derfel?’ Derfel: ‘To fight battles, Lord.’ Arthur: ‘To fight battles, Derfel… on behalf of people who can’t fight for themselves… This miserable world is full of weak people, powerless people, hungry people, sad people, sick people, poor people, and its’s the easiest thing in the world to despise the weak, especially if you’re a soldier… But the truth is, Derfel… that we are only soldiers because that weak man makes us soldiers. He grows the grain that feeds us, he tans the leather that protects us and he polls the ash trees that make our spear-shafts. We owe him our service.’
Unfortunately, no-one takes Arthur’s attempts to create peace in Britain seriously. Merlin mocks him:
‘Do you really think men and women thanked you for bringing them peace? They just became bored with your peace and so brewed their own trouble to fill the boredom. Men don’t want peace, Arthur, they want distraction from tedium, while you desire tedium like a thirsty man seeks mead.’
The Gods are ever-present in The Winter King and throughout the three volumes of The Warlord Chronicles. Merlin is obsessed by restoring the pre-Roman British gods, their power destroyed when the Romans massacred the druids at Ynys Mon, or Anglesey, in 60 AD:
Galahad: ‘We’re in the last days. Even your Gods have fled from us… Your religion died long ago when the Romans ravaged Ynys Mon and all you have left are disconnected scraps of knowledge. Your Gods are gone.’
Fifth-century Britain is depicted as a chaos of competing faiths. Derfel, although wary of the British gods, is a devotee of the Roman warrior god Mithras. Guinevere worships the Egyptian Goddess Isis, complete with dodgy sexual rites. Merlin and a host of other druids play a big role in battles and everyday life, blessing soldiers and cursing their enemies. Christianity is on the rise throughout the three books. Arthur, although he says he believes in the Gods, wants as little to do with them as possible. The title of the second volume of the series, Enemy of God, reflects the fact that both pagans and Christians condemn Arthur’s refusal to side with them.
Religion and populism
Arthur hopes that creating peace and stability will calm religious strife. When the Christians rise up in revolt, he muses:
‘I had hoped,’ he said softly, ‘that we had weaned Dumnonia away from madness.’ [Derfel replies] ‘You gave them peace, Lord, and peace gave them the chance to breed their madness. If we’d been fighting the Saxons all those years their energies would have gone into battle and survival, but instead we gave them the chance to foment their idiocies.’
Similarly, Merlin derides Arthur’s hope that peace will lead to stability:
Merlin sneered… ‘The Gods hate order,’ he snarled at me. ‘Order, Derfel, is what destroys the Gods, so they must destroy order.’
Derfel, for his part, analyses the tension between belief and non-belief in a way that reminds us of modern-day populism:
I wanted to believe in [Merlin’s] Britain where all our sorrows would be magically taken away. I loved the idea of Arthur’s Britain too, but that would take war and hard work and a trust that men would behave well if they were treated well. Merlin’s dream demanded less and promised more.
Sound familiar, anyone?
The Winter King: Merlin and Nimue
Cornwell depicts arch-wizard Merlin as a mischievous, obsessive, abrasive figure filled with power. He barely appears in The Winter King and is absent for long periods throughout the Warlord Chronicles. Much of the magic he and his protege – and sometime lover – Nimue perform seems more like conjuring tricks than sorcery. Or is it? You decide.
Nimue, a haunting, iconoclastic figure, saves Derfel and his men through her navigation skills and invisibility spells. All too often, Merlin treats her – like everyone else – with contempt:
‘I am quite busy enough without running around Britain after Nimue! If the girl can’t cope with the Isle of the Dead then what earthly use is she? … What’s the point of an ordeal if there’s no danger?’
This attitude will come back to haunt Merlin later.
More generally, Merlin has a jaundiced attitude to soothsaying, and life in general:
‘[It is] always better not to know the future. Everything ends in tears, that’s all there is to it.’
Cornwell’s Guinevere is a magnificent creation: beautiful, brave, passionate and more brilliant than any of the men in the trilogy. She is also a fighter and a strategic thinker. On several occasions she rescues Arthur and his fighters in their hour of need.
Unfortunately, Guinevere is also something of a Cassandra figure. When Arthur shows insufficient interest in the power she craves, she turns her attentions elsewhere, with catastrophic consequences.
Here, she lectures Argante, Arthur’s grumpy wife:
‘It doesn’t become princesses,’ Guinevere murmured softly, ‘to show anger in public. Be mysterious, my dear, and never let men know what you’re thinking. Your power lies in the shadows, but in the sunlight men will always overcome you.’
The idea that you should never let the light in on “the magic” of the monarchy, lest their human nature and ordinariness become all too apparent, is still current in the 21st century.
The Winter King and The Warlord Trilogy depict Lancelot as a traitorous coward and self-publicist. Derfel despises him – up to and beyond Lancelot’s death:
And thus Lancelot died, though the songs he had paid for lived on, and to this day, he is celebrated as a hero equal to Arthur. Arthur is remembered as a ruler, but Lancelot is called the warrior. In truth he was the King without land, a coward, and the greatest traitor of Britain, and his soul wanders Lloegyr to this day, screaming for its shadowbody that can never exist because we cut his corpse into scraps and fed it to the river. If the Christians are right, and there is a hell, may he suffer there for ever.
Love and relationships
Twice in the book, Britain is on the verge of stability until a passionate love affair plunges everything into chaos. That passion is a thrilling element of all three books, from The Winter King onwards. Cornwell’s characters acknowledge the destructive power of love:
Love’s madness, swinging from ecstasy to despair in one wild second.
How much of our earth has been wet by blood because of jealousy! And at the end of life, what does it all matter? We grow old and the young look at us and can never see that once we made a kingdom ring for love.
The absence of love, by contrast, often provides humour. When Derfel reluctantly agrees with Cavan, his deputy, that Derfel’s planned bride-to-be, Guinevere’s sister Gwenhwyvach, is ‘not a beauty like her sister,’ Cavan goes on:
‘In fact… she is as ugly as a sack of toads.’
Gwenhwyvach never weds Derfel. But she, too, will play a crucial role in a future battle.
The Winter King: the battles
If you don’t like battle scenes The Winter King and The Warlord Chronicles may drag for you. Huge battles, described in detail, form a core element of the books. Derfel, looking back as an old monk, recalls the joy of battle:
They [the soldiers] cheered. The emotion in that shield-line was so rich that some men wept for happiness. I know now that there is no joy like the joy of serving Christ Jesus, but how I do miss the company of warriors… We were brothers, we were invincible and even the laconic Sagramor had tears in his eyes. A spearman began singing the War Song of Beli Mawr, Britain’s great battle song, and the strong male voices swelled in instinctive harmony all along the line.
Later, Derfel describes combat:
Battle is a matter of inches, not miles. You smell the mead on their breath, hear the breath in their throats, hear their grunts, feel them shift their weight, feel their spittle in your eyes, and you look for danger, look back into the eyes of the next man you must kill, find an opening, take it, close the shield wall again, step forward, feel the thrust of the men behind, half stumble on the bodies of those you have killed, recover, push forward, and afterwards you recall little except the blows that so nearly killed you.
Derfel does not seek out war; but he acknowledges it is always a threat:
A man should love peace, but if he cannot fight with all his heart then he will not have peace.
Both the Britons and their arch-enemies, the Saxons, believe that a valiant death will guarantee them a glorious future in heaven. Here, the wounded Saxon King, Aelle, begs Derfel to kill him:
‘When a man dies in battle, he goes to a blessed home in the sky. But to reach that great feasting hall he must die on his feet, with his sword in his hand and with his wounds to the front… You owe me nothing, my son, but I should take it as a kindness if you would give me my place in that feasting hall.’
I enjoyed the battle scenes in The Warlord Chronicles. Cornwell creates a rhythm of action, and his own compelling mythology, to the extent that by Book 3 (Excalibur) I was as familiar with Derfel’s great sword, Hywelbane, as with Arthur’s more famous weapon.
More on the War Song of Beli Mawr
Cornwell refers several times to the War Song of Beli Mawr, including here at the conclusion of Excalibur.
To counter [the enemy druid’s] spells we sang the War Song of Beli Mawr. From that day to this I have not heard that song sung again by warriors, and never did I hear it better sung than on that sea-wrapped stretch of sun-warmed sand. We were few, but we were the best warriors Arthur ever commanded. There were only one or two young men in that shield wall; the rest of us were seasoned, hardened men who had been through battle and smelt the slaughter and knew how to kill. We were the lords of war. There was not a weak man there, not a single man who could not be trusted to protect his neighbour, and not a man whose courage would break, and how we sang that day! We… sang to Beli Mawr who had harnessed the wind to his chariot, whose spear-shaft was a tree and whose sword slaughtered the enemy like a reaping hook cutting thistles. We sang of his victims lying dead in the wheatfields and rejoiced for the widows made by his anger. We sang that his boots were like millstones, his shield an iron cliff and his helmet’s plume tall enough to scrape the stars. We sang tears into our eyes and fear into our enemy’s hearts.
Derfel and Arthur often discuss the role of kings, and oaths. Derfel thinks oaths to worthless kings, such as Mordred, simply cause problems. Arthur argues in favour of them – as part of the rule of law:
‘Weak kings are a curse on the earth, yet our oaths are made to kings, and if we had no oaths we would have no law, and if we had no law we would have mere anarchy, and so we must bind ourselves with the law, and keep the law by oaths, and if a man could change kings at whim then he could abandon his oaths with his inconvenient king, and so we need kings because we must have an immutable law.‘
The Winter King: Excalibur
The myth of a sword that may, perhaps, have magical powers is potent. Here, Derfel describes throwing Arthur’s sword into the ocean:
Excalibur turned in the evening air. No sword was ever more beautiful. Merlin swore she had been made by Gofannon in the smithy of the Otherworld. She was the Sword of Rhydderch and a Treasure of Britain. She was Arthur’s sword and a Druid’s gift, and she wheeled against the darkening sky and her blade flashed blue fire against the brightening stars. For a heartbeat she was a shining bar of blue flame poised in the heavens, and then she fell. She fell true in the channel’s centre. There was hardly a splash, just a glimpse of white water, and she was gone.
In honour of my brother I noted down a collection of Derfel quotes. These are for all you Derfels out there:
[Derfel in his dotage] ‘I am the storyteller… but an ancient and feeble monk.’
[Queen Igraine, to old Derfel] ‘You are a cunning old man, Brother Derfel.’
‘I can at least call you Lord,’ Arthur said, ‘and so you will be called from now on, Lord Derfel.’
‘It will be a hard fight, Derfel.’
For my eldest daughter’s sake I become Lord Derfel Cadarn, the slayer of spiders.
[Derfel, accused by Guinevere of being grubby] ‘I had a bath last year.’
[Merlin, on Derfel] ‘Derfel… couldn’t tell a decent song from a bullock’s fart.’
‘Fate is inexorable,’ I said… ‘that was one of Merlin’s favourite sayings. That and “Don’t be absurd, Derfel.” I was always absurd to him.’
The Winter King: a Summary
The Winter King and The Warlord Chronicles are a rip-roaring set of adventure stories. They draw intriguing inspiration from Arthurian legend, but are not afraid to reinterpret and reinvent. Finally, they have a thoughtful core of wisdom and reflection, and a focus on character, that render what could have been a swords-and-sandals romp into a three-dimensional tale of living, breathing people. I recommend it.
What to do next
If you enjoy The Winter King you may enjoy my thrillers. A good place to start is my Berlin thriller Blood Summit.
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