Some stories have been told to us so many times that they possess an intrinsic hold upon us. These stories are woven into the fabric of our culture; the characters exist in our minds as though they were acquaintances; and the morals and lessons of the tales inform and dictate our very nature.
One of these deeply rooted stories is that of King Arthur and of his round table. This story has held a place in our culture and collective imagination since its first telling in the 9th century. Over the years it has taken many shapes and colours; Arthur has been seen as a folkloric superman who fought off hundreds of foes singlehandedly; Disney cast Arthur as a young and timid boy; Hollywood has seen him as both a Roman Officer and as a back-alley tramp in two different recent adaptations.
Yet none of these versions manage to deliver a telling of his tale that live up to the importance of the icon. All fail with the exception of Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles. The first installment in this trilogy is entitled The Winter King. This chronicle tells the tale of a brutal, cold, and miserable Britain, torn apart in the centuries following Rome’s abandonment of the Isles. Petty struggles for domination between neighbours have kept the Britons from coalescing and convalescing, and the lives of the people are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, as Hobbes might have put it.
The book begins as the light of the Britons, Uther, dies. Uther was a King who managed to bring order in his lifetime, and with his death, disorder and chaos between the Britons emerges anew. This time however, to add fuel to the fire, the Britons face an existential crisis. Saxon hoards from across the English Chanel have begun their invasion of Britain, and the Britons must set aside their differences and come together to fight off their foes.
The story is told from the eyes of Derfel Cadarn, who is an orphan in the care of the Sorcerer Merlin at the start of the novel. As he comes to manhood in the unequaled battle sequences of Cornwell, he tells a story full of all one might hope from such a tale as Arthur’s. It is a story filled with wonder, bravery, cowardice, betrayal, love, violence, tenderness, but most of all; it is a story filled with hope.
Few authors take the care that Cornwell does when presenting a story cast in a historical era. His Warlord Chronicle tells a story that is impossible to set aside or put down. Nothing but the next page can satisfy the curiosity and thrill he instills with each and every word. While you are cold and gloomy this winter, consider picking up Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King. It will bring a purpose to your day, and if nothing else, it can make you thankful that you are not born in the Dark Ages. But if you had, you would want to be at Arthur’s side.