Monday, June 11, 2007

BOOKS | The Winter King

Once Upon A Time Challenge 2007

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell
Once upon a time, in a land that was called Britain, these things happened. Bishop Sansum, whom God must bless above all the saints living and dead, says these memories should be cast into the bottomless pit with all the other filth of fallen mankind, for these are the tales of the last days before the great darkness descended on the light of our Lord Jesus Christ. These are the tales of the land we call Lloegyr, which means that Lost Lands, the country that was once ours but which our enemies now call England. These are the tales of Arthur, the Warlord, the King that Never Was, the Enemy of God and, may the living Christ and Bishop Sansum forgive me, the best man I ever knew. How I have wept for Arthur.

So begins The Winter King, narrated by Brother Derfel, a Christian monk who had once been one of Arthur's mightest warriors. Brother Derfel is now a maimed old monk in a monastery, bullied and sad. The time of Arthur has passed, but the legend of Camelot endures.

In the afterword, Cornwell explained how he was trying to imagine a historically more realistic Arthur: a great warlord who resisted the Saxons during the Dark Ages, after the fall of the Romans. So Cornwell's Britain is a savage land of internal strife and foreign invasions. He strives for raw realism in his retelling, and he portrays a time of lost knowledge, where magic seems more like trickery and superstitution, and the romantic characters as we know them: Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere ― are all fatally flawed in credibly human ways. There is some elements of Greek tragedy to the story: the way hubris contribute to the characters' downfall, of destiny and how the characters are but playthings of the Gods.

In The Winter King, in a bid for peace, to unite Britain against the Saxons, Arthur - bastard of Uther Pendragon - enters into a treaty with Powys. As part of the treaty, he was supposed to wed Ceinwyn, daughter of King Gorfyddyd of Powys. However, during the engagement ceremony, Guinevere enters the feasting hall and history as they say, is changed forever. As Derfel tells us of Guinevere:

I turned and saw a young woman who stood head and shoulders above the crowd and who carried a bold defiant look on her face. If you can master me, that look seemed to say, then you can master whatever else this wicked world might bring...

There have been many more beautiful women, and thousands who were better, but since the world was weaned I doubt there have been many so unforgettable as Guinevere, eldest daughter of Leodegan, the exiled King of Henis Wyren.

And it would have been better, Merlin always said, had she been drowned at birth.

Guinevere, the Helen of The Winter King - the woman whose beauty would bring down a mighty king - enters the narrative. So must the heroic Arthur fall in love with her - destiny and myth demands it.

Foolishly, Arthur abandons Ceinwyn and marries Guinevere, thereby earning Gorfyddyd's wrath and plunging Britain back into civil war.

Hubris, the character flaw of Greek Tragedy. Behind Arthur, the Warrior King, Bear Amongst Men, is a lonely child neglected by his mother, who is forever looking for the love denied him. Guinevere, as she is revealed, is no meek girlish child. She is a woman of steely will, with ambition and her own agenda. Her genuis is that "Guinevere saw the loneliness in Arthur's soul and promised to heal it." Arthur's marriage to Guinevere hurted many people down the years, but none more than Arthur himself.

And Lancelot - how different is the Lancelot in Cornwell's Winter King. In most versions of the Arthurian legends, Lancelot is the strongest and bravest of Arthur's knight. Cornwell deliberately reinvents Lancelot as a devious, handsome charmer, a man who knows how to stay away from the battlefields, but paid the bards lavishly to sing his praises, taking the exploits of other heroes as his own. Lancelot, as Cornwell tells it, knows good PR. All tales are retelling, so Cornwell reminds us time and again in The Winter King.

Derfel, or perhaps Cornwell through the lips of Derfel, reminds us of the shaping of tales:

I could have written that truth, of course, but the bards showed me how to shape a tale so that the listeners are kept waiting for the part they want to hear

We have all heard the stories of Arthur somewhere in our lives. What make us keep coming to the Arthurian stories? And how can any writer make the story of Arthur relevant and engaging to a modern audience?

Here lies the power of mythology in their retelling: With each retelling, the storyteller takes what he needs from the root-myth, and introduce something new into the narrative. So there is a constant process of renewal, the myth working like an organic entity that endures because it is capable of evolving through time.

As I read The Winter King, I realise slowly Cornwell has shifted the angle of the Arthurian story. It is still the story of Arthur and his heroes, yes, but it has also become the story of Derfel and all he loved. And he loved Arthur, as he loved his childhood friend - Nimue, the priestess of Merlin. And Merlin, the wiley trickster, the callous magician who used everyone in his single-minded search for the Treasures of Britain to restore the Old Gods to their powers.

Brother Derfel's sad knowledge frequently interrupts the narration of the Arthurian tale. In his knowledge of what was lost, the reader is always reminded of how greatness came to be lost. In stories like the Arthurian tales, where the ending is known, it is no longer about What Happens? Rather, about How? and Why? Bernard Cornwell's genius is how he manages to refresh the narrative by framing the story through Derfel's eyes, and by reinventing the characters so familiar to us, he gives the readers something new to keep them turning the page. By using Derfel's proximity to Arthur and the action, Cornwell brings a personal sense of loss in the Arthurian tragedy. I want to know the story as Derfel felt it, of what used to be, and what was lost.

6 comments:

Kim said...

Sounds fascinating. Arthur seems to be all around me lately, or perhaps I'm just more aware of him since I read The Hawk's Gray Feather.

Thanks for the review.

Nymeth said...

"Here lies the power of mythology in their retelling: With each retelling, the storyteller takes what he needs from the root-myth, and introduce something new into the narrative. So there is a constant process of renewal, the myth working like an organic entity that endures because it is capable of evolving through time."

Very well said.

I never tire of Arthurian retellings, exactly because I feel that each brings something new to the story. This one definitely sounds worth reading.

Great, great review.

Dark Orpheus said...

Hi Kim: Thanks for dropping by. I had to go google The Hawk's Gray Feather after your comment. Patricia Kennealy's name sounds familiar. Was she married to Jim Morrison by any chance?

Hi Nymeth: Thanks. I did not realise I would like Cornwell's Arthurian retelling so much either. He's a great writer who knows how to tell a story. I can see why he sells so many books.

stefanie said...

Oh, this sounds like a wonderful Arthur story. One for the TBr list! Thanks for the review.

Kim said...

She was indeed, and a genuine Celtic priestess to boot. The book wasn't the greatest, but it sure sparked my Arthur interest.

Carl V. said...

That sounds wonderful. It has been a long time since I've read a novel featuring King Arthur and it is a mythology that I love. This is going on the list. Great review, Dark O. You make the book very enticing.