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Bernard Cornwell
Michael Joseph Ltd., 436 pages
The Warlord Chronicles
Volume One The Winter King
Volume Two Enemy of God
Volume Three Excalibur

Bernard Cornwell
Born in London and raised in Essex, Bernard Cornwell emigrated to America with his wife Judy. Before writing on a full-time basis, he was a television producer in London and Belfast. Cornwell is best known as the creator of The Sharpe Series, set during the Peninsular War, which was adapted for television and starred Sean Bean as Richard Sharpe.

ISFDB Bibliography
Bernard Cornwell Tribute Site
Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe Series
Sharpe Information Page
The Sharpe Series
Bookworm Interview
Amazon.Com Interview

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Neil Walsh

If you haven't already read the first two books of this series, you may want to have a glance at my previous review for some idea of what to expect overall from The Warlord Chronicles. Here I'll focus on Excalibur, the third book of the series. Enough of the background is provided in Excalibur that you could read it in isolation, but the series is good enough that you would be doing yourself a disservice to miss the first two volumes.

Excalibur offers a satisfying conclusion to the tragic story of Arthur, as related in Cornwell's The Warlord Chronicles. It does not end happily -- it's a tragedy, after all -- but it concludes the story in such a way as to offer some faint hope... or does it? Perhaps it's merely sad but contented resignation. Maybe that depends on the individual reader, and how much of a rationalist that particular reader might be.

There is a considerable amount of magic throughout this series, but it is most definitely not the grandiose and flashy magic one encounters in high fantasy; rather it is more historically and anthropologically accurate magic, at least with regard to its effects and the perception of its effects in the minds of the inhabitants of Dark Age Britain. What I mean is that spells are cast, and effects are perceived, but for the most part the reader is allowed the luxury of rationalizing the effects as coincidence, or perhaps the result of other more mundane causes (although it gets harder and harder to justify this to yourself as the coincidences continue to pile up). For the characters in the story, however, magic is magic and that's all there is to it. (Except of course for Arthur, who thinks it's all hogwash, and the Christians who have their own brand of magic which they call miracles.)

By the end of the novel, as Arthur's apparently mortally wounded body is carried off into the mists of the west, I know he's dying and it's a sad loss. And yet, some part of my brain is screaming, No! He can't be dead; he's the Once and Future King! He's going off to be healed in a magical place and then someday he'll return! Then I close the book and take stock of my situation: I'm an anglophone; a displaced celt who understands precious little of the mother tongue of my ancestors. The reality is that Arthur lost and the Saxons won, and all of that was a very long time ago. He's not coming back. Although this makes me sad on one level, I am nevertheless content with what I am and with the world as it is.

So too with Derfel, the narrator of this tale. He wants to believe that Arthur will return, but his rational mind tells him this will not be. It makes him sad to have lost such a friend and to have lost all he had fought for, but on the other hand he is resigned to his current situation.

More importantly, if not for Derfel then certainly for Merlin and Nimue, Pagan Britain is lost to the Christians. From the outset of the first book, we are informed that Derfel is an elderly Christian Monk. Although he may not be the saintliest of Monks, he tries to do the best he can. Throughout most of the story he relates in this series, however, he is a much younger man and a devout Pagan. His beliefs and his Gods have always been very important to him. It is in Excalibur that we learn of his conversion, the sacrifices he made, and his reasons.

Please do not think that this series is a whole lot of Christian-bashing. On the contrary, it is one version of the story told from the perspective of one man who happens to be, in his heart of hearts, both a Pagan and a Briton -- despite his Monk's habit and his Saxon blood. But even as we are seeing the story through his eyes, any unbiased reader will be forced to admit that there is very little black and white. The Christians are not all bad and neither are the Saxons (nor are the Irish invaders, for that matter). In fact, the Pagan Britons are not all good; even Merlin and Nimue are forced by their beliefs to commit atrocities which would surely not be condoned by anyone with twentieth century sensibilities and standards. Representatives from virtually all the factions are shown to have their merits as well as their fatal flaws, and anyone is capable of letting things get personal by sacrificing the greater good for personal honour or petty vengeance. Indeed, this is one of the most important themes of Excalibur.

On the whole, Excalibur is an exceedingly well-written account of the last chapters of the Arthurian legend. The description of the petty in-fighting among the Britons after the battle of Mount Badon, for example, is brilliantly done, as it is comical and tragic at the same time. This passage rivals that of Merlin's dissertation on the relative merits of various cheeses in the second book, Enemy of God. If you haven't read it, or if you don't recall (but how could one forget?), this amusing monologue is calmly delivered while Merlin and a handful of Derfel's men are besieged and hopelessly outnumbered by the enemy. Derfel and his men are awaiting their inevitable doom, and Merlin, meanwhile, is happily reminiscing about his favourite cheeses. The sudden banality of Merlin's discourse comes out of nowhere, breaking the tension of a frightfully tense moment. I laughed out loud.

The quality of the writing alone is enough to recommend this book, and indeed the whole series. Cornwell has a knack for creating realistic and sympathetic heroes, as well as cruel villains to make the reader tremble with rage. When a writer can evoke such extremes of emotion in me as I read a retelling of a story I am already intimately familiar with, I know I'm being played like a bard's well-tuned harp. But I love it. If the Once and Future King should someday return beneath the pen of Bernard Cornwell, I will happily submit myself to the reading of it.

Copyright © 1998 by Neil Walsh

Neil Walsh is the Reviews Editor for the SF Site. He lives in contentment, surrounded by books, in Ottawa, Canada.

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