Not Marion Zimmer Bradley

The Warlord Chronicles are a low fantasy Arthurian reinterpretation by Bernard Cornwell, author of the famous Sharpe series. They’re also an attempt at a historical novel, setting the Arthurian legend in a gritty, realistic depiction of Britain during the 5th century AD and based on the few historical accounts of the time that mention Arthur and/or the wars he may have been involved in. This is an excellent and challenging project, because Britain in 500AD was a nasty, poor place that doesn’t much resemble the settings of high fantasy at all, and of course it’s difficult to write an Arthurian story with a solid historical base and also incorporate the fantasy elements of swords in stones, druidic magic and ladies in the lake. Cornwell treads a nice line here, and negotiates a lot of complex story elements very well.

The story is narrated by the orphan Derfel, raised by Merlin and uniquely blessed because he survived a druid’s death pit when he was a child. Derfel goes from strength to strength over the three books and becomes a friend, ally and confidante of Arthur, who in this story is Uther Pendragon’s spurned bastard son. Derfel is writing the story from the vantage point of old age, and is simultaneously sad, cynical and romantic. He describes an epic set against three major political conflicts, and driven by the personal conflict Arthur suffers for his whole life. The political conflicts are the war with the Saxons, who are arriving in boats on the eastern shores of England at a high rate, and every year attempt to capture land from the British; the conflict between the British kings over petty issues of land, wealth and old grudges; and the conflict between pagans and Christians within England. The latter two conflicts are undermining the former, until Arthur takes charge and tries to unite all of Britain against the saxons. Unfortunately Arthur himself is riven with conflict: he wants peace, but he values oaths over personal ambition and will not betray the oath he made to Uther Pendragon to respect Uther’s son Mordred as king of all Britain. The conflict between Arthur’s different oaths, his own unwillingness to take the throne, and his personal demons is best described by Guinevere: she characterizes Arthur as a wagon led by the twin horses of ambition and conscience, and they won’t pull together. Thus the whole tragedy of Arthurian Britain is the story of Arthur’s attempts to navigate these three political conflicts while struggling with his own personal problems. In this sense it can seem like a classic exposition of the “great man” theory of history, but on another level it’s easy to see that almost none of Arthur’s decisions, ultimately, make much difference : he’s constantly negotiating the minefield of his allies’ and followers’ personal ambitions, their foolish mistakes and cunning schemes, and a variety of external disasters. This makes for a very rich and complex historical drama.

The problem of druidic magic and the conflict between druids and christians is also handled very nicely in the story. We repeatedly see situations where Merlin or his acolyte Nimue use magic, and we’re expected to believe it’s real and its effects are genuine; but at the same time it’s also clear that Merlin is a famous trickster, and many of the effects of magic either depend on the imagination of the targets, or could have occurred by luck. Merlin and Nimue’s greatest enchantments can easily be explained away through natural phenomena, but from the perspective of a 5th century warrior they are clearly powerful magic. This is a very cool trick, and Cornwell carries it off well through the central imaginative achievement of his book: he really gets you to believe that you reading about 5th century warriors. With the possible exception of Arthur and Derfel (see below), you really do feel like the characters you’re reading are superstitious, ignorant pagans, and their belief system and ideals, though radically different from ours, so you really get a strong impression of reading about a different world. This is a hard thing to achieve, since it means that at times Cornwell must have had to ruthlessly stamp out his own conscience and desire to feel sympathy with his characters, because from a modern perspective the people of 5th century Britain are a generally repulsive lot, and the world they have created is harsh and cruel. In making us believe this world, Cornwell had to be hard on his characters, but the result is a cultural milieu that is believably pagan, barbaric and superstitious, so that when Nimue enchants a badgers head and points it at her enemies you can really believe that it affects them, even if the magic is not real.

But this construction of an alternative world is also perhaps the biggest flaw of the book, for two reasons: the world itself is unpalatable, and I don’t believe Cornwell was able to extend it to include the narrator and the key character. I have complained elsewhere about the rape and violence in these “gritty,” “realistic” worlds and Cornwell’s world has this in spades. Essentially the practice of war is as follows: when you win a battle you kill all your enemy’s soldiers, then when you capture their families you rape all the women and anyone you don’t want to enslave you immediately kill. Before battle you must ritually insult and provoke your enemies, and a routine part of this process is a series of inventive promises about what you’re going to do to your enemies’ women. Throughout the story this process is repeated, and the threat of what will happen is constantly being raised in strategic discussion. Cornwell doesn’t handle this in some kind of salacious or erotic way: it’s a background fact of war, handled in planning (families are sent away, and battle tactics are designed to preserve them), accepted by all and sundry as a terrible thing but seen as the right of victors, always avenged when the chance presents itself, and not really sexualized at all. Also, as far as I could tell rape is not seen as a man’s right with strangers in peacetime, and there was no time when the threat of rape entered the story outside of battle, except in the issue of arranged marriages (there are many jokes, often cynical, about the fate of young women engaged to older men; but again it is seen as a sad fact of life and not eroticized). The overall effect of this is to build a very believable image of a world with completely different morals to our own, and it’s also clear that there are strong environmental pressures forcing some of this brutality: like lions, these primitive peoples don’t have the security of food supply that enables them to show mercy to the vanquished, and they have to murder their enemies if they want to guarantee that they can feed themselves. But regardless of realism and believability, it’s not nice, and for those of us who like to read stories for escapism and fun, reading a book that’s full of the constant threat of rape in war may not be your idea of a good way to spend a few hours of your downtime.

The other problem with this process is that, like most writers, Cornwell can’t extend this barbarity to his two main characters. In fact Arthur is very much a man out of time and place: he doesn’t believe in the gods, he sees all religious dispute as wasted energy, and he just wants peace. He is a renaissance man in the dark ages, and although this is as good an impetus as any for him to rise above the petty chieftains who surround him, it’s also kind of unbelievable. The same applies to Derfel: Arthur and Derfel are probably the only men in all of Britain who never raped a vanquished enemy’s wife and kids, and never cheated on their partners. Isn’t that convenient? After all, if they behaved like some of the men around them we probably wouldn’t want them to succeed, and wouldn’t be able to understand why they risked what they risked. I’m happy with this from a narrative perspective, but from the point of view of realism it’s a bit of a cop out. When, oh when, will someone tackle a realistic depiction of Arthur himself, in which he behaves worse than all his petty chieftains precisely because he’s an egomaniacal tyrant who united Britain only because he wanted to rule as many people as possible? When hell freezes over, I guess is the answer to that rhetorical question: no one would want to read about such an objectionable and unpleasant chap. When I think about things in this light I then start thinking that, well, if you could exempt our main characters from brutality, maybe you could have sanitized the rest of the world without losing anything…? In this case the world is so well constructed, and the brutality and bigotry and the hard-scrabble poverty serves so well to establish the backdrop to the superstition and the political chicaneries of the novel, that I am happy to read it and glad that Cornwell had the decency to elevate the narrator and Arthur above it – I consider it to be careful crafting. But the same process in the hands of a lesser author would lead to a novel that was simultaneously horrible to read, with completely unbelievable and fantastic lead characters. Well done Bernard Cornwell.

Another excellent aspect of Cornwell’s creation of this brutal and backward world is that, although he makes it clear that women are subjugated in this world, he doesn’t write them as second rate characters and he doesn’t rest on simple gendered caricatures when assigning women roles in his story. He even rescues Guinevere from the petty “yoko ono broke up the band” type of sexist depiction that is so tempting in this type of story, by grounding her reasons for her behavior in the sexism of her time. Sure, she’s the devious snake behind the throne, but we’re given to understand why she did this in the context of the choices available to a woman of her time, and to understand that actually her devious snake-iness would have worked for Britain if Arthur had not been so stupidly obsessed with his “man’s oath” to Uther. This sort of complex characterization enables us to enter a world of violence and misogyny and on the one hand to view the actions and choices of the people of the time from a modern perspective, without condoning them or interfering in the tapestry of the story; and on the other hand, to retain the classic elements of the story without investing them with their classic sexist theme. In his depiction of Guinevere, Nimue, Morgan, Ceinwyn and even Igraine (a bit part at best) we see women set firmly within the social confines of their time and place, but portrayed for the reader in a way that enables us to understand them through our modern sensitivities; the fabric of the story is not disrupted, but we’re able to interpret it with respect to our own morals as well as those of the time. This in my view is some very, very fine story crafting and saves the books from being a two dimensional neckbeard’s imagination of how  great it would be if all women were subjugated.

I have two other minor quibbles about this book. Sometimes Cornwell’s writing is a little clumsy, particularly his description of things and places, which can follow this kind of pattern: “he went to the [insert place], which was a [insert description] over the [insert second place] that swept down towards the [geographical feature] where [description of animals doing something] by the tower that was white.” A little pause in there somewhere would be nice! But in other parts of the novel (especially battles and conversations) the writing is really good, so it’s fine. My second quibble is an epidemiologist’s pedantry: Cornwell repeatedly falls for the fallacy of believing that a life expectancy in the ’40s means that people aged over 40 are rare, i.e. he confuses life expectancy and life span. A low life expectancy is usually driven by high infant mortality, and anyone who survives past their 5th birthday can be fairly confident of reaching their 60th, so people over 40 are not uncommon. But to his credit, Cornwell makes a point of mentioning infant and maternal mortality and working it into the background of the world, so that we fully understand how harsh the world is for women both environmentally and socially. Truly, when you enter his world you are submerged in it, and it is developed to such a fine level of detail that you really do understand the pressures and challenges of the 5th century setting.

Overall this series of books is very impressive: well written, beautifully crafted, tense, exciting and action packed, and accessible at multiple levels of interpretation. A must read for anyone who’s into low fantasy, Arthurian legend, or gritty fantasy, and an excellent introduction to Cornwell – I certainly aim to read a lot more of his work.