Friday, November 13, 2009

Rex Quondam Rex Futurus

I'm an admitted King Arthur nut. I've read Mary Stewart's books, T.H. White's classic The Once and Future King (including its oft-forgot final chapter, The Book of Merlin), and yes, even slogged my way through some of Malory's Morte D'Arthur. I own Boorman's Excalibur, which is a mostly excellent film, and even "borrowed permanently" Dad's copy of the 2004 film King Arthur.

I still have to read Marion Zimmer Bradley's stories, but Mists of Avalon is near the top of the To Read List.

Having hopefully established my bona fides, I can say without reservation that the best Arthur stories I have ever read or seen remain Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles, three books consisting of: The Winter King, Enemy of God, and Excalibur.

Cornwell is a consistently fantastic writer. His stories are vividly descriptive without being flowery; poignant without ever dipping into sentimentality; and sheer, visceral, rollicking good fun without ever turning campy.

I have read many of his other books, which are all good, but the Arthur books in my humble opinion are a cut above the rest. In these tales, Arthur is the king in all but name; Mordred is not his son but rather his half-brother; Lancelot is a gutless, manipulative, vain, back-stabbing, power-hungry cad; and the narrator and unabashed hero of the saga is a Saxon-born man named Derfel, raised by Merlin.

All three stories are thrilling, gripping adventures. If you've never read Cornwell before, his bread and butter is his ability to draw realistic battle scenes. Cliche as this is going to sound, you feel like you're standing in the shield wall with Derfel as the barbaric Saxon hordes, outnumbering Arthur's men by the thousands, charge. Life, even outside of the battlefields, can be nasty, brutish, and short, to steal a phrase. His characters are real people, heroic, flawed, often well-intentioned, and fighting to carve out a happy existence.

I can't recommend these three books enough. I consider them one of my two favorite trilogies, the other being Adrian McKinty's kick-ass Dead Trilogy, which I've posted about before.


Nathanael Green said...


Thanks for the recommendations! I've always been a big fantasy reader, though I've somehow had a very shallow background with King Arthur. So I'm right now writing Cornwell into my list of soon-to-reads (pause ...) ok, done.

As far as there is a standard, original story of Arthur (debatable, I'm sure), how close would you say Cornwell's pieces adhere to the established mythology?

seana said...

Brian, you're putting Cornwell's trilogy above T.H. White? As you know, I love White's take on Arthurian legend, so that's a pretty high bar.

marco said...

What about Monty Python and The Holy Grail?
Though King Arthur is so last Century. The Mabinogion and its reinterpretations are the real cool kids celtic fantasy Epic of choice.

Brian O'Rourke said...


It's really difficult to say how much Cornwell's books adhere to the established mythology for the very reason you suggested. The mythology is so vast and so varied, that it's reached the point where one can't rightly say, "Oh, THIS is the proper story of Arthur."

These three books have elements of fantasy in them, but they're very much grounded in reality. And that's one of the reasons I enjoyed them so much, because Cornwell was able to blend those two things together. The magic always feels real, if that makes any sense.

Brian O'Rourke said...


Admittedly, it is a bit unfair of me to compare many of these works because they're trying to acoomplish very different things.

White's book is wonderful as well. And I've reread The Book of Merlin more times than I care to count at this point. The Once and Future King is more an exploration of power, the abuses of power, and other philosophical concerns, set in a fantastical world (where Merlin ages backwards!). Whereas, Cornwell's books are more about gritty story-telling, where these famous characters are deconstructed (to use an overused word) and made flesh and blood. Cornwell is more interested in entertaining his readers, I think, though these stories have a deeper resonance as well, for they turn the Arthurian legend on its head.

Brian O'Rourke said...

Marco -

Ah, forgot to mention Monty Python. Love that movie.

What's the Mabinogion? That's new to me.

seana said...

Marco neglects to say that though it may be undergoing a resurgence, interest in the Mabinogion was last century also. Evangeline Walton is the name I've heard as a Cornwell/White style of reteller.

No, I figured Cornwell would go for a kind of 're-enactment' point of view. It will be fun to read these books, once I clear a space in the schedule for them.

"Camelot" anyone? I jest, except that that and some Disney movie about The Sword in the Stone is where I and my sisters came into the saga.

And yes, it is a saga, open to the interpretation of, well, anyone who cares to interpret it.

White's is fantastic, though.

adrian mckinty said...

Hey, remember this bit in Excalibur?

marco said...

Wikipedia is your friend

Evangeline Walton, yes, but the various myths/stories/characters have inspired many modern adaptations and retellings, for example Alan Garner's The Owl Service.

There's also the comic series Camelot 3000 drawn by Brian "Watchmen" Bolland, and I'm sure there are a few "King Arthur in space" sci-fi novels.

Brian O'Rourke said...


Oh I forgot all about The Sword In The Stone! Loved that movie as a youngster, and I think I've got a VHS copy of it somewhere. I'll have to bust that out when Baby Girl is of age...

Brian O'Rourke said...


One of the many great bits in that flick! It's weird to see Patrick Stewart that young too, though he looks pretty much the same. Which would make sense, because he's a fitness nut apparently.

Brian O'Rourke said...


Wikipedia is not my friend. As I posted before, wikipedia is responsible for this blunder.

By the way, it's been at least 1500years since Arthur died. I wonder when he plans on returning. I'm putting my money on Jesus coming back first.

Nathanael Green said...


Thanks again for the recommendation. I just finished Cornwell's The Winter King and loved it. I lost sleep because I couldn't help but devour it at all hours of the night.

I thought Cornwell did exceptionally well at delivering a broad scope with some condensed time and events while still keeping a close point of view.

Also, I thought the characters were really well drawn, especially some of the antagonists.