Just as I expected (let’s face it—I’m always right, and it sucks) we had snow on the ground this morning. I can’t describe it as a blanket of snow. More of a sheet, with a low thread count. But it was white, and it’s not what we want to see in April (though we do, we always do). Most of it melted in the sun today, though the temperatures stayed below freezing. Tomorrow will be a little warmer, but it will be slow warming up. Easter, I think, will be about fifty.
Dave Alpern sent me Bernard Cornwell’s three Arthur books to read. I’d been thinking about reading the books, since I really like Cornwell as a writer (I especially enjoyed his seafaring thrillers, which he’s given up on because they didn’t sell). But I hesitated with these because I’ve become leery of all contemporary treatments of the Matter of Britain (reasons to follow).
Everybody, it seems, wants to write about Arthur, and some very good stuff has been done. I’ve thought about doing it myself, though it would mean trying to master a whole new cultural idiom. Stephen Lawhead did a series that pretty much accomplished what I meant to try (probably better than I’d have done it), so I figure, why bother?
Not that Lawhead entirely succeeded. I don’t think anyone has succeeded in writing a great Arthur novel since T. H. White. Since White everybody tries to set Arthur in his proper historical period. That’s fertile ground, and yet… no novel ever seems to achieve the promise.
When I read Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’Arthur, or any of the earlier Arthurian material, I feel as if, from time to time, I get to peek through a spy hole in a theater curtain, looking at a great drama being performed. I can only see bits of the action and hear scattered words of dialogue, but it looks like a great play. Modern attempts to retell the Arthur story always look to me like attempts to reconstruct that hidden play, but they never live up to my hopes.
That said, Cornwell’s The Winter King (first of a trilogy) is pretty good.
Cornwell’s Arthur is not a king, but a “warlord,” regent for a king who’s still a small boy. This agrees well with the (meager) historical record, by the way, since our earliest reports of Arthur never call him a king. Also authentically, his primary concern is defending Celtic Britain from the inroads of the Anglo-Saxons. His primary challenge is the disunity of his own people, a situation he himself makes worse when he breaks an oath to a neighboring king. Real tragedy is at work here, in the classic sense where a man means to do good but is frustrated by his own passions.
The narrator is Derfel, a Saxon by birth and a former slave, who rises to become one of Arthur’s lieutenants. Derfel is a sympathetic voice, a deeply feeling and compassionate man, yet a great warrior, who writes the story in a monastery in his old age.
It was the religious element that made me wary of these books. The second volume is called The Enemy of God, after all, and that accords with some of the earliest accounts of Arthur in books of saints’ lives. Arthur seems to have had a bad reputation with the church. It’s been speculated that he appropriated church treasures to pay for his campaigns. There’s much opportunity here for an author with an anti-Christian axe to grind.
I wasn’t entirely happy with Cornwell’s treatment, but it could have been much worse, and I can’t pretend it lacks historical probability. Cornwell’s Arthur is a man of no particular religion in a Britain divided between Christians and heathens. The wars are not religious ones, and any given kingdom or army is mixed. One Christian priest is pictured pretty negatively, but other Christians look good (though it seems to me they are treated more sympathetically in reverse proportion to their orthodoxy).
On the other hand, Cornwell does not, as so many do today, gloss over the ugliness of heathenism. His Druids, even the friendly ones, are dangerous and half crazy, and their rites and ceremonies are bloody and ugly.
Merlin is presented as a Druid. He’s amusing, and reminds one of Gandalf, if Gandalf were utterly amoral and ruthless. He’s on Arthur’s side here, but everyone knows that that’s only because he finds Arthur useful. If Arthur becomes inconvenient to him he’ll throw him away like a small animal whose guts he’s divining from.
Cornwell doesn’t stick strictly to historicity. Later accretions like Lancelot and Camelot are included without apology.
As in any Cornwell novel, the battles are well thought out and vividly described. The end is extremely satisfying, but you know there’s more coming. Fortunately there are two more volumes.
I liked it a lot. It was as good as any Arthur book I’ve read, since White. It may even be the best since White.