The Warlord Chronicles
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The books have been published by Penguin and Michael Joseph in the United Kingdom and by St Martin's Press in the United States, in hardcover and paperback editions, each with different ISBNs.
Books in the trilogy
- The Winter King ISBN 0-14-023186-2
- Enemy of God ISBN 0-14-023247-8
- Excalibur: A Novel of Arthur ISBN 0-312-18575-8
Treatment of legend and history
Once upon a time, in a land that was called Britain, these things happened ... well, maybe. The Warlord Trilogy is my attempt to tell the story of Arthur, 'Rex Quondam Rexque Futurus', the Once and Future King, although I doubt he ever was a king. I suspect he was a great warlord of the sixth century. Nennius, who was one of the earliest historians to mention Arthur, calls him the 'dux bellorum' - leader of battles or warlord.—Bernard Cornwell
Like other "historical" takes on the Arthurian legends, the series postulates that Post-Roman Britain was a difficult time for the native Britons, being threatened by invasion from the Anglo-Saxons in the East and raids from the Irish in the West. At the same time, they suffered internal power struggles between their petty kingdoms. Like Marion Zimmer Bradley in her novel The Mists of Avalon, Cornwell also presumes considerable friction still occurred between the old Druidic and other pagan religion and Christianity at this point in time (as he admits in the afterword of the first book, this angle was determined more by personal preference rather than third-party historical assessments).
The story is written as if it took place in Dark Age Britain as described in the original Welsh legends, with appropriate types of technology, culture, warfare, and attitudes. Cornwell also weaves later additions such as Merlin and Lancelot into the plot.
The protagonist of the series is Derfel Cadarn (pronounced Derv-el), based on the part-legendary Saint Derfel. Cornwell's Derfel is a Saxon brought up as a Briton by Merlin, the greatest of all Druids. In the course of the story, he becomes a great warrior and one of Arthur's lieutenants in his war against the Saxons. Merlin, meanwhile, concerns himself with trying to restore the old gods of Britain. Other characters from the Arthurian mythos are given significant and memorable twists. For example, Lancelot, always portrayed as the most virtuous and the mightiest of Arthur's knights, here is depicted as an arrogant, cowardly and ultimately self-serving petty prince, whose legendary feats and martial prowess are crafted through the songs of the bards and a fictional reputation that he himself carefully cultivates. Sagramor is a Hungarian prince in the Lancelot-Grail Cycle, but is depicted here as a Numidian veteran of the old Roman Army who joined Arthur's service after the collapse of the Empire. Cornwell portrays of Merlin as a lecherous, driven, mischievous and irreverent druid.
Also interesting is his solution to the problem of integrating the magic of the Arthurian mythos in the context of historical fiction: he leaves room for the reader to take the "magic" depicted in the story at face value or to interpret it as a mixture of coincidence, psychology, primitive technology and illusion which prays on the superstitions, religious fundamentalism and intolerance of the time.
The Warlord Chronicles has been acclaimed for both its storytelling qualities and its accuracy in portraying contemporary life. Cornwell himself has said, "I have to confess that of all the books I have written these three are my favourites."
Isis Audio Books have also published unabridged recordings of all three novels, read by Edmund Dehn. Penguin Audiobooks published abridged versions of the three novels, read by Tim Pigott-Smith