The Winter King (novel)
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First edition (UK)
|Series||The Warlord Chronicles|
|Publisher||Michael Joseph (UK) & St. Martins Press (USA)|
|5 October 1995|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette)|
|Pages||434 pp (hardcover 1st edition) & 512 pp (paperback edition)|
|ISBN||0-7181-3762-0 (hardcover 1st edition) & ISBN 0-14-023186-2 (paperback edition)|
|Followed by||Enemy of God|
The book is based on characters and plot elements from the Medieval Arthurian myth, but considerably changed and re-worked to create a significantly different plot-line.
The novel is divided into five parts. It tells the story of how Arthur became warlord of Great Britain despite illegitimacy to the throne. After being banished to Armorica by his father High King Uther, Arthur returns to protect the new king, his nephew the baby Mordred. However, he once more is put in a precarious position when, on the cusp of a united peaceful Britain, Arthur runs out on his engagement to an enemy nation's princess. His decision to marry Guinevere instead plunges the island into war with everyone baying for his blood.
Part One: The Winter King
The Kingdom of Dumnonia is in chaos. The forces of Dumnonia led by the Edling (Crown Prince) Mordred and Arthur (the King's bastard) have defeated the Saxons at a battle beneath White Horse Hill, but at a terrible price. Prince Mordred was slain, leaving the Kingdom without an heir. Dumnonia's only hope is for Mordred's pregnant wife, Norwenna, to give birth to a son. High King Uther Pendragon blames his son's death on Arthur and exiles him to Armorica. Norwenna is in labor, and there are fears that she and the child may die. Norwenna, a Christian, has insisted that only Christian midwives be present. High King Uther, a pagan, finally loses patience with the midwives of the Christian God and summons Merlin's priestess Morgan to deliver the child. The pagan magic seems to work and a male child is born. It would seem the kingdom is saved. However, the child is born with a crippled leg, which is seen as a very bad omen. The High King dismisses the sign and declares that the son will be named after his father: Mordred.
Mordred and his mother are brought to Merlin's hall at Ynys Wydryn (Glastonbury), where she and the child are placed under the care of Merlin's priestesses, Morgan (Arthur's sister) and Nimue (Merlin's lover). Merlin himself has not been seen in Britain for many months. Derfel is one of the orphans at Ynys Wydryn adopted by Merlin, and is in love with Nimue. Nimue binds Derfel to her by scarring both of their hands and making Derfel swear that while he carries the scar, their lives are bound and he must obey her.
High King Uther summons a high council of the Kings of Britain at Glevum (Gloucester). Morgan is summoned to represent the still absent Merlin and Nimue joins her, accompanied by Derfel. The tension between the British kingdoms is made clear as King Gorfyddyd of Powys does not attend and King Gundleus of Siluria is tardy. Uther makes it clear that no man, other than his grandson Mordred, will sit on the throne of Dumnonia. Since Mordred is only a baby, he appoints three guardians (King Tewdric of Gwent; Owain, Champion of Dumnonia; and Merlin) and also a foster father to Mordred, who will marry the Princess Norwenna. Agricola, champion of Gwent, proposes Arthur, but the High King disowns Arthur as his son. King Gundleus is then appointed as Mordred's Guardian and marries Norwenna. After King Tewdric and Owain give their oaths as guardians, Uther asks Morgan if Merlin will give an oath. Morgan insists that Merlin will only take the oath if Arthur is appointed as a guardian, a demand Uther reluctantly accepts after Tewdric backs Morgan up.
After Uther dies Mordred, still only a baby, is pronounced King of Dumnonia. He is not High King because that title can only be given to a King accepted as Higher than the other British Kings. Nor is he the Pendragon, as that title is only given to a High King who wins his rank in battle. Following Uther's death, King Gorfyddyd attacks Gwent. Dumnonia and Siluria rush to the aid of Gwent. Shortly afterward, King Gundleus sends news of victory and announces he is coming to Ynys Wydryn to be with his wife. Morgan and Nimue tell Norwenna that Gundleus lied and that the war is not over. Norwenna does not believe them and makes ready for Gundleus's arrival. When Gundleus arrives, he kills Norwenna and Mordred. Then, in retribution for Nimue's curse, he rapes her and plucks out an eye. Derfel rescues Nimue and while escaping runs into Morgan, who has the baby Mordred with her. She explains that the baby that Gundleus killed was the baby of the child king's wetnurse.
The group flee with Gundleus in pursuit. As they reach the capital Caer Cadarn, Derfel joins Owain's army and prepares to join the battle against the Silurian army. Arthur appears with his horsemen during the battle and defeats Gundleus.
Part Two: The Princess Bride
In the aftermath of the battle Arthur imprisons Gundleus but treats him with respect as he is a King. Arthur is very observant of the customs of the nobility. Then, much to Derfel's displeasure, Arthur gives Derfel to Owain to train, explaining that he only employs horsemen. Under Owain's leadership, Derfel learns the realities of war. Owain is dishonest and seeks war for profit. While Derfel is with him he enters into an agreement with Prince Cadwy of Isca (Exeter) to massacre the tin miners of Kernow (Cornwall) who had been working in Dumnonia at Uther's invitation. Derfel is traumatised by the unwarranted slaughter, and as a result loses faith in Owain as a leader.
When Prince Tristan, Edling of Kernow, arrives in Dumnonia and demands recompense for the massacre, Owain blames an Irish raiding party. Arthur suspects Owain is lying and after speaking with Derfel, challenges Owain to resolve the matter in a court of swords, a battle to the death where the gods are called on to give victory to the truth. Arthur defeats Owain and assumes complete power in Dumnonia, he then takes Derfel into his service to spare him the vengeance of Owain's supporters.
Arthur wishes to end the civil war and unite the British Kingdoms against the Sais (Saxons). To do this, he enters into a peace treaty with Powys. He will return Gundleus to the throne of Siluria and then marry Ceinwyn, the daughter of Gorfyddyd. He travels north to Powys, where he is formally betrothed to Ceinwyn. However, when Guinevere enters the feasting hall, Arthur falls in love with her. He abandons Ceinwyn and marries Guinevere, destroying any hope of allegiance and plunging Britain back into civil war.
Part Three: The Return of Merlin
In the years following Arthur's marriage to Guinevere, Derfel grows into a great warrior and is given a second name, "Cadarn", which means "the mighty." Sagramor, Arthur's Numidian commander, initiates Derfel into the religious cult of Mithras, a Roman deity popular with soldiers. It is also at this time that Arthur receives a summons from the Armorican Kingdom of Benoic, to which he swore an oath to be the kingdom's champion. Unable to go himself, he sends Derfel with 60 men. Derfel is to join forces with Arthur's cousin Culhwch and to write to Arthur if more men are necessary. Before he leaves, Sagramor warns Derfel of the Edling of Benoic, Lancelot, saying he can be treacherous.
Upon arriving, Derfel is taken to Ynys Trebes (Mont Saint-Michel, France), the island capital of Benoic. There he meets King Ban. The King is upset when he learns that Arthur is not coming, but is delighted upon learning that Derfel is a literate warrior. King Ban shows Derfel the library of Ynys Trebes, which is overseen by Father Celwin, a foul-tempered priest investigating the wingspan of angels. Later, at dinner, Derfel meets Lancelot and the two take an instant dislike to each other. Derfel is only prevented from beating Lancelot senseless by the intervention of Galahad, Lancelot's half-brother. Galahad explains in private that Lancelot will not take defeat lightly and suggests that Derfel leave Ynys Trebes immediately. Derfel takes Galahad's advice and returns to shore accompanied by Galahad, who wishes to fight alongside him.
Derfel spends three years in Benoic and learns quickly that Lancelot's fearsome reputation has nothing to do with his prowess in battle and everything to do with paying poets to sing his praises. Derfel and his men begin a campaign to slow the Frankish advance. In this they succeed and become feared by the Franks. They start to call Derfel and his warriors "wolves" and Derfel and his men adopt this as their nickname and wear wolf-tail plumes on their helmets. However, their attacks on the Franks become like "a wasp attempting to sting a bull to death", and they are pushed back to Ynys Trebes where Lancelot has taken charge of defending the city.
After a council of war, where Lancelot insists that the Kingdom can survive within the city's wall as the city is self-sufficient, Derfel speaks to Father Celwin, who is forever irritable and has little time for small talk. Derfel explains his duty to defend the lives of the people in the city. Father Celwin responds: "Then I place my life in your hands." After several months under siege, the city falls. Lancelot is among the first to flee. As Derfel begins to escape the city he remembers the words of Father Celwin and returns to the palace, where they find King Ban resigned to his fate and refusing to leave the city. They find Father Celwin in the library frantically searching for a particular scroll and refusing to leave. As the Franks storm the palace, Derfel finally loses patience with him, screaming: "Come on you old fool!" To which Father Celwin replies: "Old, yes, Derfel, but a fool never!" as he reveals himself to be Merlin in disguise.
Merlin finds the scroll he was looking for, saying that it contains the knowledge of Britain. He then leads Derfel and Galahad out of the city, as he has already planned his escape. As they arrive in Dumnonia, Merlin promptly disappears again. Meanwhile, Derfel learns that Nimue has been declared dangerously mad and has been banished to the isle of the dead (Portland Bill). Derfel assumes that this is why Merlin has disappeared. Believing Derfel and his men to be dead, Lancelot has told Arthur and the Men of Dumnonia that despite his best efforts, Ynys Trebes fell and it was the fault of Derfel. Derfel arrives in time to hear this slander, declaring Lancelot a liar and challenging him to back up his story with his sword. Arthur calms the situation, claiming that in battle men are often mistaken.
Part Four: The Isle of the Dead
Derfel is rewarded for his service to Arthur and is declared a lord, but shortly after learns that Merlin has gone north, leaving Nimue on the Isle of the Dead. With the scar on his hand reminding Derfel of his duty to Nimue, he travels south to rescue her himself. When he arrives at the Isle he is warned by the guards that he is free to enter, but once inside he can never be released. He enters nonetheless and finds Nimue at the southern tip of the isle. She initially attacks him, but he clasps their scarred hands together and Nimue's wits return. As he returns to the entrance, he finds that Galahad and his men have followed him south to ensure that he could leave the isle.
In the months following this adventure, Derfel and Nimue become lovers. Nimue considers leaving Merlin and the path of the Gods, but realizes that life with Derfel is an impossible dream. Arthur meanwhile, is contemplating a final assault on Powys to end the war. To do that, he must ensure that the Sais, led by Aelle who calls himself the Bretwalda (Ruler of Britain), remain at peace, and only money can achieve that. On the advice of Nimue he makes enforced loans from all Christian and pagan shrines, an act which the Christians resent him for. Meeting with Aelle, Arthur negotiates three months of peace for the gold and information on how to capture the Powysian Stronghold of Ratae (Leicester).
With the Eastern border secure, Arthur marches his army north into Gwent where at Glevum he holds a council of war. At the council, Tewdric suggests letting the Powysians besiege Glevum, whereas Arthur wants to attack Powys at Lugg Vale. Meurig, the Edling of Gwent, then asks Arthur why they fight at all, since Gwent's only responsibility is to ensure Mordred gets the throne - not to protect Arthur. Galahad volunteers to travel north as an emissary to King Gorfyddyd to ascertain Gorfyddyd's intentions toward Mordred. Derfel accompanies him, although his presence in Gorfyddyd's hall provokes anger, since he is sworn to Arthur. Merlin then arrives and declares that Derfel is not to be harmed. Gorfyddyd fears Merlin and obeys. Gorfyddyd tells Galahad that he would adopt Mordred himself until he was old enough to serve as King. In private Merlin tells them that Gorfyddyd is lying and comments: "He has the brains of an ox, and not a very clever ox at that." Merlin says that Gorfyddyd will kill Mordred in order to fulfill his ambition of becoming High King.
During his time in Powys, Derfel meets Ceinwyn and falls in love with her. She has been betrothed to Gundleus in return for Siluria's assistance. Derfel tells her of Arthur's wish to marry her to Lancelot, whom he wishes to place on the throne of Siluria upon Gundleus's death to strengthen the alliance between the British kingdoms. Ceinwyn tells Derfel that she is tired of hearing of Arthur's weird flings and dishonorable unions. Derfel makes a declaration of love, to which she makes no reaction (save a comment to her aunt that she took great pleasure in all she heard, though apparently speaking of the harpist). Derfel then swears an oath to protect her, which she accepts.
Returning to Glevum, Tewdric refuses to commit his troops to the war as he accepts Gorfyddyd's assurance that Mordred is safe. Arthur, however, believes Merlin, and tries to persuade Tewdric to change his mind. Eventually Arthur gives up on Tewdric and marches north to confront Gorfyddyd alone.
Part Five: The Shield Wall
Derfel and his men undergo a night march to reach and capture Lugg Vale at dawn, ready to hold the position for when Gorfyddyd's main army arrives. The main army is led by Nimue, who has an uncanny ability to find her way in the dark. They succeed in taking the Vale and await Arthur there. Arthur arrives in time to destroy the vanguard of Gorfyddyd's army. He sends Galahad south in the hope that the men of Gwent will come and fight now that they know battle has begun. He then offers Derfel his unique armour so that Gorfyddyd's soldiers will think Derfel is Arthur, which will give Arthur the opportunity to spring a trap on the rear of Gorfyddyd's army and hopefully drive them into panic. Derfel accepts and Arthur rides off into position to spring his trap.
Derfel is first confronted by Valerin, who was betrothed to Guinevere before she ran off with Arthur. Valerin screams at Derfel, believing him to be Arthur, that Guinevere was a whore. Derfel cannot control his temper and fights Valerin. After killing him, Derfel finds a lovers' ring on his corpse with Guinevere's symbol on it, which he throws away. The battle then begins with Derfel's troops being forced further uphill, until Morfans, another of Arthur's Commanders, gives the signal for Arthur to attack. Arthur's charge destroys almost a third of Gorfyddyd's army but the king sees the danger in time to defend against it. Arthur's trap has failed. During a lull in the fighting, Galahad returns with the bad news that no-one from Gwent is coming except for perhaps a few volunteers. However, a handful of men from Kernow led by Prince Tristan do come. Tristan wishes to repay Arthur for fighting against Owain. As fighting resumes, Derfel and his men are beaten further back. Then battle stops once again as Cuneglas, Edling of Powys, offers them the chance to surrender. They refuse.
Before battle can recommence Merlin arrives. Being a druid, he can walk in safety anywhere. He commands both armies to cease hostilities because he needs all Britons to help him in his Quest for the Cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn. Gorfyddyd is furious that Merlin might destroy his chance of becoming High King. He refuses Merlin's requests and readies his troops again for battle. Merlin, turning to Derfel, informs him that the Black Shield Irishmen currently allied to Gorfyddyd would switch sides and give Arthur victory. Sure enough, as battle resumes, the Black Shields attack Gorfyddyd and give the victory to Arthur.
In the aftermath, Gorfyddyd is fatally wounded but uses his last breath to curse Arthur and declare Guinevere a whore. Arthur loses his temper and calls Gorfyddyd a liar and a thing of filth, challenging any man from Powys to defend their dead King's honour with their sword. None do. Cuneglas apologizes to Arthur for his father and swears an alliance will exist between Dumnonia and Powys against the Sais, bringing the civil war to an end.
Derfel and Nimue continue into the Powysian encampment and find Gundleus barricaded in a hut, protected by Tanaburs. Tanaburs threatens to unleash his most terrible curses on Derfel and tells him that he can show him his mother, but Derfel resists the druid's power and cuts him in half. Nimue then slowly tortures Gundleus to death, attaining vengeance for her rape and lost eye.
Characters in "The Winter King"
- Derfel Cadarn (Warlord Chronicles) – the narrator of the story, he began as one of Merlin's orphans and worked his way up to one of Arthur's captains and then to the title of lord. He is a disciple of Arthur and even though he sees Arthur's flaws, he recognizes greatness and knows that Arthur is the only hope for Britain.
- Arthur – the illegitimate son of King Uther, he believes that a leader's power comes from those he rules, not from the might of his own arm. "I learned that a king is only as good as the poorest man under his rule" (Cornwell, 321). He is more than a warlord; he is a politician and strives for widespread unity through peaceful ways such as marriages not battles. However, he is not opposed to fighting and is a smart, brutal warrior but has the bad tendency of trusting his opponents too much once the battle is done. . His mistress gives us insight into Arthur's character, "…Arthur will make his usual mistake of forgiving his enemies" (Cornwell, 334).
- Guinevere – Arthur's wife who aspires to be queen and on insists on everyone calling Arthur "Lord Prince" because it gives her a sense of power and prestige. She is a hard, ambitious woman who balances Arthur's optimism with her realistic view. "There have been many more beautiful women, and thousands who were better, but since the world was weaned I doubt there have been many so unforgettable as Guinevere… And it would have been better, Merlin always said, had she been drowned at birth" (Cornwell, 172). She carries herself with assurance and cares very little for others and only wants power and a high social status.
- Merlin – the old wizard who trained Arthur to be the type of warlord he is. However, even though he cares for Arthur more than most other people, Merlin really only cares about finding the lost Treasures of the Gods. He is desperately trying to bring back the old pagan religion and loosen the hold Christianity has over the people and doesn’t care about the people he could be helping instead. ""…if I find saving Arthur's life helps me find the Treasure, then be assured I shall come to battle. But otherwise?’ He shrugged, as though the war was of no importance to him" (356). His first allegiance is to the Gods and he won’t let anyone stand in his way.
- Mordred – crippled child King
- Nimue – another of Merlin's orphans who later became his priestess and his lover. She is also Derfel's childhood friend and first love. They grew up together and have always tried to take care of each other but Nimue starts to drift away as she goes through the trials and pains to become a priestess, such as getting raped and losing her eye then eventually becoming insane. But Derfel saves her from insanity because he promised to protect her even though her first loyalty must be to the Gods, they are friends and bonded by their twin scars.
- Uther – High King of Dumnonia, the Pendragon
- Morgan - Arthur's sister and also a priestess of Merlin. She is dreadfully lonely at the top taking care of Merlin's affairs while he is away. She was disfigured in the fire that killed her husband and so became a priestess but throughout the book she is slowly losing touch with the Gods which makes her even more jealous of Nimue than she ever was before. She is bitter and mean but there are reasons for her moods and she loves her brother deeply.
- Lancelot - The heir of King Ban of Benoic. He is very handsome and charismatic like other Arthurian stories but in The Winter King he is not the brave, loyal, and kind Lancelot that most people think of him as. Instead Sir Lancelot is a coward who lies about his role in battles and pays bards to sing about his heroic deeds that never actually happened. His mean nature extends even to his immediate family. He left his father to die when their castle was besieged and overthrown and blamed its fall on his half-brother Galahad. He has none of the good characteristics of Lancelot in earlier Arthurian books that helped to redeem him for his affair with Guinevere and so, in the first book at least, Lancelot is despicable through and through.
Themes in "The Winter King"
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- Love - There is the love between Arthur and Guinevere, the love Arthur has for his men and vice versa, the complicated love Derfel has for Nimue, and the unclear love between Merlin and Arthur. Love is great but often gets the characters into trouble. The passion Arthur has for Guinevere is the cause of Britain's inter-kingdom war and Derfel's love of Nimue is why he travels to the Isle of the Dead. These troubles, however, are what shape the characters into stronger and more rounded people. Love reveals both strengths and weaknesses in the characters such as when Arthur puts his love of Guinevere before the need of his kingdom and when Derfel finds his courage to save Nimue from the Isle of the Dead, where no one has ever gone before and returned. The only type of love that is not central in this book is courtly love. Courtly love is emphasized in most other Arthurian legends and books because it was so famous during the Middle Ages. Courtly love is defined as "Properly applied, the phrase l'amour courtois identified an extravagantly artificial and stylized relationship - a forbidden affair that was characterized by five main attributes" (Simpson).
- Religion - There is a lot conflict between the Christians and the believers in the old Gods, such as Merlin, Nimue, and Morgan. "…only one traveler dared challenge our authority, a fierce-bearded priest with his ragged following of wild-haired women" (42). Morgan and Nimue are Priestesses and Merlin is a druid, and so have no solid political ties to kingdoms and are allowed to travel across any boundaries. While Nimue and Morgan are loyal to Arthur, Merlin exercises his free will and is more concerned with bringing back the old religion by finding the Treasures of the Gods than supporting either side of the war. In most pagan religions there is reference to treasures of the gods and Davidson says "The tradition of the treasures of the gods is remembered among the myths of the beginning" (Davidson). There is not much detail given about these treasures in The Winter King but it is obvious that the religion war is dividing Great Britain in a different way than the war over kingship and the only way to restore paganism to its former glory is to find the ancient treasures. There are both pagans and Christians in every kingdom and they are splitting the nations apart from the inside because both are trying to gain political control Arthur's way of dealing with the tension is to support both religions.
- Might vs Right- Throughout the book, Arthur is trying to create a utopian society of peace and prosperity, right not might. He believes strongly in the idea that even though warriors have power doesn’t mean they should use it to dominate but instead use it as a tool to help the less fortunate. Instead those with power should use it to bring happiness and prosperity to his people. This idea has been around for centuries, as noted in a student essay on Bookrags "An old fable reflects the ideas of might vs. right, the mouse and the lion" (Might vs Right). Right is what matters most and so even though Arthur could be king, he fulfills his duty to protect the baby Mordred, heir to the throne, and keeps his title of Lord instead of taking over and becoming king. To keep Mordred safe he even fight King Uther's champion Owain and miraculously kills him despite Owain's superior size. Arthur keeps his word because it is right and so he uses his might to protect Mordred's title no matter what.
- Knight v. Warrior - According to the scholarly source Celtic Warrior, Legendary King, "[it is] know from archaeological and other evidence that their [enemy] advances were stopped for a time, and there was a period of relative peace for Britain. This could not have happened without a courageous and skillful military leader directing the opposition [Arthur]"(Lupack). In the article the author does not refer to Arthur as a king, yet as a "skillful military leader". Translate that into medieval words and one could say the same qualities of a military leader are reflected in the warriors in The Winter King. Compared to the definitive Arthurian story, Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'A rthur, there are no knights in The Winter King. Instead, with Cornwell, there are warriors. It can be inferred that Malory believes Knights should be chauvinistic, forceful and powerful. Cornwell portrays the opposite. In The Winter King, Arthur sarcastically describes what a warrior is, " If you’re a warrior and you want a man's daughter you take her; you want his land, you kill him; after all you’re a soldier…and he's just a poor weak man" (Cornwell 143). The warriors of The Winter King are less medieval; the harshness of Arthur's word emphasizes how Arthur perceives the expected qualities of a warrior to be distasteful and barbaric.
- Cornwell, Bernard. The Winter King. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995. Print.
- Davidson, Hilda R. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. 1st ed. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1988. Google Books. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.
- Lupack, Alan. World & I, Aug96, Vol. 11 Issue 8, p244, 10p, 5 Black and White Photographs; Reading Level (Lexile): 1340
Subjects: WINTER King: A Novel of Arthur, The (Book); CORNWELL, Bernard; BOOKS; CRITICISM
- "Might vs Right." Bookrags Student Essays (2000–2006): n. pag. Bookrags Inc. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.
- Simpson, David L. "Chivalry and Courtly Love." Chivalry and Courtly Love. The School for New Learning, 1998. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.
- 1995, UK, Michael Joseph ISBN 0-7181-3762-0, Pub date 5 October 1995, Hardcover
- 1996, United States, St. Martins Press ISBN 0-312-14447-4, Pub date May 1996, Hardcover
- 1996, USA, Thorndike Press ISBN 0-7862-0729-9, Pub date August 1996, Hardcover (Largeprint edition)
- 1996, USA, Gardners Books ISBN 0-14-023186-2, Pub date 31 August 1996, Paperback
- 1996, UK, Penguin Books ISBN 0-14-023186-2, Pub date 5 September 1996, Paperback
- 1997, USA, St. Martins Griffin ISBN 0-312-15696-0, Pub date 15 April 1997, Paperback
- 1997, USA, Audio Renaissance ISBN 1-55927-445-X, Pub date 15 April 1997, Audio cassette (abridged)
- 1997, USA, Books on Tape, Inc. ISBN 0-913369-79-9, Pub date 6 May 1997, Audio cassette (unabridged)