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The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell

The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell
Book Name: The Winter King
Author: Bernard Cornwell
Publisher(s): St. Martin's Griffin (US) Michael Joseph Ltd (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Release Date: April 15, 1997 (US) October 5, 1995 (UK)

If you want your Arthurian legend splattered with mud and blood, read The Winter King by Bernard Cornwell.

I love Arthurian tales for the nobility, the tragedy, the love that destroys, the love that heals, and the heroism that fades into the mists with a promise to return. In the superb rendition Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley gives the woman’s perspective of the myth. She explores the mysteries of the goddess: the maiden, the mother, and the crone. This is apt, since the reader will have taken a step closer to becoming a crone after the time spent finishing such an epic tome.

The Winter King approaches the tale of Arthur from another angle: that of a sword point. Renowned historical-fiction writer Bernard Cornwell has no patience for faerie tales of knights in shining armor. He writes of blood-soaked warriors, of bravery, of cowardice, of rape, and damning vows of love. Here, magic may just be force of personality. Fanatics of A Game of Thrones would do well to fire up their Kindle and taste test a few chapters.

The novel begins with a convention of historical fiction, a frame story. A once-feared warrior now battles arthritis in a monastery. He defies his superior priests to entertain Queen Igraine with a tale of Arthur the Warlord, the Enemy of God.

The bastard-born Arthur refused to seize the crown from the Pendragon’s true son, Mordred. The warriors disliked Prince Mordred from the moment he was born with a club foot. To protect her baby from murderous intrigue, the queen took him to the house that Merlin built. Though the druid himself had not returned to his holy lands in years, his protégée, Nimue, helped maintain the rituals.

Nimue enchanted the young narrator with her strength and feral beauty. They exchange scars in a blood pact, binding him into her service. Together they save the baby prince when a rival king comes with a dagger hidden under a truce banner. Even after the vicious king cut out Nimue’s eye and destroyed her beauty, the narrator kept his troth with her. When her power maddened her, it was the narrator who sought her out on the Isle of the Dead.

The protagonist commended himself to Arthur by revealing another king’s abuse of his mine workers. Arthur was a man ahead of his time, wanting rule of law in a land where blades reigned. “I learned,” he said, “that a king is only as good as the poorest man under his rule.” A brilliant tactician, Arthur inspired his warriors with his ferocious energy for everything they love, from horses to farming. His greatest flaw was how he forgave his enemies. His greatest mistake, loving Guinevere.

The Merlin wished she had been drowned at birth. From the overwhelming Guinevere to the irreverent Merlin, Bernard Cornwell reinvents the classic characters as both bigger than life and tragically human. In this tale of warriors, the true villain could only be a coward. His name was Lancelot.

Lancelot commanded but one army, that of poets. They sang of his bravery while the protagonist and his brother Galahad did the fighting. Lancelot wielded panache as deftly as Galahad handled his blade. The bravado of Lancelot trapped his people in an indefensible siege, and when the walls fell, he fled to Arthur and claimed the narrator’s cowardice had lost the battle.

Though an unsung warrior in the tale of Arthur as we know it, the narrator knew his way around a shield wall. Otherwise, he would never have earned the right to join the warrior cult of Mithras. In Arthurian tales, religions vie for dominance. The Merlin sought to restore the mysteries of Britain, while priests fought to earn respect for their church. People struggled not only for their lives but the survival of their beliefs. Later in the series, even the cult of Osiris infiltrates the court.

The Winter King begins a trilogy of the Warlord Chronicles, or more simply, the Arthur Books, and in total they challenge The Mists of Avalon in length. So powerful is the story of Arthur battling the Saxons that I can recommend these novels even though readers already know the ending. I can say that of precious few other books.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I see the fey lanterns lighting in the woods. I must slip on my dancing boots and be gone.



  1. I’ve always loved the Arthur legend, but most tellings have focused on a style that – at the time it is alledgedly set – there were no knights, no castles and do heroic Christian quests. Here Cornwell sets the tale well and truely in the dark ages. Its been a scant few hundred years since the Romans left Britain, the land is torn by petty kings and constant wars. With this as a backdrop Cornwell weaves his tale, told through the eyes of a lowly boy, who grows to manhood and earns the honour to be called a warlord and fight beside Arthur.

    Its bloody and gritty. Don’t expect chivalry or knights. Brilliant series, and if you love this then you have to pick up his Saxon stories set during King Alfred’s reign (there be vikings, what more do you want?)

  2. Wow, best Arthurian tale, over Once and Future King? Over Mary Stewart’s books? There have been a lot of good Arthurian tales, so that’s a pretty strong endorsement!

  3. Avatar Davieboy says:

    This is a great , great series of books. I came to it as a fan of Cornwell’s Sharpe series and was just blown away. If I hadn’t read this series I probably wouldn’t have read Game of Thrones, which I found as a recommendation for fans of Cornwell’s series. This in turn led me to all the great current fantasy series out there (Abercrombie, Lynch, Mark Lawrence etc). Thanks Bernard!

    And imagine my delight when Richard Sharpe became Eddard Stark!

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