I wasn’t filled with longing to pick it up and continue reading, but every time I did I was given incredibly interesting theories and historical information. This was likely the most probable telling of the Arthurian legend that I’ve come across. The mythos of Arthur and Merlin and Excalibur and Camelot has always intrigued me, but it’s always remained in the realm of myth. For the first time in my life, I read something that convinced me of the possibility of Arthur’s existence. Not its likelihood, mind you, but its possibility, which is still an astonishing change for me regarding a myth.
Cornwell sets his tale in the 5th century, after the Roman occupation of Britain has ended. Saxons are invading and Britons are warring amongst themselves. This is a land of warring factions and a multitude of kings, and this is where Cornwell has planted his version of Arthur. Here, Arthur’s tale is told by Brother Derfel, an aging monk who wasn’t always a Christian. In his youth, Derfel was a pagan and a warrior who fought alongside Arthur. In the framework of Cornwall’s story, Derfel is writing out the true story of Arthur for Igraine, the young Queen over the realm that houses the monastery. Witnessing Arthur’s story from an eyewitness, and one who isn’t one of the names we’re familiar with, was a unique perspective. And trying to reconcile Derfel himself, the aging Christian monk and the young pagan warrior, is actually one of my favorite aspects of the novel. How radically people can change always intrigues me.
There were some people Cornwell portrayed here that were at complete odds with almost everything I’ve ever read or heard. Particularly, his representation of Guinevere and Lancelot. Even though they were pretty people, neither of them seemed to have much goodness within them. Guinevere here is a catalyst for war, much like Helen of Troy. I will never be able to fathom shattering a kingdom in the name of love, though I know it’s one of the most ancient of justifications for declarations of war. And Lancelot is just awful, though I’m still not sure how many of his failings are truth and how many are exaggerated through the eyes of our narrator. However, a hero he is not, though he knows how to twist events in the minds of poets to ensure his legacy.
The presentation of the Druid belief system was my other favorite aspect of this book. Their superstitions and “spell casting” were absolutely fascinating. And disturbing. I don’t think I’ve ever read another book that contained this much spitting. Or urine-flinging. Or cow dung as hair product. And the Druid’s view of the Christian interlopers, and the way those opposing faiths both widened the rift in their land and how the people banded together in battle in spite of those opposing faiths, was captivating. One of the main reasons I’ll be continuing the trilogy at some later date is to understand how Derfel transitioned from one faith to the other.
Even though I have a deep appreciation for both the story and Cornwell’s writing, I have to admit that I struggled reading this. It was just so dense. The information was interesting, for sure, but sometimes I felt so glutted by the outpouring of information that I couldn’t digest quickly enough to keep reading. Cornwell did an insane amount of research, and it really shows. I feel like I learned so much about the Druid faith and ancient Britain, but that learning sometimes overwhelmed the story. The book reminded me of some of the really amazing history books I read in college. Well written and fascinating, but too dense to read for simple enjoyment. Also, it felt a little like the vast majority of the book was either preparing for battle, engaging in battle, or the aftermath of battle. Which is fine, but is something I get really bogged down in.
If you love historical fiction, this is definitely the book for you. If you’re obsessed with Arthurian legend, you owe it to yourself to give this a read. And if you just can’t get enough of battlefields, I think I found your new favorite book.