Saturday, 24 March 2007

The winter king by Bernard Cornwell

The winter king by Bernard Cornwell

‘The Times’ review quoted on the back cover uses the phrase “spellbinding realism”, and I think that is apt. Cornwell has ploughed a new furrow in historical fiction, by covering a period virtually untouched: the so-called ‘dark ages’ between the withdrawal of the Romans (410 AD) and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon civilization in the 7th Century. (Some people erroneously think of the dark ages as extending to 1066 – a false view of history). These are called the dark ages due to the scarcity of textual or archaeological evidence.

Cornwell (of the Sharpe novels) gets us imaginatively under the skin of life in those times, focusing on the Romano-Celtic kingdom of Dumnonia in the south west of England, fighting desperately against the Welsh and the advancing Saxons. The story is kept moving, and is compelling and believable. Yet it is mixed with vivid descriptions of battles, magic, love and daily life. The author has had to fill in many details from the sparse historical evidence from his imagination, and succeeds with a gold medal.

This is an Arthurian novel, so in this respect it follows a long tradition The ‘winter king’ is Arthur, but not the romantic figure from medieval romance, but a realistic Celtic warrior defending the kingdom, as told from the viewpoint of Derfel, one of his leading soldiers. Characters such as Merlin and Guinevere are brought in – but again believable and solidly drawn characters. For those who love the aura of those distant, tough times (as I do) this is an attractive novel. It will appeal also to those who like ‘The lord of the rings’, though it has no dwarves, elves or orcs.

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