Monday, March 31, 2008

Bernard Cornwell: A Man's writer

The cover blurbs on Bernard Cornwell’s books read “Perhaps the greatest writer of historical adventure novels today,” and frankly, you’ll get no arguments from me. I've come to love Cornwell, who is in every sense a Man's writer. There's no romance in these books and no literary pretension, so if you're looking for those elements, try something else. On the other hand, if you like bloody battles, cowardice and heroism, grim suffering and cruel murder, oath-making and breaking, hard drinking and mirth, and, most importantly, darned good storytelling, Cornwell's your man. His greatest strength is probably his ability to spin a compelling, fun tale, and he does it with a keen eye for historic accuracy.

Here are a couple of my favorite Cornwell works, both trilogies:

The Grail Quest trilogy is an ode to the might of the English longbow. Set during the Hundred Year’s War between France and England, the story follows Thomas of Hookton, an archer, through some of the great battles of the age, including Crecy, the sack of Caen, and the fall of Calais. The bows wielded by Thomas and the English archers are six feet in length with a draw weight of over a hundred pounds, more than double the weight of modern competition bows. And they’re terrifying, able to punch clean through mail, and sometimes plate, if fired close at a flat trajectory. Medieval warfare was changed forever by these big bows of yew, which rendered archaic the old knight on horseback. Captured English bowmen invariably had their draw fingers cut off by the French, who hated – and feared – the archers intensely.

Couple the great, historic battle sequences with the story of Thomas on his quest to find the Grail and restore honor to his family, and you’ve got yourself a terrifically entertaining, satisfying read.

The Warlord Chronicles (The Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur) are a three-part retelling of the Arthurian cycle. Unlike Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, with its dashing but anachronistic 14th-century knights in plate, Cornwell sets his tale in 5th century Britain, the age often ascribed to the “historic” Arthur.

Like the Grail Quest trilogy, the Warlord Chronicles is brutally realistic, and presents an unflinching, unromantic look at what really happens when spear and sword meet flesh. The filth and unsanitary conditions of the era are faithfully depicted, as are the clash of barbaric paganism and Christianity. Note that Cornwell is not sympathetic towards Christianity; while the pagans are depicted as coarse and willing to commit atrocities (human sacrifice, etc.) to honor their gods, Christians are portrayed as murderously intolerant and often pig-headedly stubborn.

Cornwell also tweaks (shatters might be a better term) some of the standard archetypes of the Arthur myth. Launcelot, for example, is a cowardly fraud. Merlin is a druid who draws his power from pagan gods. Cornwell also chooses to tell the tale through the eyes of Derfel, a character wholly of the author's creation who is nowhere to be found in Malory or T.H. White.

There’s not a single, overt show of magic in the series, and Cornwell’s deft hand as a writer makes its existence ambiguous--it could be real, or it could be mere belief. So strong was the power of faith in those times, that, when projected with someone of the charismatic force of Merlin, strong warriors could be rendered helpless, believing they were stricken blind or ill by a curse. But the undeniable magic is the courage of Arthur. You can’t help but marvel as he strives to bring order and some measure of peace to a savage, dark period of mankind’s history.

Overall The Warlord Chronicles are probably a best-bet for someone getting into Cornwell for the first time, particularly if you're a fantasy fan like me. I haven't read any of his Sharpe series, a long-running line of novels set during the Napoleonic wars for which Cornwell is probably the most famous, although they're supposedly fine books as well.

Currently I'm in the midst of The Saxon Stories, which recount the events of the rule of Alfred the Great and his struggle to free Britain from the grip of the raiding Danes, as told through the eyes of Uhtred, a young warrior born a Saxon but captured and raised by the Vikings. Uhtred is a fun character, as he's torn between hereditary love for his ancestral homeland and a passion for the Danes. Although they're murderous raiders, the Danes drink deep of life, scorn Christian "virtues" of humility and pity, and worship the pagan gods of Thor and Odin. These qualities appeal strongly to Uhtred, who grew to love the Danes during his capture and upbringing under Earl Ragnar. The battles in The Saxon Stories are damned bloody and very well-done, with men hacking and stabbing each other with swords, spears, and axes in great shield-walls.

Again, this series is highly recommended. Be a Man and read some Cornwell.

6 comments:

Badelaire said...

Zing! See my comments later on regarding Cornwell in the Lords of the North posting. I'm sorry I didn't see this post before commenting on the other.

Don't know if you have read anything by Stephen Hunter or not, but although his works are modern (well, mostly modern, a couple are set in the 50's), his stories carry the same sort of high-quality "Men's Adventure" feel as Cornwell's works. Hunter does movie reviews for the Washington Post, and he's not your "typical" movie critic - he actually likes "macho guys with guns" type movies.

Just a heads up if you have interest in modern action-type fiction with a similar feel.

Brian Murphy said...

Hey Badelaire, thanks for going back and reading (and commenting on) these old posts. I hope that you're enjoying The Silver Key, and I'll have to add Tankards and Broadswords to my own blogroll.

This is the first I've heard of Stephen Hunter and I'll have to check him out.

Badelaire said...

And thank you for replying to my comments! I hope I didn't bombard your Blog - I found it in the blog roll of another gamer's blog (I believe it was Trollsmyth) and dove right in. Good stuff! I've added TSK to my 'roll as well.

ahmed said...

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Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm new here, this is a really interesting site.

I'm a hu-uge Bernard Cornwell fan. I've read pretty much all the Sharpe novels, the Grail Quest, working my way through Uhtred's stories as they come out, Stonehenge ...

But my absolute favourites are the Warlord Chronicles. I'm an Arthur nut anyway, and Cornwell's interpretation of the legends is my absolute favourite version. I love Merlin (a more grouchy Gandalf), what he does with Mordred, Lancelot, Guinevere and Nimue, but the best thing he does is give the legends back to Arthur. There is a reason his name resonates throughout myth and history, and it's not because he held chivalrous tournaments and lived in a clean faux-medieval world. Cornwell creates a very sympathetic and believable Arthur, a man warriors would follow, a man who truly cared for his people and country, but was hard when he needed to be too.

I just wanted to point out that althuogh Cornwell may have created the personality of Derfel, that name is already associated with Arthur from the Welsh legends http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Derfel Like Ceinwyn and Sansum (boo hiss!), Amhar and Loholt, Gwydre Derfel has been mostly forgotten through the Geoffrey of Monmouth, Malory, White etc retellings of the legends. I like that Cornwell brought those names back to the fore.

Sorry - that was long!

Alison x

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Alison, thanks for the compliment about my site, and it's always great to hear from other Cornwell fans!

I had no idea Derfel was based on an historic figure, thanks for bringing that to light.