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.