Wednesday, February 22, 2012

100 Books #16 - Bernard Cornwell's ENEMY OF GOD

Bernard Cornwell scoured pretty much all of the material that has been swept up and classified as Arthurian over the centuries and teased out something rather remarkable out of it: far from being the inspiration for the Quest for the Holy Grail, Arthur was pretty much the villain in a lot of the Lives of the early Celtic Christian saints "making more of them than God did" according to our narrator in this second volume of the Warlord trilogy.

I've mentioned already how much I like Cornwell's take on Arthur and his story, in which magic is coincidental and largely a matter of persuasion and belief and the courtly chivalry of a High Middle Ages, Normanesque hero-king is replaced by the brutal struggle to rebuild Britain after the Romans left its tribes to fend for themselves and its culture threatened with extinction by both the Saxon invasions and the spread of Christianity. Arthur here is not a king at all but a pagan warlord fighting to preserve a kingdom while the child who is its legitimate heir grows up.

It's all very powerful stuff, given focus through the quest undertaken by our narrator, the warrior-much-later-turned-Christian-monk Derfel Cadarn, to retrieve a cauldron that is one of the Thirteen Treasures of Britain from the Island of Mona, now in wicked Irish hands. With it, the druid Merlin insists he can get rid of both threats and create a new British golden age in which Britain is British and so are its gods.

But while the first volume focused mostly on the Saxon threat, here it is the Christians who are the villains, sheltering opportunists like Lancelot (who showily converts when it becomes clear he won't be initiated into the warrior brotherhood of Mithras) and eager to rid the world of pagans in time for the Second Coming in 500 A.D., whether by conversion or killing, it doesn't really matter which. I'm fine with this perspective, of course, no fan of any kind of religious absolutism, but I found myself wondering again and again as I read what kind of reception this book got in the greater world, where religious dogma is still an acceptable excuse for not thinking.

Of course my reading was colored very much by current events, in which political candidates purporting to be led by their faith are proclaiming that faith is all the reason they need to curtail my liberty and pen me up -- so from my perspective, Enemy of God came across as a very brave book, and also, which I've not mentioned yet, a very funny one, full of old soldier wit that comes at the expense of pagan and Christian alike (and Arthur himself isn't much of a pagan; he honors his culture and its rituals but expresses no belief in anything more mystical than the ability of a sword or spear point to draw blood and kill).

I look forward to the third volume, Excalibur, which I'll start on as soon as my tablet recharges -- not least because now I'm really wondering how it's going to come about that Derfel is going to become a monk, and not just a monk, but one in the monastery of Samsun, his arch-foe whom he and Nimue have nicknamed "the mouse lord."

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