Sunday, March 4, 2012

100 Books #20 - Bernard Cornwell's EXCALIBUR

With this third and final book of Bernard Cornwell's Warlord trilogy, the jig is up: the warlord these chronicles are really about is narrator Derfel Cadarn, the Saxon-born spearman in Arthur's British armies who rises to equal and in some ways surpass Arthur in terms of military prowess, wisdom, the attainment of domestic (if not marital) happiness and pretty much every other way but actual fame. And the fame given to Arthur is really kind of given to him by Derfel, in these novels, to whose lot it  has fallen in his waning years to write what he hopes is the definitive chronicle of the British-Saxon standoff in which both men are supposed to have been instrumental -- a chronicle that sets the record straight, he maintains, that demystifies and de-romanticizes all the tale's principal figures without diminishing their importance or their worth.

Except for that of Derfel himself, too modest, we are led to understand, to make much of his own achievements, which, he insists, are nothing beside those of his charismatic hero, Arthur.

Much of the action in this final book centers on a legendary battle, that of Mount Baddon, or Mons Badonicus, to which Arthur is supposed to have managed to rally most of the kingdoms of southern Britain to make a stand against a pair of invading Saxon hordes, one of which is headed by none other than Derfel's father, Aelle. The build-up to this battle is a bit agonizing; some 75 pages go by before the shield walls clash, but within that slow burn is an extraordinary accomplishment: Derfel, and by him, Cornwell, made me like Guinevere. This has never happened before!

All of the major themes and ideas of the series are tied together here quite satisfyingly -- the conflict between the native Celtic paganism and the new Christianity (which is early Celtic Christianity, the pre-Elviran kind in which bishops still married and anyone they said was a saint, was a saint, and so on), the encroachment of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes that so changed the landscape and language of Britain, the power of oaths and the importance of kings as the embodiment and ultimate engine of all those oaths, the difference between remembered truth and romanticized history and myth -- all come into play as everything falls apart for faithful Derfel and idealistic Arthur, ambitious Guinevere and patient Ceinwyn, pure-hearted Galahad and fierce Sagramor and all the rest with whom one has spent over 900 pages and most of a lifetime. It's all so wonderfully melancholy. After all, all this Arthur ever wanted was "a hall, some lands and friends about him," * and that's very close to exactly what he never really got.

Indeed lot of reviewers have complained that this final book in the trilogy is a bit of a let down, the characters diminished or altered beyond recognition, the tone bleak and forboding, the fit with the other two books poor, but I ask what we could reasonably expect of a book detailing the decline of Arthur and his companions into old age and misery and illness and loss and defeat? Were they to remain heroic and awesome to the bitter end, that would betray the spirit of the legend, which is as much about this decline as in the flowering of Arthur and his knights of ladies, no matter what details one cares to incorporate or ignore. Every mythic golden age takes on its tarnish, that it might become something that can reasonably be thought to lead to our present in which it is celebrated.

So yes, Excalibur is a bittersweet book, but I was ready for that, and am anyway once again impressed with all of the rethinking Cornwell has done while still preserving the broad outlines of the mythology we know and love. So here, for instance, we have Nimue's betrayal and imprisonment of Merlin, rendered into a far more powerful and wrenching tale (indeed, rather horrifying, the scenes depicting this being some of the most vivid and memorable of the entire trilogy) than any mere story of a pretty lady luring him into a tree. Her reasons for doing so are compelling and terrible and utterly understandable, even if we don't share Derfel's love for her.

In addition to these amazing reinterpretations of Arthurian myth, these books have also given a fascinating look at Dark Ages, post-Roman British (especially Welsh) culture. I am no expert on same, so cannot pronounce on the historical accuracy here, but I can say that it feels right and plausible and while I'm pretty glad I didn't live then, I wouldn't mind visiting for a bit, or should I say, just for a spell. But then I would need to come back to our time to take a shower. Or two.

I hate to see this series end, but am also kind of glad, because now I'm finally free of its spell and can move on to all of the other books I have ready to go, you know?

But yes, I cried at the end.

*Which is all any sensible person wants, really, no?

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