I finished reading the latest of Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom series last year and on the strength of my enjoyment of those books I decided to go back to his much earlier Warlord Chronicles series.
The three books in the series are a retelling of the Arthurian legend from the perspective of the Derfel, one of Arthur’s warlords and close friend and is told in retrospect from Derfel’s old age.
It is set in an England and Wales before an England and Wales existed. Instead, there are the kingdoms of the Britons in the west of the country including Dumnonia where Uther rules as high king. Arthur is his bastard son fighting across the water in Armorica and Broceliande in what is now Brittany and Normandy.
In Cornwell’s telling, Arthur is never king and neither does he wish to be. When Uther dies it is his infant son Mordred who is to succeed him and Arthur is sworn to protect the boy until he is old enough to take the throne.
The books focus on the growing threat of the Saxons in the east culminating in Mount Badon, the battle which took place around 500AD which checked the Saxon conquest of Britain for a generation. The remainder of the tale concerns the inevitable conflict between Arthur and Mordred.
But Derfel is the main protagonist with Arthur appearing less than you might imagine, nor do you get any great insight into Arthur’s character except through Derfel’s eyes.
The Britain of this tale is a grim place of raiding bands and sickness and sudden death. It is populated by the characters you would recognise from the legend although not as you know them. Merlin is well-intentioned but ruthless in his determination to bring the old gods back while Lancelot is a vain and treacherous coward who comes to a sticky end.
What surprised me was the difference in writing style between the two series. The Last Kingdom is fast-paced and punchy and quite an easy read while the Warlord Chronicles is wordier and far more descriptive in style. Whether this is because the former is better suited to a bestseller I’m not sure but the latter certainly requires more reading.
While I enjoyed the Warlord Chronicles it doesn’t pass my ultimate test which is: would I read it again? The answer is probably not but it is worth the effort if you have any interest in the events of Britain’s dark ages.