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Saturday, January 30, 2010

ENEMY OF GOD BY BERNARD CORNWELL (REVIEW)


Enemy of God by Bernard Cornwell
New York: Saint Martins Press
$24.95 397 pages


“All kings lie. No kingdom can be ruled without lies, for lies are the things that we use to build our reputations. We pay the bards to make our squalid victories into great triumphs, and sometimes we even believe the lies they sing to us.”
-Arthur, Enemy of God

Several years ago, when I was reading everything I could find about mythical figures such as King Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere, Tristan, Iseult and Galahad, I blundered on the works of a Romanian philosopher named Mircea Eliade. Eliade was also obsessed with mythology and one of his most famous essays, “The Eternal Return,” entertained the idea that all of the stories of legendary heroes and tragic lovers are still with us. However,
the story’s basic elements (culture, physical characteristics, sex etc.) are constant changing. For example, the story of Tristan and Iseult could have been repeated last week in a Greek fishing village with Iseult is a waitress, Tristan might be an African fisherman and King Mark may operate a local grocery. Eliade thought that all of the great myths served as “ eternal templates” that were repeated endlessly throughout all time.

Bernard Cornwell has an interesting variation on Eliade’s theory. Instead of creating colorful alternative versions in different times and places, Cornwell radically alters the original story. In Enemy of God, not only is Arthur not a king, he has no desire to become one. Sir Lancelot, instead of being a courageous warrior and Queen Guinevere’s devoted lover, is a cowardly, vain and devious snake who plots Arthur’s death. Cornwell’s Guinevere is arrogant, ruthless and selfish - almost the opposite of the traditional virtuous wife who regrets her adultery, but is incapable of giving up Lancelot.

As a consequence, Cornwell’s treatment of the Arthurian legend is filled with unpleasant surprises and revelations. There is no round table, nor does Arthur preside over a kind of parliament of courageous and devoted warriors. Instead, England is ruled by a multitude of contentious warlords, each with their own petty holdings. Although there are alliances and blood-oaths, they are frequently broken as the warlords shift positions and loyalties in order to increase their own power and holdings.

Enemy of God, like The Winter King, is narrated by Derfel Cadarn, an aging monk who was once Arthur’s favored warrior. In fact, Derfel not only emerges as Arthur’s biographer, but quickly becomes a dominant character in this complex and violent epic. Also, it is through the narrator’s eyes that 5th century England comes alive. At this point, England is a land filled with the relics of the old Druid culture, nearly destroyed by the Romans who had built marble temples, impressive roads and stone buildings. Now, the Romans have vanished and roving bands of Saxons, Irish warlords, Druids and fanatical Christians struggle to claim the war-torn country.

Enemy of God contains (at least) six major themes. (1) Merlin’s quest for a mythical Cauldron which will enable him to summons the “Old Gods of England” and re-establish the ancient order that existed before the Romans came; (2) Derfel’s love for Ceinwyn, Princess of Powes, who has been promised to King Lancelot, (who becomesDerfel’’s most hated enemy); (3) the tragic tale of Tristan and Iseult, two lovers who flee King Mark’s kingdom (Mark is Tristan’s father in this version); they seek refuge with Arthur; (4) the growing treachery of Lancelot, including his plot to kill Arthur; (5) Arthur’s prolonged attempt to make Mordred, the crippled grandson of King Uther, the rightful King of Camelot; and (6) the rise of the fanatical Christians who have branded Arthur as the “Enemy of God” and are dedicated to purging England of pagans.

As these varied episodes unfold, Cornwell does a masterful job of creating an atmosphere fraught with superstitious omens and prophecy. Although there is little magic in Cornwell’s ancient England, the little that remains is impressive. Early in the novel,Merlin and his assistant, the one-eyed Nimue, announce the following harbingers of disaster: a sword shall rest on the neck of a child; a king who is not a king shall rule; the living shall marry the dead; and the lost shall come to light. With a growing sense of dread, Derfel moves from revelation to revelation, knowing that one or more of these prophecies will alter his own fate.

Cornwell’s second novel presents Arthur’s “united” kingdoms as a deception. Beneath the surface of brotherhood and love lies a tangled knot of lies and betrayal. What gradually becomes apparent is that each of the major factions (Merlin, Arthur and the Christians) has a hidden agenda. The struggle for control of England will be between Merlin of Avalon who is committed to the ancient and mystical world of the Druids; Arthur’s dream of a reign of peace which will unify England under a single ruler (Mordred); and the Christians who believe that paganism will be driven out of England and their God and the church will be established after Christ’s anticipated return (500 A. D.).

Although Arthur’s proposed “Camelot” appears to be winning in Enemy of God, Derfel perceives the inner corruption that is undermining everything and repeatedly attempts to warn Arthur. He only succeeds in alienating his family and himself from Arthur’s protection. The prophecy regarding “a sword resting on the neck of a child” presages a treacherous attack on Derfel’s family, and it becomes increasingly obvious that Mordred, the devious, crippled child/king, will prove to be “a king who is not a king.” Certainly, the most bizarre prediction proves to be the one involving Lancelot’s “marriage” to the corpse of Mordred’s mother in order to become the “rightful heir to the throne.”

Between the rituals involving Merlin’s legendary Cauldron, the sexual orgies associated with Guinevere’s cult of Isis and the Christian ceremonies that promote self-flagellation and maniac seizures, The Enemy of God presents a disturbing picture of a country moving towards the total collapse of all order (religious, political and cultural). By the conclusion of this novel, Arthur is definitely showing signs of disillusionment and resignation.

The reader may be subject to the same feelings. Certainly, those of us who have loved the story of Tristan and Iseult may find it difficult to accept Cornwell’s reduction of this tragic love story to the young prince’s somewhat abrupt death (killed in a duel) and Iseult’s execution by burning at the stake. None of the trappings of the traditional story are here. No love potion accidentally shared, no courtly love affair and no “ship with a white sail.” Instead, Cornwell gives us two helpless teenage lovers, whose lives are brutally extinguished before they have hardly begun to live.

Cornwell’s reduction of romantic myths to grim fables that are devoid of magic and/or grandeur is disturbing. Enemy of God contains a basic cynicism that may be the downfall of both the legendary Arthur and Bernard Cornwell’s trilogy.

20 comments:

  1. I really want to start reading some Bernard Cornwell. Is there an order that works best and if so, which do you recommend starting with for the Arthurian legends?

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  2. Well, there are just three books in the Arthurian Legend series. The first is "The Winter King." this book, "Enemy of God" is second and the last is "Excaliber." Separate from that, he has a Holy Grail series. This guy has about 40 books, and they are listed in the order theiy are to be read. We also has a hell of a website. He is extremely popular in England, and he is experimenting with the American Civil War for another series.

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  3. This review of what sounds like a very complicated, complex plot almost makes me want to read this book, Gary. The same theme of lies and deception seem to apply equally to the current times in this country, and--to quote the review--"a country moving towards total collapse of all order (religious, political and cultural) and by the end Arthur is showing signs of dissilusionment and resignation" pretty well sums up how I'm feeling about this country right about now--minus the intertwining love stories.

    There's a book about olde England I read a few years back that I wonder if you've read. I'd like to see a review by you of that one. JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. MORRELL. It's by British author Susanne Clarkeset and set around the same time period as Merlin and dealing with wizardry and magic. Her writing reminds me of the old British writers like Dickens. I have a feeling you'd like it a lot.

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  4. Oops! that should be author Susanne Clark set (i got a double and set in there accidentally--guess I oughta proofread my comments before I post them. Sorry to take up space!

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  5. I guess it is possible that Cornwell intended to make an analogy with the current status of the "promised Camelot" in America that seems likely to becoming a variation on 1984. A while back I reviewed a modern translation of "Gilgamesh" which ended up resembling the last administration ... especially in terms of Iraq (Gilgamesh also invaded countries 'for their own good' and destroyed. But, then going back to my opening paragraph about Mircea Eliade, maybe our culture is simply repeating all of the ancient templates. Maybe Mihael Jackson is Orpheus and John Edwards is Macbeth will a very unique twist on his devoted wife. What does that make Tiger Woods???

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  6. The Arthurian legends have never attracted me so much for their archetypal significance--sovereignty, fellowship, doomed love--but for the window they provide onto the truly Dark Age that produced them. That time between the Roman withdrawal from Britain & the Anglo-Saxon (i.e. English) seizure of Southern Britain is so mysterious, a moment of "unhistory" known only by its legends, & I've always been fascinated by that mystery. Of course, these legends have not simply been repeated over & over again down through the centuries, but reshaped according to the dreams, biases, & needs of the moment. & the versions of these stories long considered canonical--Mallory, White--are really very distant from their origins. The further you go back, the more earthy & primal the stories become--& the less sentimentally romantic.

    Perhaps the biggest surprise for many (outside of Wales) who come in contact with this older Arthur of the Welsh bards or Nennius--is that he isn't English; he's a Celtic British (proto-Welsh) warlord who spends his life *fighting* the invading Anglo-Saxons--i.e. the English. England didn't exist yet & the people who first dreamed of Arthur didn't want it to. The fact that the English centuries later came to accept a romanticized version of him as a kingly ideal is one of British history's major ironies.

    Cornwell, more than any other novelist who's taken up these legends, dives back into those oldest Arthurian stories & breathes life into the half-remembered historical shadow of Celtic Britain less than a century after the Romans left. To me, that's anything but an exercise in cynicism. Just having a surface familiarity with the source material Cornwell's using here--the Mabinogi, Nennius, Gildas, the Life of St Padarn, so many bread crumbs of history--believe me, these books had to be a labor of love.

    Cornwell does however make some concessions to the canonical Camelot, though: he finds a way to reinsert the Medieval French writer Cretien de Troyes' invention, Lancelot, as well as a number of other characters who derive from later versions of these legends. I gather this was a nod to the powerful expectations that have gathered around these figures. But Cornwell can't portray them as paragons of courtly love any more than he can put them in Medieval plate armor or send them jousting. That's another world, one that the Arthurian legend was dressed in centuries later. Give Cornwell his due: more than any other Arthurian writer I know, he's going back to the legend's roots in a chaotic, mysterious world we're still struggling to understand.

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  7. To Anthony
    Well said, i have recently finished reading this series and found it to be a wonderful story with a feeling of reality that the Arthurian legend generally lacks. Being a druid scholar the references to the fall of pagan avalon to the christians were brilliantly portrayed and really dipicted the vile nature of medieval christians in their force.
    I am a lover of the tristan tale and also found this to be a really interesting twist on the tale, love potions and all that is very sweet but not as poignant to the times as this version. Also, the film depicted as a love tragedy but not with magic. I think the reviewer should re-read the books with a more open mind to the history and not blinkered to the romantic legend that has been changed so very many time over centuries.

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  8. Tristan is clearly described as close to 40

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