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The last of the Warlord Chronicles
on 27 August 2012
Excalibur is the last of the Warlord Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell's trilogy on Arthur the warlord who, according to the author at least, was never king. This is the volume where the Saxon (and Angle) invaders get crushed at Mont Badon. Two-thirds of the book is devoted to the build-up of this climatic event. It is also the only battle that is a historic event, since it is attested by several of the written sources, starting with Gildas who makes clear that it was a great victory for the Britons. It also seems to have postponed the Anglo-Saxon drive towards the West for about a generation, although there is no secure dating for the battle itself and historians have been furiously debating this and everything else about Arthur and his times.
The qualities that were apparent in the two previous volumes are also displayed in this one. A rather original plot for a very well-known story - the medieval mythical Arthur was about as well-known as Roland and Charlemagne across Europe. The comparison that comes to mind, although it should perhaps not be pushed too far is with the Illiad for the Ancient Greeks. I already mentioned some of the main twists: Lancelot painted as a villain, Merlin as a selfish, grumpy and rather unsympathetic old man, Arthur as a very competent but reluctant and idealistic warrior, Galahad the Christian, Lancelot's half-brother but loyal to Arthur, Derfel, the narrator and one of Arthur's warlords, and who happens to be the bastard son of a King. There are many other original twists, such as that of King Mark of Cornwall and Tristan, his heir, and Iseult, his young wide who happens to be the daughter of one of the Irish piratical Kings who had settled along the Welsh coasts. This, by the way, is historically correct. Throughout the 3rd to the 5th centuries, war bands of Irish pirates attacked all along the western coast of Britain and founded several kingdoms. Those in Wales, which are mentioned in this book, were ultimately eliminated, but the Dal Riata who settled on the western part of what was to become Scotland and took over the whole country in the end.
As also already mentioned in my previous reviews, one of the greatest qualities of this book is to make the characters credible, whether the "goodies" or the "baddies". This is partly because the former are not flawless heroes whereas the latter are not dark arch-villains. It is also, and perhaps mostly, because the characters evolve over time, with some tending to move from one category to the other. Guinevere, for instance, becomes more sympathetic than in the previous volume, as opposed to Nimue who loses it completely and becomes quite atrocious. Above all, what makes this book a delight to read (and re-read) is that the characters appear to be human, with all their qualities and defects.
Finally, there is the historical context, which Cornwell has carefully researched. As the author acknowledges, no one can identify the location of Camlan, Arthur's last battle in which he was allegedly so grievously wounded. It is has been located on Salisbury Plain, in Wales, on Hadrian's Wall and in East Anglia (near Walton Castle). Cornwell has chosen another location, in South Devon, which fits better with his story but in reality we simply do not know. Another point we know little about is what gave the Britons - and Arthur in particular - a military edge over the Anglo-Saxons. We know the latter had no cavalry whereas the Britons did at least have light skirmishing cavalry equipped with javelins. We also know that among the units of the Roman Army in Britain there was at least one (and probably initially several) units of heavily armoured Sarmatian cavalry equipped with lances. So Bernard Cornwell's choice, to make Arthur's horsemen into heavy armoured cavalry of the cataphract type is both possible and plausible.
A fantastic read which would be worth seven stars (just like the two previous volumes) if this was possible.