Historical Fiction

The Winter King – Bernard Cornwell

11 September 2019
The Winter King Book Cover The Winter King
The Warlord Chronicles
Bernard Cornwell
St. Martin's Griffin

It takes a remarkable writer to make an old story as fresh and compelling as the first time we heard it. With The Winter King, the first volume of his magnificent Warlord Chronicles, Bernard Cornwell finally turns to the story he was born to write: the mythic saga of King Arthur. The tale begins in Dark Age Britain, a land where Arthur has been banished and Merlin has disappeared, where a child-king sits unprotected on the throne, where religion vies with magic for the souls of the people. It is to this desperate land that Arthur returns, a man at once utterly human and truly heroic: a man of honor, loyalty, and amazing valor; a man who loves Guinevere more passionately than he should; a man whose life is at once tragic and triumphant. As Arthur fights to keep a flicker of civilization alive in a barbaric world, Bernard Cornwell makes a familiar tale into a legend all over again.


The tale of King Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, the Knights of the Round Table, Sir Galahad and his quest for the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Merlin and his sorcery, and the age of chivalry are the ingredients of medieval fantasy and folklore. Bernard Cornwell writes his account which feels the most authentic version I’ve encountered and turns many of these previous perceptions on their head. The resulting story creates an imagined tale that feels legitimate and historical.

The story is told the first person looking back in time, from the perspective of Dervel, a soldier and monk that fought at Arthur’s side. As he starts to write his account, his loyalty to Arthur is apparent.

“These are the tales of Arthur, the Warlord, the King that Never Was, the Enemy of God and, may the living Christ and Bishop Sansum forgive me, the best man I ever knew. How I have wept for Arthur.”

The wonderful opportunity this structure provides is that the story of Arthur can be told from an onlooker seeing the positive and negative attribute of Arthur, his wins and his mistakes through a lens with less emotion and the benefit of distance. It also enables the location and existence of a lowly person to be painted in beautiful sensory detail, and the issues he faced dealing with many of the extensive iconic characters in this story.

The period is set in the late fifth century, shortly after the Romans left Briton, and the country is split into several regions each ruled by their own king. The Saxon conflicts are escalating and war from every side is commonplace. Cornwell creates an amazing atmosphere of medieval Briton that permeates through every aspect of the novel. The politics and machinations between the multiple power-hungry and warrior leaders are deep-rooted and persistent and every engagement is judged with caution and an expectation that ruthless and instant changes can and will occur. It is also a period where priests and druids battle with the conflict of Christianity and the old gods. The era of Merlin, magic and sorcery is coming to an end but they still hold considerable influence.

Arthur is the bastard son of Uther the Pendragon, very accomplished in battle, although not always given the credit. Uther’s legitimate grandson, Mordred (The Winter King), has a twisted foot which is taken as a bad omen. He has a ruthless, evil and unforgiving personality that he doesn’t hide and unfortunately with an astute and cunning mind, may become a formidable force. Arthur still upholds his allegiance to Mordred, even though his vision of peace and justice is a polar opposite.

Bernard Cornwell claimed that this trilogy was his favourite and best piece of work. I haven’t read enough of his other works to make that comparison but if they’re better than this – well I have a lot to look forward to.

This is an outstanding example of the historical fiction genre and the best take on the iconic Arthur story I’ve read or watched. I would highly recommend this book and series.

Peter Donnelly

Founder of The Reading Desk, supporting readers, authors, publishers and book industry. Top Reviewer on Amazon, Goodreads, and NetGalley peter@thereadingdesk.com

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