The story begins in the year 480 with the birth of the grandson of Uther Pendragon, High King of Britain. With the birth going badly, Uther sends a teenage Derfel to fetch Morgan, one Merlin’s priestesses, much to the concern of the mother and her Christian clerics. Using her witchcraft, Morgan saves the mother and her child, who turns out to be Mordred, just the first of many twists in this tale. The Arthur of this story is still Morgan’s brother, but both he and she are Uther’s bastards, which is why Arthur holds no claim to the throne. But when Uther dies with Mordred still a child, rival British lords vie to become high king and only Arthur, as the Warlord of Britain, can save Mordred’s kingdom.
Cornwell’s Arthur is a larger than life hero, which is one reasons, I believe, Cornwell did not make him a viewpoint character and instead chose to tell the whole story from Derfel’s perspective. Arthur is also a conflicted and complex man. As his mistress sadly tells Derfel, Arthur’s soul “is a chariot drawn by two horses; ambition and conscience, but I tell you, Derfel, the horse of ambition is in the right-hand harness and it will always outpull the other.”
A number of other characters from Arthurian legend feature prominently in the novel. Galahad, whom Derfel encounters in Brittany, is Lancelot’s half-brother and becomes Derfel’s most loyal friend. Nimue (aka Viviane, the Lady of the Lake) is an Irish girl who Merlin believes is blessed by the Celtic gods, and he takes her as his lover. She is also Derfel’s companion during their childhood at Avalon, and their relationship plays a key role throughout the series. Merlin is masterfully portrayed and keeps many of the classic characteristics of the wily wizard of legend. But he is also a druid consumed with saving the land by restoring the power of the old gods and recovering the mythical thirteen treasures of Britain (Excalibur is one of them, and the “grail” (here, a Celtic cauldron) is another). Guinevere is a strong and charismatic woman who steals Arthur’s heart, and their love affair leads to a major conflict in the novel. And, in yet another twist, the Lancelot of this story is never Arthur’s friend, but rather Derfel’s rival.
The book features a good number of combat scenes, including some full-scale battles, and as always Cornwell excels at these. There is also a healthy degree of conflict, tension, and intrigue throughout the novel. But it is Cornwell’s portrayal of the many Arthurian characters that shines the brightest, making this novel the perfect beginning to one of his greatest series and a “must read” for anyone interested in medieval fiction.
You can read more about Arthurian fiction in my posts about The Age of Arthur and Who Was King Arthur? Also, if you want to read the opening passage of The Winter King, which is truly magnificent, you can check it out here.