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"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."
Also known as the Warlord Trilogy, (or the Excalibur series, or Excalibur trilogy, etc.) The Warlord Chronicles are a trio of books by Bernard Cornwell that retell the Arthurian Legend in a fashion that is much closer to being historically accurate than the traditional legends, although many of the additions that were added to the original Welsh legends (such as Merlin and Lancelot) are still present and used in interesting ways. The series deals with war and politics in feudal-era Britain in an unflinching way, even when it comes down to the brutality, injustice and different customs of the period.The books in the Chronicles are:
The Winter King
Enemy of God
The story begins in an abbey, many years after the fall of Arthur, when Queen Igraine comes to the old monk Derfel Cadarn, who was once one of Arthur's lieutenants, to tell her the story of Arthur, so that it will not be forgotten. Reluctantly at first, Defel begins telling the story of Arthur as he experienced it, as he rose from a simple spearman to one of the most trusted warriors and leaders under Arthur's command. Here is how his story begins:It was not a good time to be a Briton. Rome was falling and had abandoned Britain to its own fate. Saxons were on an inevitable drive of conquest from the east, while Irish raiders attack from the west to steal, plunder, or carve out their own kingdoms. The many kingdoms of the Britons compete and war with each other for territory, resources, or over the petty feuds and ambitions of their kings and princes. Inside these kingdoms, the religions of Christianity, the remnants of the old Druids, (who have nearly been wiped out by the Romans) and the Roman Gods jostle with each other and vie for the hearts and minds of the ordinary people.About the only bright spot is the fragile alliance held together by the High King Uther which stands against the Saxons, but even that seems like a lost hope because Uther is a dying old man, his son is dead, and Uther has refused the advice of nearly everyone and has insisted on naming his infant grandson Mordred as his heir rather than his bastard son Arthur, (whom he blames for his son's death) despite the fact that Arthur is already gaining fame as a warrior from his exploits. Instead Uther declares a number of other major figures to be guardians, stewards and regents for Mordred and the alliance until Mordred comes of age. Uther dies while Mordred is still a baby, however, and the ambitious lords and priests are soon scheming and competing to either be High King or gain a greater share of power, while Arthur arrives and tries to sort the whole mess out and keep the Saxons from conquering the rest of Briton and the Franks from taking the friendly Breton kingdom of Benoic. Arthur himself nearly undoes his own efforts, however, when he breaks off a politically powerful arranged marriage in order to marry Guinevere, throwing the British kingdoms into chaos.Even after Arthur clears these early hurdles, many dangers still await. Because over the years friends have a way of turning into enemies, sectarian violence threatens to rip the Britons apart even in peacetime, lovers have their ways of betraying you, and then there are the troubling signs around Mordred as he grows older...
Adipose Rex: Uther Pendragon has become this by the time the series begins. Also King Mark.
Aerith and Bob: You have characters with names like Arthur, Mark, and Conrad alongside characters named Derfel, Gorfyddyd, and Culhwch.
Affably Evil: Aelle. Happens to be really quite nice past the blunt and psychotic exterior and adores his granddaughters in a strange, Saxon sort of way.
Lancelot, if you aren't Derfel.
The Alcoholic: Gorfyddyd becomes this after losing a war and an arm to Arthur. After Arthur breaks off the marriage agreement with Ceinwyn, Gorfyddyd kicks his alchoholism and restarts the war.
All Part of the Show: Cunningly used by the Saxons. If you enemies have a whole series of signal fires to warn of an invasion, then what better time to attack than on a holiday when massive bonfires are being lit everywhere?
Igraine, the queen who commissions Derfel's autobiography, has some shades of this, though to a much lesser extent.
Ambition Is Evil: Although in one or two cases, a lack of ambition causes an awful lot of trouble too.
Anachronism Stew: The names, at least, are not all consistent with the Dark Age setting.
While Arthurian characters usually have more than one spelling of their names, influenced by different languages over time, the trilogy uses a mix of older, more period-appropriate spellings and later spellings which may be more familiar. For instance, the later form "Mordred" - as found in the 15th century Le Morte D Arthur - appears instead of "Medraut" - as found in the 10th century Annales Cambriae - or other earlier variants.
This extends to the names of characters with no real equivalent in later works. Arthur's sons are called "Amhar" and Loholt" - "Amhar" is a 12th century form of the Welsh name "Amr" who appears in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, while "Loholt" comes from 12th and 13th century French works like ╔rec et ╔nide and Perlesvaus. "Culhwch", Arthur's kinsman from the older Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen collected in The Mabinogion, rubs shoulders with people like "Lancelot" and "Sagramor" whose names come from much later French works.
Anglo-Saxons: The primary antagonists, at least when the Britons aren't too busy fighting each other.
Antagonistic Offspring: Derfel to Merlin, his foster father - not all that often, and he really doesn't like doing it, but sometimes and Derfel to Aelle, a more text book example.
Cuneglas, Gorfyddyd's son, starts out as this. After his father's defeat and death, he drops the "villain" part and allies himself with Arthur.
Anyone Can Die: And by the time of Arthur's final battle, most characters with a name will be dead.
Artistic License ľ History: Despite being a "historical" spin on the Arthurian mythos, this is still in effect. Actually, writing "Arthur as a real historical figure" falls into this by default since so little is definitively known and so much is conjecture about the topic.
The lineups for the ruling families of the British kingdoms don't necessarily follow the medieval Welsh genealogies for such kingdoms.
The series doesn't mention Ambrosius Aurelianus and Vortigern, rulers in Britain who are accepted to be real people, though Shrouded in Myth as predecessors to Uther and Arthur.
In the series, the heir of the British High King is called the Edling. But this is a later Welsh loanword from the Old English Ă■eling (Aetheling) and wouldn't have been used yet.
In one book, Culhwch mocks another character using the Latin phrase "cassus belli" (reason/cause for war) by saying "cow's belly". He and Derfel reminisce about this many years later in the next book. But this only works in English which they would not be speaking, and it doesn't work in Welsh either.
Ascended Extra: The series is notable for focusing on lesser known characters, such as Derfel and Sagramore, instead of more famous characters such as Gawain, Kay and Bedivere.
Ax-Crazy: Mordred and possibly Nimue in the third book. There are other examples as well, ranging from some inhabitants on the Isle of the Dead to minor but but completely nasty characters like Diwrnach, whose soldiers cover their shields with the blood and skin of slain victims. Diwrnach has a preference for using dead virgins for this...
And as certain other character mentions, the only certain virgins are children...
Barbarian Hero: While the Britons tend to be more civilized than the Saxons and Irish, Culhwch still fits this archetype pretty well.
Beware the Nice Ones: Arthur, Derfel, and Galahad are all genuinely kind people, but God help anyone who winds up on the opposite side of them in battle.
Big Good: Arthur, though he takes a much more active role than most, and his position is often disputed by his fellow Britons.
Blatant Lies: Sansum claiming that his church is too poor to contribute to the war effort, on account of giving away all their wealth to the poor. He says this while wearing a golden cross with a heavy golden chain, as well as a golden torque. Arthur sees right through him, and swiftly uncovers the hoard of treasure that he's been withholding .
Blonde Guys Are Evil: In-universe, some Britons have this attitude, as blonde hair is seen as a characteristically Saxon trait.
Blood Knight: Quite a few, and even those who aren't like this can act like it in a fight. (Derfel is astonished the first time he sees Arthur fight a duel because he expects to Arthur to use his head, instead Arthur fights like a man possessed and sheepishly admits that he enjoyed it afterward).
Boisterous Bruiser: Arthur's cousin Culhwch, (who seems to be taking the part Gawain traditionally holds) is a great example. There are numerous others, ranging from Irish king Oengus Mac Airem to Derfel's first captain, Owain.
Born in the Wrong Century: Arthur can come off this way due to his lack of superstition, as well as his vision of a just society.
Brutal Honesty: A cultural trait of the Saxons. Derfel mentions that, while Britons like to speak in circles around a sensitive topic, Saxons tend to get to the point and say exactly what's on their mind.
Buy Them Off: The Britons of Dumnonia successfully do this to Aelle's Saxons. They only have so much gold, though...
Cincinnatus: King Tewdric of Gwent retires to become a monk, but agrees to resume the throne in Book 3 to fight the Saxons, before resuming his monastic life. Also, this is what Arthur wants to be, despite everyone else hoping that he becomes Regent for Life.
Cool Horse: Arthur and his knights use large warhorses to intimidate their enemies, rather that the smaller horses normally used by the Britons for scouting and skirmishing.
The gruel was too hot this morning and scolded St Tudwal's tongue. Tudwal is a child in our monastery, the Bishop's close companion in Christ, and last year the Bishop declared Tudwal to be a saint. The devil sets many snares in the path of true faith.
Death of the Old Gods: Merlin and Nimue have both dedicated their lives to ensuring that this never happens.
Deceptive Disciple: Nimue to Merlin, although it comes about in a different way from most takes on the story.
Demoted to Extra: Gawain, Kay and Bedivere barely appear and are killed off quickly. Rather unusual for "historical" Arthurian retellings, since in the earliest version of the legends the last two formed a Power Trio with Arthur and Gawain was Arthur's best warrior before Lancelot was introduced. Derfel takes on their usual roles somewhat, and at the end he is the sole surviving warrior of Arthur who throws Excalibur into a lake, like the legendary Bedivere.
Did You Just Punch Out Cthulhu?: Not a textbook example, but pretty much everybody has this reaction when Cerdic publicly humiliates Merlin. Until this point, the Druid had commanded a religious awe from everyone he came into contact with, even Christians and Saxons. When he had a disagreement with Cerdic, however, the Saxon King simply grabbed him and cut off part of his beard, leaving everyone in the room in shock.
Dirty Coward: Sansum is a first class weasel. Also, Lancelot.
Oh, and did we mention Merlin? It bears repeating.
Also King Mark, but he completely lacks the coolness-factor and charisma.
Doing In the Wizard: An in-text example. Derfel tells things as they happened: between being privy to aspects of the story that didn't make it into the popular narrative, and just having been present at the events, he repeatedly disproves Queen Igraine's stories about Arthur, which mostly came from minstrels. For example, Igraine heard from a song that the Warriors of the Cauldron were surrounded on a remote hill and magically flew to safety. Derfel informs her that in fact they walked off through the fog. Igraine accuses him of having "old man's memory", and it is repeatedly hinted that Igraine is having his manuscript rewritten at the palace in order to accommodate her own ideas (and, given that this version of events obviously didn't survive to our era, that was probably the case).
The scribe who's translating the test into British/Welsh says Igraine won't let him change a word, but he wouldn't tell him if he was, so it's still up in the air.
Doing In the Scientist: Most of the series is about debunking mystical explanations for things (or at least keeping it very ambiguous), but the final book's climax has a number of elements that could not be plausibly explained as anything other than magic.
Doomed Protagonist: When we first meet Derfel at the beginning of the series, he is a sad, defeated, and maimed old man. It's a Foregone Conclusion that his autobiography isn't going to end well.
The Dreaded: The Irish king Diwrnach's savage treatment of his defeated foes has earned him this reputation, to the point where many Britons would sooner take on the Saxons than go up against him.
Duel to the Death: Done several times, although it's also subverted at least once where Derfel leaves his foe alive. Later he comes to regret that.
The Dung Ages: Gone are the High Medieval trappings that are usually associated with Arthurian lore; Cornwell portrays the brutal reality of Dark Age Britain.
Enemy Mine: With this much political scrambling and ambition, it happens constantly.
The Evil Prince: Massively inverted. Arthur refuses to be either this or Regent for Life, and that's basically the cause of 70% of the problems in the story, particularly in the last book.
Expecting Someone Taller: A villainous example with Cerdic. Derfel is surprised to note that, despite his fearsome reputation, the man himself is short, slightly-built, with an almost clerkish appearance. He's still highly cunning and formidable, however. It runs in the family.
Expy: Gorfyddyd and Gundleus for the Rebel Kings of the original stories (Lot, Uriens, Rience and some others).
Eye Scream: Gundleus not only rapes Nimue, but tears out one of her eyes as well.
Face-Heel Turn: Nimue is an interesting example — her goals and methods never really change; it's just that all the other heroic characters learn to compromise and she never does.
Owain, the Champion of Dumnonia, is a partial example. He's set up to be an important supporting character to the protagonists after he heroically helps rescue Derfel's band of refugees from Gundleus, and afterword becomes the first warlord whom Derfel serves under. However, he's later revealed to be a complete bastard who embezzles tax funds, rapes prisoners, and slaughters an entire mining village (whose inhabitants were sworn to an allied kingdom) as part of an under the table deal. That last one ends up costing him his life. While he certainly doesn't lack for courage or battle-prowess, he's hardly the champion he's introduced as.
This initially seems to be Guinevere's motivation for pursuing Arthur. In the early days of their marriage, she and her father siphon money from the royal treasury to fund their lavish lifestyle, and she begins demanding that the usually modest Arthur be referred to as a prince.
Lunete, Derfel's first lover, only shacks up with him because of the potential wealth that an up and coming young warrior can bring. Nimue catches on to this immediately, and tells him as much.
The one-armed Gorfyddyd gathers the largest army ever seen in Britain since the Romans left, and would have crushed Arthur in battle had it not been for Oengus Mac Airem's Irish warriors changing sides.
The one-eyed Nimue is able to intimidate whole groups of warriors by her presence alone.
Nimue goes into one during her time on the Island of the Dead.
Arthur does a minor one and goes Darker and Edgier after finding out about Guinevere and Lancelot. And also when he realizes that his code of ethics won't allow him to help Tristan and Iseult.
Galahad also has a brief one after the fall of Ynys Trebes.
Hero-Worshipper: Derfel to Arthur, early on. (Well... an argument can be made that it never really goes away).
Heterosexual Life-Partners: Derfel and Galahad share "everything except women." Galahad even becomes the lone Christian on the quest for a pagan artifact simply because he wants to help his friend.
Historical-Domain Character: Derfel is based on an obscure British saint of the same name who, if tradition is to be believed, really was a warrior before becoming a monk.
Tewdric, Meurig, Aelle, Cerdic, Claudas and possibly Cuneglas (there is a historical king named Cuneglas, but he was from Rhos, not Powys, and his father was Owain Ddantgwyn and not Gorfyddyd, who is fictional)
Horny Vikings: Not quite Vikings, but it's mentioned that some of the Saxons and Franks wear horned helmets.
Hufflepuff House: All of the kingdoms in the north apart from Powys certainly qualify. Gwent probably does as well; despite being the largest of the Celtic states, with the largest army (said to number over 1000 spears at various points, whereas other states often struggle to raise half as many), its role in the novels is mostly reactive, it doesn't supply a single main character, and they frequently sit out crucial wars entirely.
Human Sacrifice: Done in book 1 to a captured Saxon, later both done again and attempted unsuccessfully in book 3.
Ignored Epiphany: Not really a textbook example, but in The Winter King Nimue briefly considers throwing magic and the gods aside to live a normal life somewhere and maybe marry Derfel. Imagine how differently things might have gone...
Impoverished Patrician: Guinevere's father Leodegan was once a king in his own right, but was driven into exile by the conquering Irish. He has trouble finding a suitor for his younger daughter on account of his family's loss of status, lands, and money.
Interfaith Smoothie: Derfel is a devotee of the old British Gods, particularly Bel and Manawydan, as well as being a member of the cult of Mithras (something the staunchly traditional Merlin disapproves of). He later becomes a decidedly half-hearted Christian monk, but gradually returns to his old pagan ways.
Knight Templar: Nimue, who becomes more fanatical in her devotion to the gods and willing to go further than Merlin ever did.
Know-Nothing Know-It-All: Prince Meurig of Gwent is stated to have a vast knowledge of law, history, and theology, but none of that translates into even semi-effective leadership. Any time he gives political or military advice, it's always totally inept.
Lady Macbeth: Guinevere comes awfully close to playing this role in the first two books, and is frustrated as hell that Arthur won't play along. The third book impressively rehabilitates her. While keeping her personality basically the same, amazingly enough.
Laser-Guided Karma: Gundleus rapes Nimue and tears out one of her eyes while attempting to claim the throne of High King for himself. At the end of the book, after having backstabbed his way through every second chance he got, he falls into Nimue's hands, and she is very intent on paying evil unto evil.
Let's You and Him Fight: Happens fairly often, as single combat was seen as a legitimate way to settle legal disputes or gain renown on the battlefield.
Love Makes You Dumb: Arthur, again. After falling for Guinevere and reneging on a vital marriage agreement that would have finally united the Britons, Arthur assumes that he'll be Easily Forgiven and that the whole thing will just blow over. He is wrong.
The Magic Goes Away: Merlin feels this is happening to the world, and that the gods are abandoning it as well.
Mama's Boy: Despite her resentment of him, Arthur clearly held his mother in high regard, and only says good things about her.
Manipulative Bastard: Merlin. He plays Derfel (and everyone short of Cerdic) like a violin. As his point on the Chessmaster page shows, he could quite conceivably have ruled Britain from behind the scenese if he so chose.
Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Because lets face it, the existence and reliability of magic is all over the place in this series. Intentionally so, going by the author's track record.
Merlin and Nimue: Provides a well thought out and explored version of this relationship.
Mushroom Samba: The initiation rites into the cult of Mithras involve this.
Mystery Cult: The cult of Mithras is accurately portrayed as a very secretive religion. Initiates must go through trials and ordeals in order to become full-fledged members, and adherents are not allowed to divulge any details about the cult to non-members.
My Greatest Failure: Derfel views his participation in the massacre of a mining village as this. While he himself didn't actually murder any women or children, it still haunts him years later.
Nay-Theist: While Arthur doesn't dispute the existence of higher powers, he believes that men are far better off taking fate into their own hands than relying on the gods. He is deliberately vague about his beliefs in public, so that both Christians and pagans can assume that he might be one of them.
Nice Guy: Somewhat strangely for a Cornwell protagonist, Derfel is this. He generally respects authority, is fiercely devoted to his people, and is an all around friendly guy if you don't go out of your way to antagonize him. Aside from his love of battle (which was entirely acceptable for the time period), he lacks any roguish or renegade qualities.
Not So Different: It can be easy to see Merlin and Sansum this way. Both are fundamentalists who reject Arthur's vision of a just and tolerant society, both actively work to create a Britain that is devoid of anyone who doesn't follow their religion, and operate through guile and manipulation. Merlin just has way more charisma, and the luxury of a sympathetic narrator.
Offing the Offspring: King Mark is just as much of a bastard here as in most other Arthurian stories. Poor Tristan.
Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Derfel's battle exploits that earn him the moniker "Cadarn" (meaning "The Mighty") occur during the Time Skip between his entry into Arthur's service and his mission to Armorica.
Old Soldier: About half of the cast eventually becomes this.
Proud Warrior Race: The Saxons. And the Irish, and the Franks, and some of the less Romanized British tribes. A people group basically had to be this on some level in order to secure their long-term survival in this tumultuous era.
Pyrrhic Victory: Several of Arthur's victories are like this toward the end of the series. The battle of Mount Badon is the most notable example, as Arthur crushes the Saxon forces and kills some of their main leaders, but throws the balance of power towards Christianity, loses his most valuable ally, and effectively dooms Merlin to Nimue's wrath.
The Quest: Part of the second book revolves Merlin's efforts to recover the Cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn. His demand for warriors to accompany him on the quest annoys Arthur, who believes it to be a wild goose chase.
Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Largely averted. This being the Crapsack World it is, most characters have a rather casual attitude toward wartime rape, regardless of what side they're on. There are a few exceptions, however.
Rape, Pillage, and Burn: The fate of pretty much any town or city that falls to an enemy army. The sack of Ynys Trebes by the Franks was so brutal and thorough that, years later when Derfel is an old man, legends persist that the screams of women and children can be heard at night near the ruined city.
Real Men Love Mithras: The cult of Mithras is portrayed as a soldier's religion, with no women being allowed to join. Only warriors who are highly respected are allowed into its ranks.
Royals Who Actually Do Something: Uther became known as "the Pendragon" after his many victories in battle. Arthur fits this trope to a tee, though he legally isn't recognized as royalty.
Runaway FiancÚ: Happens twice, and each time both parts of the couple is supposed to marry someone else. In Arthur and Guinevere's case, it starts a war. Derfel deciding he wants Ceinwyn starts the downfall of Camelot. Despite these results, both couples end things reasonably happy.
Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Near the end of the first book, Tewdric pulls this on Arthur. Weary of fighting a war that is basically Arthur's fault, Tewdric withdraws Gwent's forces from the upcoming battle, leaving the Dumnonians to face Gorfyddyd's vast horde by themselves.
Take That: the portrayal of Morgan as a disfigured, lonely Druidic priestess who eventually converts to Christianity seems (to this Troper at least) a direct jab at the most famous modern portrayal of the character, Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon.
The Glory That Was Rome: Gwent, one of the more Romanized areas of Britain, trains and equips its soldiers in the Roman fashion, and a few characters from that region have Roman names. King Ban of Benoic also preserves a great deal of Roman culture and knowledge at his capital of Ynys Trebes.
Token Minority: Sagramor. In the original stories he was a Moor, but this more historically-accurate setting being a few centuries too early for them, Cornwell has him a Nubian who made his way to Gaul serving in the Roman army. The Saxons think he's a demon.
Actually, Palamedes is the famous Moorish knight from the legends: though he does have a brother named Segwarides, which sounds a bit like Sagramor. The original Sagramor has indeed come to Britain from afar, but not Africa - he's described as the son of a Hungarian king and a Greek princess.
Truth in Television: there have been upper-class graves discovered in Britain with people of African descent in them - the Roman Britain was a truly cosmopolitan place.
Token Enemy Minority: Given how most Christians are depicted in the stories, Galahad (and, to a lesser extent, Tewdric, Emrys, and Bedwin) could be said to function as one of these.
And eventually Derfel himself, of course. Not exactly by choice though.
This is a distinct theme in Cornwell's writing. When the main protagonists aren't pagans (Derfel and Uhtred) they tend to be fairly irreligious and run across nasty priests (Jack Starbuck and Sharpe). However most of them have devout Christian best friends, e.g. Galahad, Fathers Willibald, Beocca and Pyrlig and of course Sergeant Harper.
Derfel is actually one since the beginning, being a Saxon in Arthur's army.
Vestigial Empire: Many Britons think back fondly to a time when the whole of their land was united under Roman rule. All that's left when the series begins is a patchwork of petty kingdoms scrambling to pick up the pieces.
Villain Decay: Gundleus, sort of. He's the primary antagonist throughout the first third of The Winter King, but after his initial defeat, he plays nice for a while and then takes a subordinate role to Gorfyddyd. He never really becomes less of a threat, it's just that much bigger threats arise.
Vitriolic Best Buds: Galahad and Culhwch are prone to squabbling about their religious differences, but that isn't a barrier to them being close friends.
We ARE Struggling Together: The Britons sometimes seem to be their own worst enemy, with the rival kingdoms at each others throats as often as they're fighting their mutual Saxon and Irish enemies. Derfel realizes that the Saxons also have this problem when a captured warrior tells him about the conflict between Cerdic and Aesc.
What Could Have Been: In universe, just imagine how many lives could have been saved and how the future of Britain would have been changed had Arthur simply chosen to ignore Guinevere, or at least gone forward with his marriage to Ceinwyn.
What the Hell, Hero?: Arthur gets one from Derfel over the way he deals with the Mark, Iseult, Tristan triangle.
Worthy Opponent: The Saxon warrior king Aelle. He regards Arthur and Derfel the same way.