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 French 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...
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.
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?
Alpha Bitch: Guinevere starts off as something like this.
Ambition Is Evil: Although in one or two cases, a lack of ambition causes an awful lot of trouble too.
Anyone Can Die: And by the time of Arthur's final battle, most characters with a name will be dead.
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...
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.
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).
Character Development: At least a few initially unlikeable, Scrappy-esque characters turn out to have understandable, sympathetic motives and grow on both the characters and readers.
Chess Master: Merlin. Big time. Also Arthur, but his otherwise successful attempts at uniting Britain are hamstrung first by falling for Guinevere, then by Merlin via Derfel and Ceinwyn.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Heroic Bastard: Arthur, Derfel, Galahad (although he is Lancelot's half-brother in this work rather than his illegitimate son).
Heroic BSOD: 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.
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)
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...
Knight Templar: Nimue, who becomes more fanatical in her devotion to the gods and willing to go further than Merlin ever did.
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.
The Magic Goes Away: Merlin feels this is happening to the world, and that the gods are abandoning it as well. However, it could just be a case of...
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.
Pet the Dog: Merlin's adoptions of orphans, freaks, and those touched by the gods, the cat that Arthur and Derfel get for the little girl who testifies against Owain.
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.
Religion Is Magic: Played with, and readers tend to be left guessing how much magic is real and how much is simple trickery.
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.
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 Messiah: Arthur, Galahad (though both of them renounce Lancelot in the end)
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.