The Winter King (novel)

The Winter King (novel)

Infobox Book |
name = The Winter King
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption = First edition cover
author = Bernard Cornwell
cover_artist =
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series = The Warlord Chronicles
genre = Historical Fantasy novel
publisher = Michael Joseph (UK) & St. Martins Press (USA)
release_date = 5 October 1995 (1st edition)
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback) & Audio Book (Cassette)
pages = 434 pp (hardcover 1st edition) & 512 pp (paperback edition)
isbn = ISBN 0-7181-3762-0 (hardcover 1st edition) & ISBN 0-14-023186-2 (paperback edition)
preceded_by =
followed_by = Enemy of God

"The Winter King" is the first book in The Warlord Chronicles series by Bernard Cornwell. The trilogy tells the legend of Arthur seen through the eyes of his follower Derfel Cadarn.

Plot introduction

"The Winter King" begins with Derfel, an elderly monk living at the monastery of Dinnewrac in the Welsh kingdom of Powys (the fictional Dinnewrac is sited near modern Welshpool). He is in the service of Bishop Sansum, who is revered by the monastery as a saint. The queen of Powys, Igraine, has come to the monastery to pray for a child. When she learns that Derfel was one of King Arthur's warriors, she commissions him to write Arthur's story. As Bishop Sansum is an enemy of both Arthur and Derfel and has denounced Arthur's tale as pagan heresy, Igraine convinces him that Derfel is translating the Gospel into the Saxon language in the hope of converting the Saxons to Christianity. Sansum depends on the warriors of Powys to protect his monastery, so he accepts the deception, which is aided by the fact that Sansum cannot read.

Plot summary

Part One: A Child in Winter

The Kingdom of Dumnonia is in chaos. The forces of Dumnonia led by the Edling (Crown Prince) Mordred and Arthur (the King's bastard) have defeated the Saxons at a battle beneath the hill of the white horse, but at a terrible price. Prince Mordred was slain, leaving the Kingdom without an heir. Dumnonia's only hope is for Mordred’s pregnant wife, Norwenna, to give birth to a son. High King Uther Pendragon blames his son’s death on Arthur and exiles him to Armorica. Norwenna is in labor, and there are fears that she and the child may die. Norwenna, a Christian, has insisted that only Christian midwives be present. High King Uther, a pagan, finally loses patience with the midwives of the Christian God and summons Merlin’s priestesses. The pagan magic seems to work and a male child is born. It would seem the kingdom is saved. However, the child is born with a crippled foot, which is seen as a very bad omen. The High King dismisses the sign and declares that the son will be named after his father: Mordred.

Mordred and his mother are brought to Merlin’s hall at Ynys Wydryn (Glastonbury), where she and the child are placed under the care of Merlin's priestesses, Morgan (Arthur's sister) and Nimue (Merlin’s lover). Merlin himself has not been seen in Britain for many years. Derfel is one of the orphans at Ynys Wydryn adopted by Merlin, and is in love with Nimue. Nimue binds Derfel to her by scarring both of their hands and making Derfel swear that while he carries the scar, their lives are bound and he must obey her.

High King Uther summons a high council of the Kings of Britain at Glevum (Gloucester). Morgan is summoned to represent the still absent Merlin and Nimue joins her, accompanied by Derfel. The tension between the British kingdoms is made clear as King Gorfyddyd of Powys does not attend and King Gundleus of Siluria is tardy. Uther makes it clear that no man, other than his grandson Mordred, will sit on the throne of Dumnonia. Since Mordred is only a baby, he appoints three guardians (King Tewdric of Gwent; Owain, Champion of Dumnonia; and Merlin) and also a foster father to Mordred, who will marry the Princess Norwenna. Agricola, champion of Gwent, chooses Arthur, but the High King disowns Arthur as his son. King Gundleus is then appointed as Mordred’s Guardian and marries Norwenna. After King Tewdric and Owain give their oaths as guardians, Uther asks Morgan if Merlin will give an oath. Morgan insists that Merlin will only take the oath if Arthur is appointed as a guardian.

After Uther dies Mordred, still only a baby, is pronounced King of Dumnonia. He is not High King because that title can only be given to a King accepted as Higher than the other British Kings. Nor is he the Pendragon, as that title is only given to a High King who wins his rank in battle. Following Uther’s death, King Gorfyddyd attacks Gwent. Dumnonia and Siluria rush to the aid of Gwent. Shortly afterward, King Gundleus sends news of victory and announces he is coming to Ynys Wydryn to be with his wife. Morgan and Nimue tell Norwenna that Gundleus lied and that the war is not over. Norwenna does not believe them and makes ready for Gundleus's arrival. When Gundleus arrives, he kills Norwenna and Mordred. Then, in retribution for Nimue’s curse, he rapes her and cuts her eye out. Derfel rescues Nimue and while escaping runs into Morgan, who has the baby Mordred with her. She explains that the baby that Gundleus killed was the baby of the child king's wetnurse (Ralla).

The group flee with Gundleus in pursuit. As they reach the capital Caer Cadarn, Derfel joins Owain’s army and prepares to join the battle against the Silurian army. Arthur appears with his horseman during the battle and defeats Gundleus.

Part Two: The Princess Bride

In the aftermath of the battle Arthur imprisons Gundleus but treats him with respect as he is a King. Arthur is very observant of the customs of the nobility. Then, much to Derfel's displeasure, Arthur gives Derfel to Owain to train, explaining that he only employs horsemen. Under Owain's leadership, Derfel learns the realities of war. Owain is dishonest and seeks war for profit. While Derfel is with him he enters into an agreement with Prince Cadwy of Isca (Exeter) to massacre the tin miners of Kernow (Cornwall) who had been working in Dumnonia at Uther's invitation. Derfel is traumatised by the unwarranted slaughter, and as a result loses faith in Owain as a leader.

When Prince Tristan, Edling of Kernow, arrives in Dumnonia and demands recompense for the massacre, Owain blames an Irish raiding party. Arthur suspects Owain is lying and after speaking with Derfel, challenges Owain to resolve the matter in a court of swords, a battle to the death where the gods are called on to give victory to the truth. Arthur defeats Owain and assumes complete power in Dumnonia, he then takes Derfel into his service to spare him the vengeance of Owain's supporters.

Arthur wishes to end the civil war and unite the British Kingdoms against the Sais (Saxons). To do this, he enters into a peace treaty with Powys. He will return Gundleus to the throne of Siluria and then marry Ceinwyn, the daughter of Gorfyddyd. He travels north to Powys, where he is formally betrothed to Ceinwyn. However, when Guinevere enters the feasting hall, Arthur falls in love with her. He abandons Ceinwyn and marries Guinevere, destroying any hope of allegiance and plunging Britain back into civil war.

Part Three: The Return of Merlin

In the years following Arthur's marriage to Guinevere, Derfel grows into a great warrior and is given a second name, "Cadarn," which means "the mighty." Sagramor, Arthur's Numidian commander, initiates Derfel into the religious cult of Mithras, a Roman deity popular with soldiers. It is also at this time that Arthur receives a summons from the Armorican Kingdom of Benoic, to which he swore an oath to be the kingdom's champion. Unable to go himself, he sends Derfel with 60 men. Derfel is to join forces with his cousin Culhwch and to write to Arthur if more men are necessary. Before he leaves, Sagramor warns Derfel of the Edling of Benoic, Lancelot, saying he can be treacherous.

Upon arriving, Derfel is taken to Ynys Trebes (Mont St Michel, France), the island capital of Benoic. There he meets King Ban. The King is upset when he learns that Arthur is not coming, but is delighted upon learning that Derfel is a literate warrior. King Ban shows Derfel the library of Ynys Trebes, which is overseen by Father Celwin, a foul-tempered priest investigating the wingspan of angels. Later, at dinner, Derfel meets Lancelot and the two take an instant dislike to each other. Derfel is only prevented from beating Lancelot senseless by the intervention of Galahad, Lancelot's half-brother. Galahad explains in private that Lancelot will not take defeat lightly and suggests that Derfel leave Ynys Trebes immediately. Derfel takes Galahad's advice and returns to shore accompanied by Galahad, who wishes to fight alongside him.

Derfel spends three years in Benoic and learns quickly that Lancelot's fearsome reputation has nothing to do with his prowess in battle and everything to do with paying poets to sing his praises. Derfel and his men begin a campaign to slow the Frankish advance. In this they succeed and become feared by the Franks. They start to call Derfel and his warriors "wolves" and Derfel and his men adopt this as their nickname and wear wolf-tail plumes on their helmets. However, their attacks on the Franks become like "a wasp attempting to sting a bull to death," and they are pushed back to Ynys Trebes where Lancelot has taken charge of defending the city.

After a council of war, where Lancelot insists that the Kingdom can survive within the city's wall as the city is self sufficient, Derfel speaks to Father Celwin, who is forever irritable and has little time for small talk. Derfel explains his duty to defend the lives of the people in the city. Father Celwin responds: "Then I place my life in your hands." After several months under siege, the city falls. Lancelot is among the first to flee. As Derfel begins to escape the city he remembers the words of Father Celwin and returns to the palace, where they find King Ban resigned to his fate and refusing to leave the city. They find Father Celwin in the library frantically searching for a particular scroll and refusing to leave. As the Franks storm the palace, Derfel finally loses patience with him, screaming: "Come on you old fool!" To which Father Celwin replies: "Old, yes, Derfel, but a fool never!" as he reveals himself to be Merlin in disguise.

Merlin finds the scroll he was looking for, saying that it contains the knowledge of Britain. He then leads Derfel and Galahad out of the city, as he has already planned his escape. As they arrive in Dumnonia, Merlin promptly disappears again. Meanwhile, Derfel learns that Nimue has been declared dangerously mad and has been banished to the isle of the dead (Portland Bill). Derfel assumes that this is why Merlin has disappeared. Believing Derfel and his men to be dead, Lancelot has told Arthur and the Men of Dumnonia that despite his best efforts, Ynys Trebes fell and it was the fault of Derfel. Derfel arrives in time to hear this slander, declaring Lancelot a liar and challenging him to back up his story with his sword. Arthur calms the situation, claiming that in battle men are often mistaken.

Part Four: The Isle of the Dead

Derfel is rewarded for his service to Arthur and is declared a lord, but shortly after learns that Merlin has gone north, leaving Nimue on the Isle of the Dead. With the scar on his hand reminding Derfel of his duty to Nimue, he travels south to rescue her himself. When he arrives at the Isle he is warned by the guards that he is free to enter, but once inside he can never be released. He enters nonetheless and finds Nimue at the southern tip of the isle. She initially attacks him, but he clasps their scarred hands together and Nimue's wits return. As he returns to the entrance, he finds that Galahad and his men have followed him south to ensure that he could leave the isle.

In the months following this adventure, Derfel and Nimue become lovers. Nimue considers leaving Merlin and the path of the Gods, but realizes that life with Derfel is an impossible dream. She ends their relationship. Arthur meanwhile, is contemplating a final assault on Powys to end the war. To do that, he must ensure that the Sais, led by Aelle who calls himself the Bretwalda (Ruler of Britain), remain at peace, and only money can achieve that. On the advice of Nimue he makes enforced loans from all Christian and pagan shrines, an act which the Christians resent him for. Meeting with Aelle, Arthur negotiates three months of peace for the gold and information on how to capture the Powysian Stronghold of Ratae (Leicester).

With the Eastern border secure, Arthur marches his army north into Gwent where at Glevum he holds a council of war. At the council, Tewdric suggests letting the Powysians besiege Glevum, whereas Arthur wants to attack Powys at Lugg Vale. Meurig, the Edling of Gwent, then asks Arthur why they fight at all, since Gwent's only responsibility is to ensure Mordred gets the throne - not to protect Arthur. Galahad volunteers to travel north as an emissary to King Gorfyddyd to ascertain Gorfyddyd's intentions toward Mordred. Derfel accompanies him, although his presence in Gorfyddyd's hall provokes anger, since he is sworn to Arthur. Merlin then arrives and declares that Derfel is not to be harmed. Gorfyddyd fears Merlin and obeys. Gorfyddyd tells Galahad that he would adopt Mordred himself until he was old enough to serve as King. In private Merlin tells them that Gorfyddyd is lying and comments: "He has the brains of an ox, and not a very clever ox at that." Merlin says that Gorfyddyd will kill Mordred in order to fulfill his ambition of becoming High King.

During his time in Powys, Derfel meets Ceinwyn and falls in love with her. She has been betrothed to Gundleus in return for Siluria's assistance. Derfel tells her of Arthur's wish to marry her to Lancelot. Ceinwyn tells Derfel that she is tired of being used as a pawn in dynastic marriages and asks Derfel to ask Arthur to leave her alone for a time should he be victorious. Derfel makes a declaration of love, to which she makes no reaction (save a comment to her aunt that she took great pleasure in all she heard, though apparently speaking of the harpist). Derfel then swears an oath to protect her, which she accepts.

Returning to Glevum, Tewdric refuses to commit his troops to the war as he accepts Gorfyddyd's assurance that Mordred is safe. Arthur, however, believes Merlin, and tries to persuade Tewdric to change his mind. Eventually Arthur gives up on Tewdric and marches north to confront Gorfyddyd alone.

Part Five: The Shield Wall

Derfel and his men undergo a night march to reach and capture Lugg Vale at dawn, ready to hold the position for when Gorfyddyd's main army arrives. The main army is led by Nimue, who has an uncanny ability to find her way in the dark. They succeed in taking the Vale and await Arthur there. Arthur arrives in time to destroy the vanguard of Gorfyddyd's army. He sends Galahad south in the hope that the men of Gwent will come and fight now that they know battle has begun. He then offers Derfel his unique armour so that Gorfyddyd's soldiers will think Derfel is Arthur, which will give Arthur the opportunity to spring a trap on the rear of Gorfyddyd's army and hopefully drive them into panic. Derfel accepts and Arthur rides off into position to spring his trap.

Derfel is first confronted by Valerin, who was betrothed to Guinevere before she ran off with Arthur. Valerin screams at Derfel, believing him to be Arthur, that Guinevere was a whore. Derfel cannot control his temper and fights Valerin. After killing him, Derfel finds a lovers' ring on his corpse with Guinevere's symbol on it, which he throws away. The battle then begins with Derfel's troops being forced further uphill, until Morfans, another of Arthur's Commanders, gives the signal for Arthur to attack. Arthur's charge destroys almost a third of Gorfyddyd's army but the king sees the danger in time to defend against it. Arthur's trap has failed. During a lull in the fighting, Galahad returns with the bad news that no-one from Gwent is coming except for perhaps a few volunteers. However, a handful of men from Kernow led by Prince Tristan do come. Tristan wishes to repay Arthur for fighting against Owain. As fighting resumes, Derfel and his men are beaten further back. Then battle stops once again as Cuneglas, Edling of Powys, offers them the chance to surrender. They refuse.

Before battle can recommence Merlin arrives. Being a druid, he can walk in safety anywhere. He commands both armies to cease hostilities because he needs all Britons to help him in his Quest for the Cauldron of Clyddno Eiddyn. Gorfyddyd is furious that Merlin might destroy his chance of becoming High King. He refuses Merlin's requests and readies his troops again for battle. Merlin, turning to Derfel, informs him that the Black Shield Irishmen currently allied to Gorfyddyd would switch sides and give Arthur victory. Sure enough, as battle resumes, the Black Shields attack Gorfyddyd and give the victory to Arthur.

In the aftermath, Gorfyddyd is fatally wounded but uses his last breath to curse Arthur and declare Guinevere a whore. Arthur loses his temper and calls Gorfyddyd a liar and a thing of filth, challenging any man from Powys to defend their dead King's honour with their sword. None do. Cuneglas apologizes to Arthur for his father and swears an alliance will exist between Dumnonia and Powys against the Sais, bringing the civil war to an end.

Characters in "The Winter King"

*Derfel Cadarn – main protagonist, narrator
*Arthur – son of Uther, protector of Mordred
*Guinevere – Princess of Henis Wyren
*Merlin – Lord of Avalon, druid
*Mordred – child King
*Nimue – priestess, Merlin's lover
*Uther – High King of Dumnonia, the Pendragon

Maps in "The Winter King"

Release details

*1995, UK, Michael Joseph ISBN 0-7181-3762-0, Pub date 5 October 1995, Hardcover
*1996, USA, St. Martins Press ISBN 0-312-14447-4, Pub date May 1996, Hardcover
*1996, USA, Thorndike Press ISBN 0-7862-0729-9, Pub date August 1996, Hardcover (Largeprint edition)
*1996, USA, Gardners Books ISBN 0-14-023186-2, Pub date 31 August 1996, Paperback
*1996, UK, Penguin Books ISBN 0-14-023186-2, Pub date 5 September 1996, Paperback
*1997, USA, St. Martins Griffin ISBN 0-312-15696-0, Pub date 15 April, 1997, Paperback
*1997, USA, Audio Renaissance ISBN 1-55927-445-X, Pub date 15 April, 1997, Audio cassette (abridged)
*1997, USA, Books on Tape, Inc. ISBN 0-913369-79-9, Pub date 6 May, 1997, Audio cassette (unabridged)

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