I’m on a quest.

This quest entails reading all the good Arthurian literature ever written (who decides what’s good, you ask? Why, me of course ;)). I’ve read some good ones over the past couple years, but I’ve run into my share of flops as well.

The flops often have common elements that unite them in their floppiness. A great example of such a flop is Bernard Cornwell’s The Winter King (the fact that thousands of other people like it does not mean it isn’t riddled with fatal flaws). In fact, it serves as a perfect example of veritably everything I can’t stand in Arthurian novels.

I attempted to read The Winter King a couple nights ago  and was instantly flummoxed with a flurry of frustration. I opened the book and saw that the first three pages were just character names. You know what I’m talking about, those insufferable lists fantasy authors like to foist upon you, naming all 3,402 characters in their story, with a short description indicating their relationship to all other characters in the story (which doesn’t help you very much since you don’t know who any of these other characters are, either). These lists always irritate me because they’re the authors’ way of basically saying one of two things:

1: “You’re not intelligent enough to keep straight all my fabulous characters, so I’m going to write them out for you. That way, every time ‘Mordred’ is mentioned, you can flip to my handy-dandy list in the front of the book and learn that he’s the son of King Arthur.”

Or

2: “I’m a really bad writer. I mean, when I write, the nibs jump off my pens and hide in the closet because they’re so terrified of being used to create the sort of stuff you scrape off your shoes after walking through a newly fertilized field. Because I’m so downright execrable, you won’t be able to tell any of cardboard characters apart and won’t remember any of them once they wander off the stage. So I’m going to list all my characters in one place, so that when you forget who Derfel is, you can flip back and discover he’s the main character.”

A problem with a lot of books is that their authors think they’re saying the first thing, but they’re really saying the second.

Upon seeing Cornwell’s list, I immediately shut the book and it took several moments for me to summon the courage to reopen it. The first lines inform me that, as the main character is ninety years old and dying in a monastery somewhere, he decides to record his memories of King Arthur for posterity.

Why must a full half of all Arthurian novels begin with the main character on his death bed explaining why what everyone thinks about Arthur is wrong? Why can’t it start at the beginning of the story like other books? I already know the main character’s going to die. Everyone dies eventually.

But I eventually muscled past the gag reflex stimulated by Cornwell’s prologue and made it to the first chapter. The chapter opens with childbirth. Why? Why, oh why, oh why? I don’t think I’ve ever liked any childbirth scene I’ve read in any book during the entire course of my life. It always makes me vaguely feel like I’m illicitly viewing some celebrity’s autopsy. And it’s like the deathbed thing: we also know every character was born at some point or other. I admit this is a personal peeve of mine, but still? Is it necessary? I don’t think so.

So all right. Forgiving Cornwell for not catering to my individual preferences, I forged ahead and made it to the last paragraph of the chapter. At this point I was informed that the newborn baby, a grandson of Uther, was named Mordred after his father. Huh? Mordred after his father? I’m not a stickler for adhering to Mallory, but seriously, people. There had better be a good reason for scrambling the grey stuff in my skull. Classic characters should only be torn to pieces and inaccurately Scotch-taped back together if there’s a good reason for it. “Because I want to and I’m the author, so there,” doesn’t qualify as a good reason. I was also supposed to be impressed by the importance of Mordred’s birth, because of successorship issues or something, by listening to Uther’s matters-of-state thoughts during the chapter. Frankly, Uther’s thoughts were so boring I couldn’t focus long enough to figure out exactly why I’m supposed to care that this kid is born.

I thought I should give Cornwell a fair shot though, because this first chapter really seemed to be a second prologue. So I started the next chapter. I don’t remember whether or not I finished it. It was told from the point of view of an acolyte or foundling of Merlin’s, who may or may not have been the main character. I don’t remember. I’m not sure if Merlin himself was a sorceror, a druid, a madman, a nobleman,or some combination of the above. There was also this girl, whom I think was Nimue, that the acolyte guy seemed to be sweet on. Someone came to visit Merlin’s holdings, but I don’t remember who or why. The problem lies in the fact that even while I was reading it, I couldn’t remember who this person was or why he was there.

That’s when I shut The Winter King. I simply gave up.

Perhaps this is premature of me, since I know lots of people like Bernard Cornwell’s books, but I simply couldn’t take it anymore. Perhaps if someone can enlighten me as to the positive attributes of The Winter King I might try it again. Then again. . .the first time time round was pretty traumatizing.

This isn’t to say The Winter King is a poor book; it’s simply saying that I couldn’t make myself read enough to find out. So what do you think? Is the The Winter King the type of book that makes you throw up your hands in despair, or does it invite you to snuggle up with it and a cup of tea in your favorite chair?

Long days and pleasant nights from the Tale-Weaver.

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4 responses »

  1. hahaha your pet peeves make me laugh. 🙂 Whatever deficiencies there are with my fiction, I don’t think I’ve made lists of my characters since the stories I wrote in second grade, though… * grins *

  2. David says:

    I’m willing to give authors a little pass to have something like an index of names or unique story concepts in the back if their story is sufficiently complex to warrant it. But that belongs at the back, because it’s only useful as the reader proceeds throughout the story. I can’t think of a reason to have it at the beginning. That’d just be distracting.

    I haven’t read any Cornwell, though I’ve heard plenty of raving praise as well as a few things which make me think I’d dislike his take on Arthur overall. Apparently he’s masterful at writing battle scenes, but has an obsessive hatred of Christianity that can overwhelm his stories. Such have I heard.

    Arthurian fiction is tricky; it seems to me that many who write it don’t get why Arthur’s legend is so popular through all the ages. My favorite realistic take is still Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset, which provided an Arthur (Artos, really) who was actually likable in addition to being brilliant, charismatic, and deeply real, and who could have certainly inspired the best fairy tales.

    • True, there are circumstances in which lists are permissible, especially if that’s the only major annoyance. And like you, I had heard both lots of positive and lots of negative comments about Cornwell and wanted to form my own opinion on him (which I did, clearly). I enjoyed Sun at Sunset, but wasn’t blown away by it. But I think it might be because, come to think of it, I don’t think I’m a huge fan of realistic Arthurian fiction. All my favorites, like Lawhead and Bradshaw, have elements of fantasy.

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